NATO and Turkey: Which Alliance?

The attempted coup that went on stage in Turkey on July 15 caused 294 victims and produced a political storm, with consequences both domestically and on the foreign and security policies of the country. The clumsy management of the failed coup was followed by the hesitant response of the United States, NATO and the European Union, which have left both the Turkish Government and the opposition dissatisfied by the lack of an immediate expression of solidarity. Therefore, various sectors of the Government and institutions have considered that NATO and the European Union perhaps no longer fulfill effectively to the strategic interests of Turkey. Anti-Americanism grew in the public opinion, as the United States have been considered not supporting adequately Turkey in its fight against terrorism and guilty of hosting in Pennsylvania the self-exiled old religious leader Fethullah Gülen, which is accused of having created a “parallel structure” within the Turkish institutions.

In this framework, Turkey has sought to recover old relationships as well as to explore new strategic directions, with the intent to strengthen its geopolitical role and pursue higher ambitions even beyond the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. In this perspective, the first state visit made after the events of July 15 led President Erdoğan in St. Petersburg, where, on August 9, discussed for over three hours with President Putin on how to create a “strategic partnership” in the field of energy and defense. Thus, reviving the relations between the two countries, nine months after the accident that led to the overthrow of the Russian Su-24 jet. Offering Turkey as a hub for the distribution of Russian gas, Erdogan also hopes that the Russian Federation will help to prevent the creation of an independent Kurdish State, thereby downsizing the Turkish commitment to the region.

Although the willingness of Moscow to weaken the cohesion within the Atlantic Alliance is recognizable, it does not mean that Turkey should develop its relations with Russia to the detriment of those with NATO. The strength of the relationship between Turkey and the Atlantic Alliance has been strongly reaffirmed during the visit that NATO Secretary General made in Ankara on 8-9 September. In that occasion, Stoltenberg expressed the full solidarity of the Alliance to President Erdoğan and the Turkish people for the failed coup as well as the appreciation for their efforts in the fight against ISIS and terrorism.

Today even more than yesterday, Turkey constitutes a crucial ally for the Atlantic Alliance. Turkey’s geostrategic role and the relevance of its armed forces – second in number and importance only to those of the United States – have always been an essential pivot of the NATO integrated defense system and an essential contribution in all peacekeeping operations.

However, Turkey also keeps relations with President Porošenko’s Ukraine. In addition to economic cooperation, Ankara and Kiev have established a growing understanding on the military level. Finally, Turkey has relaunched its relations with Israel and Iran as well. In spite of the differences of views on the future role of President al-Assad in Syria, Turkey has recently signed with Tehran an impressive agreement in the energy sector.

Nevertheless, the complexity of the relations that Ankara has sought to revive, to deepen or to explore, it does not weaken the anchorage that since over sixty years links Turkey to NATO. Ankara will remain attracted to NATO especially for its political outcomes. Contributing to the Alliance’s security and to the NATO peace-keeping operations, at the same time provide the Turkish government with greater strength for the internal stability. Euro-Asian temptations emanating from Moscow are therefore conjunctional, whereas those offered by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, rather than by other institutions, cannot replace the strategic and economic interests which are binding Turkey to NATO and the European Union, and vice versa. An alliance of interests, that will be the task of NATO and the European Union to advance to a higher level, while being ready to respond to future shifts that Ankara could take.

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President of the Atlantic Treaty Association and President of the Italian Atlantic Committee, Fabrizio W. Luciolli is Professor of International Security Organizations, Military Policy, and National Security Policy at the Center for High Defense Studies of the Italian Ministry of Defense (2000-2015). He is a regular lecturer in various national and international, military, and academic institutions. Coordinator of Training Courses for military officers and diplomats in the Western Balkans and Middle East, he is Director and promoter of NATO and EU cooperation projects in Central and Southeastern Europe and in the Mediterranean countries. Prof. Luciolli is also a Consultant on foreign affairs and security matters to various Governments and Members of Parliament as well as Advisor for International and Institutional Relations of private groups. He is the author of several papers and articles published in national and foreign journals.