Recently, Turkey witnessed a failed coup attempt while the President of the country Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on a holiday. The President appealed to the citizens to defend the country against the coup. And indeed, they did so, with the masses taking over the streets and fighting the coup perpetrators.
The President of Turkey, instead of accepting this as a spontaneous show of solidarity, as a symbol of strong belief among the Turks in democracy, and making efforts to bolster that belief further, did a massive crackdown and arrested a large number of people. President Erdogan has often been called an elected dictator due to his past actions. About 2,000, including teenagers, have been prosecuted for insulting the President and journalists have also been put on trial since he assumed office in 2014.
After the coup attempt and the subsequent actions of Erdogan, even the US secretary of state, John Kerry, raised the question of Turkey’s NATO membership, suggesting that anti-democratic behaviour could imperil the country’s place in the alliance.
Several times questions have been raised regarding Turkey’s membership to NATO. Whether it should be part of NATO or not?
Strategic Location and Challenges
Turkey is strategically very well placed. It is just north of Iraq and Syria, east of Europe, west of Georgia and Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran, thus making it strategically very important.
Because of its location and the alliance with NATO it has tremendously benefitted. When in 2003 Iraq was bombed out and almost no refining could be done in the war-ravaged country, 40,000 oil tankers were going into Turkey for refining. The oil pipeline was being put in place and it was protected by Halliburton to deliver that oil to Turkey. The income was tremendous for Turkey. Since then the Islamic State has taken over many of the oil assets in Syria and Iraq and Turkey has played a key role in selling their oil.
For NATO too Turkey is at a strategic location, enabling the alliance to use the country’s bases that are close enough to Russia and also to the rest of Iraq and Syria. Historically, Turkey played an important role during the Cold War. Even then questions are being raised regarding its NATO membership and there are plausible reasons to do so.
The tensions between Turkey and the US have increased substantially as a result of differences over the degree of US support for the Syrian Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), that are fighting against the ISIS and the Syrian Government. However, YPG is a Turkey-based group fighting for Kurdish autonomy and the Turkish government opposes this movement of the Kurds strongly.
Thus, when Turkey and the US came to an agreement in July 2014 that allowed the US and NATO air forces to use the Incirlik Air Base, the relationship between US and Turkey improved. However, Turkey interpreted this agreement as a licence to attack PKK bases in northern Iraq as well as within Turkey. For Ankara, this is a fight more against the Kurds rather than the fall of ISIS and restoring peace in Syria. Clearly, US and Turkey are not on the same page.
Turkey has played a role in helping the Northern Iraqi Kurds by becoming the centre point of exchange of money for oil that the Kurds sell to Iraq. This is one way to scuttle the close ties that the Iraqi Kurds and the Turkish Kurds could develop to carve a new country out of Turkey.
Over the years, the relationship between Russia and Turkey improved dramatically. By 2015, Russia was Turkey’s third-largest trading partner, fourth-largest source of foreign investment, and main supplier of natural gas, and Russian tourists had become a common sight in Turkish resort towns. There were chartered planes that flew from Russia to Turkish resorts. However, tensions between the two nations mounted when Turkey downed one Russian aircraft and Russia responded by imposing sanctions on Turkey. However, in June this year, there have been talks about normalisation of ties between Turkey and Russia as well. Russia has also lifted some of the sanctions that it slapped on Turkey. The Turks will play with NATO using the card of getting closer to the Russians and then pose a threat to NATO itself. The very fact that Russians have played an active role in Syria has already created unease for NATO.
Turkey and European Union
In March, Turkey and European Union entered into an ambitious deal where Turkey would take almost 2.8 million Syrian refugees within its borders with some financial assistance from the European Union and in return EU would lift visa restrictions for Turkish citizens.
EU has allocated €3 billion under the Facility for Refugees in Turkey to be re-imbursed by the end of 2018. So far, of the overall €3 billion, €740 million has been allocated, for both humanitarian and non-humanitarian assistance. This has caused tensions between the two parties. Also, EU is critical of Turkey’s inability or will to control human-smuggling groups that are enabling refugees from Syria to reach European shores.
With the recent crackdown in Turkey after the failed coup, the refugees may feel unsafe in Turkey and move towards European countries, further adding to the migrant crisis in Europe.
Is Turkey Drifting?
Turkey has come a long way from being a liberal society in the Nineties. But it is not leaders like Erdogan who can be blamed for this conservative approach alone. Through the early 2000s when I spoke with the Turks many would say that their society was becoming very liberal and that is when they began to take the turn towards an orthodox society. Egypt for them was an example when it went from being a liberal State in the Seventies to a highly conservative society in the Nineties.
As these countries move towards conservatism, it is the women who get really impacted. Men curb their freedoms and the religious Right begins to take over, pushing women inside homes. In Egypt such a transition was still possible but Turkey may be looking at a fight as they continue to turn towards conservatism. The biggest impact would, however, come if NATO turns its back on a partner who no longer has the same values of a progressive nation. NATO’s core principles have been to create nations of equal participation of women at all levels, ranging from conflict prevention to post-conflict reconstruction, peace and security. It expects its members to stand up and fight against sexual violence and ensure accountability to end impunity for incidents of sexual violence in conflict zones. But the direction that Turkey is taking may not fit in with the values of NATO that the Americans lead. It will get more and more difficult for NATO to justify Turkey’s existence in this marriage of sorts.