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Why Turkey Remains in NATO and Will Maintain its Strategic US Partnership

By William Tucker

Contributor, In Homeland Security

It has been more than a year since factions within the Turkish military attempted a coup against the ruling AKP government. Since that time, thousands of Turks have been detained and thousands more have lost their employment or livelihood in the resulting crackdown.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed the coup on Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic scholar in exile in the United States. As a result, Gulen has extended culpability for the coup to Washington for refusing to extradite him back to Turkey.

Turkish Bodyguards’ Attack on Protesters at Washington Embassy Further Soured Bilateral Relations

Relations between the U.S. and Turkey soured further in March of this year when Erdogan’s bodyguards attacked protesters, some of them U.S. citizens, outside the Turkish embassy during Erdogan’s visit to Washington. Several of those bodyguards were subsequently indicted in the U.S. and the incident turned into an embarrassment for the Turkish President.

If that incident weren’t enough to harm relations between two NATO allies, U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is also looking into a claim that the Erdogan government offered former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn money to arrange for Gulen’s kidnapping and return to Turkey.

US and Turkey Relations Appear beyond Repair

There are several other cases in U.S. courts that have earned Erdogan’s ire. Since the current administration hasn’t moved to intervene in these legal matters at Turkey’s behest, relations between the two nations appear to be beyond repair.

The Erdogan government has gone so far as to arrest one American and a Turkish citizen working at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara on charges of espionage. Turkey has offered to release the pair in exchange for Gulen. This unethical behavior is simply “hostage diplomacy.”

Relations have deteriorated to the point that both nations ceased issuing visas to each other’s citizens. The visa situation has improved over the past two weeks, but there is no indication that the matter has been fully resolved.

For Now, Ankara and Washington Still Need Each Other

In an attempt to advance a dialogue in the diplomatic standoff, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim visited Washington last week for meetings with Vice President Mike Pence. Neither party expected much to come of the meetings, but the two officials did affirm that their strategic partnership would continue. Although the U.S. and Turkey have drifted apart rather significantly, Ankara and Washington still need each other for the time being.

Syria’s civil war may have reached a culminating point where the Islamic State has lost nearly all the territory it once held. But there are numerous outstanding issues in the region that the U.S. and Turkey will need to address cooperatively.

Turkey’s Position at Risk in NATO

Over the past few years, pundits, diplomats and military officials have floated the idea of “kicking” Turkey out of NATO for a litany of transgressions. Indeed, recently published articles on the subject contained much of the same reasoning for removing Turkey from the military alliance as previous articles had done.

There is a substantial amount of animosity between Turkey and other members of NATO. But many officials in Washington and at NATO headquarters in Brussels believe the value of retaining Turkey as a member of NATO far outweighs the costs of its ouster. Turkey is still needed within the alliance, but that will likely change in the future.

Many of the transgressions Turkey is accused of committing center around Iraq – from the first Gulf War to the current disarray and the Syrian civil war.

In the midst of the current chaos on Turkey’s southern border, Ankara has been pushed into a tough position regarding its long-standing foreign policy. Turkey has demanded that Assad relinquish the presidency. For the first few years of the war, that was a real possibility and a position held by most Western nations.

But Western nations don’t feel that way any longer. As the Islamic State grew, Turkey’s position didn’t change. However, various Kurdish forces became one of the more effective fighting groups to make inroads against the Assad loyalists and the Islamic State.

Turkey has had a long-running war with several Kurdish factions abroad and Kurdish separatists at home. That situation greatly complicates how Ankara engages in the Syrian conflict.

In addition, Turkey is accused of a transgression that further complicates matters, not just in NATO but within the broader international community. For several years now, Turkey has been accused of supporting terrorist entities like ISIS and al-Nursa by supplying them with weapons, allowing them to cross Turkey’s border and assisting in smuggling black market oil.

There is little actual evidence to support these accusations other than by citing Russian propaganda sources. But if nothing else, Turkey certainly has turned a blind eye to ISIS operations inside the country. Although ISIS has recently targeted Turkey, it does not pose an existential threat to the largely Moslem nation.

This is not meant to excuse Turkish behavior or policy. Instead, it exposes the motivation behind much of Ankara’s questionable behavior. Fortunately, this situation can be corrected with appropriate diplomatic pressure.

Turkey Remains a Vital Member for NATO’s Mission

According to the U.S. State Department, “NATO’s fundamental goal is to safeguard the Allies’ freedom and security by political and military means.” When NATO was formed in 1949, the Soviet Union was the overriding threat to Europe and the Americas. NATO was meant to be a counterweight to prevent Soviet expansion further west into Europe. Indeed, it was the Soviet stance against the Turkish government that pushed Ankara into NATO.

Turkey was not a popular addition. However, its admission gave NATO control over the Bosporus and the Dardanelles that bottled up the Soviet Union’s Black Sea fleet and its immediate access to the Mediterranean.

Today, Russia has strengthened its military presence on the Black Sea, seizing breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, annexing Crimea from Ukraine and bulking up its presence in Armenia. Once again, Moscow has moved into Turkey’s neighborhood.

The Russian presence in Syria, along with the Kurdish situation, has become one of the most pressing international issues for Ankara. It helps to explain why the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) hasn’t taken steps to withdraw Turkey from NATO even though nearly 70% of Turkish citizens oppose Turkey’s membership.

NATO Has Persisted Because of Worldwide Security Needs

Military alliances exist elsewhere in the world because they accord with the national strategy and interests of their member-states. NATO is no different. The NATO alliance has persisted because the overall security interests of the member states demand it.

There are numerous reasons to find fault with the Turks and their actions, but they cannot be faulted for pursuing what they deem to be in their national interest. Nor are they alone in pursuing an agenda that might conflict with other NATO members.

Turkey will not be “kicked out of NATO” anytime soon. Not only does NATO not have any mechanism to oust a member, but the alliance cannot afford to lose a member that brings a large military and advantageous geography to the table at a time when relations with Russia are uncertain at best.

Furthermore, many NATO members and ancillary nations have a stake in how the various Middle East conflicts play out. Losing the one nation that has a stable government, a capable military and the world’s 18th largest economy is not something these members want to see at the moment.

This situation could change as the security picture transitions once again. But for now, Turkey remains in NATO and will maintain its strategic partnership with the U.S., despite overall poor relations

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