The website of Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledges that NATO has played a “central role” in the country’s security and insists that Turkey, which became a member in 1952, “attaches utmost importance” to it. Yet Turkey’s commitment to the alliance has never seemed more ambivalent than it does now.
On crucial issues — from fighting the Islamic State to fielding integrated defense systems, which share information and operate together, to standing firm against Russian aggression in Ukraine — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government either are not cooperating fully or are acting in outright defiance of NATO’s priorities and interests. Add the fact that Turkey under Mr. Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian, and it becomes apparent that the country is drifting away from an alliance whosetreaty says it is “founded on the principles of democracy” as much as defense.
For months, the Western allies have pressured Turkey to close its porous border, which has allowed thousands of jihadists to cross into Syria to join the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and has enabled ISIS to smuggle in weapons and smuggle out oil on which it relies for revenue.
Although the Turkish government has taken some steps to make transit harder, it has been unwilling, or unable, to stem the flow, according to Tim Arango and Eric Schmitt’s reporting in The Times. One smuggler said that while his job has become more difficult, sometimes the Turkish border guards look the other way.
Completely shutting down the long border may be impossible, but given the country’s large military and well-regarded intelligence service, it is inexcusable that Turkey is not doing a better job. Turkey should also be making military bases and troops available to the American-led coalition, but James Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, told Congress recently that he was not optimistic that Turkey would do more against ISIS because it had “other priorities and other interests.”
Public opinion polls show that the Turks don’t consider ISIS a primary threat, and Mr. Erdogan is more concerned with opposing Kurdish autonomy within Syria and with bringing down the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
There are other troubling aspects of Turkey’s behavior. The government says it is still considering buying from China a $3.4 billion air defense system that involves radars and long-range ground-to-air missiles that can shoot down enemy missiles. The purchase is opposed by the American and European allies because they view this military purchase from China as a risk. They are also disturbed that Turkey is not purchasing a system from them, because they have borne the cost of defending Turkey against a Syrian attack by stationing Patriot missile batteries on Turkish territory. Moreover, the Turkish defense minister last month said the government did not plan to integrate whatever air defense system it bought with NATO’s air defenses and radars so that the various parts would work together, though the presidential spokesman later said the system would be integrated with NATO’s.
NATO would not integrate its system with a Chinese system because the two are not compatible, a Chinese system might contain risky software, and members of Congress oppose it. If Turkey refuses to link its defense system with NATO’s, “they are weakening the defense of their territory and weakening NATO at the same time,” said Ivo Daalder, a former American ambassador to NATO.
Meanwhile, Turkey is supposed to sign an agreement this year that will allow Russia to build a natural gas pipeline to Turkey, thus bypassing Ukraine. The Erdogan government, ignoring Western sanctions, has beenexploiting a rift between Russia and the West over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to gain energy supplies at bargain prices. Russia also plans to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.
American officials say they don’t think Turkey will ever withdraw from NATO. Of course, such a move would be a catastrophic mistake. But the fact that the possibility is even raised by officials and defense experts shows how concerned the allies are about relying on Turkey in any crisis.