The meaning of Erdoğan’s last three moves
In recent days, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made several moves in three areas that captured the attention of foreign governments. First, he vetoed the admission of Sweden and Finland into NATO, citing their failure to comply with the preconditions vis-a-vis counterterrorism. Secondly, Erdoğan said that Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was dead to him over his anti-Turkish statement at the U.S. Congress. Finally, he announced that Turkey was going to take the necessary steps regarding “the missing parts of our work to create a 30-kilometer-deep safe zone along our southern border.”
The Western media molded those three moves into one, accusing the Turkish president of fueling tensions, taking advantage of the situation to make demands and taking all those steps to win next year’s election. The anti-Turkish arguments abroad – that Turkey’s policy served Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interests and it was time to kick Turkey out of NATO – led some local commentators to say that Turkey’s security concerns mattered, and the country did not actually need NATO.
At this point, it is important to establish what Ankara’s most recent steps mean – and what they do not.
First and foremost, Turkey’s policy toward NATO is crystal clear. The country supports serving members’ security interests, the open door policy and promoting solidarity. That approach remained unchanged, too, when some leaders said NATO was “obsolete” or “brain-dead.”
Notwithstanding that principled position, Ankara is unhappy with the distinction that some NATO allies, including the United States, make between terrorist organizations. It maintains that Daesh, the PKK/YPG and the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) must be dealt with simultaneously.
Unlike in the past, Turkey, which prefers to address intra-alliance disagreements through negotiations, is willing to risk tensions. Erdoğan’s practice of leader-to-leader diplomacy and critical statements are full of such examples. In this regard, leaving or being removed from NATO are not real options. Indeed, Turkey’s struggle within the alliance enables it to better further its interests at the expense of Greece and the Greek Cyprus administration.
The Greek prime minister made a hostile move by criticizing Turkey, including its plan to purchase F-16 fighter jets, in Washington, despite the ongoing normalization process. The Turkish demand for the demilitarization of the Aegean islands and argument that the sovereignty over those islands would be opened to discussion are in line with the Treaty of Lausanne and the Paris Peace Treaty.
Endorsing Greece’s maximalist and narrowly defined interests is not the way to strengthen NATO’s southeastern flank nor is it to allow Greece to replicate its spoiled attitude within the European Union in its dealings with the United States or under the NATO umbrella.
The Madrid summit
It is a welcome development NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg encouraged Sweden and Finland to address Turkey’s security concerns and to make a reference to June 28 for the admission of those countries at the Madrid summit. Indeed, Stockholm and Helsinki could join NATO quickly if they meet Ankara’s rightful demands – which are backed by documents.
At the Madrid summit, NATO will discuss its strategic concept for 2030 in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Whereas China will remain a challenge, the Russian threat will be more pronounced.
Ankara cares about solidarity among the allies regarding the fight against all forms of terrorism. It opposed the imposition of arms embargoes among NATO members. For the record, Turkey was going to make those points at the Madrid summit even if Sweden and Finland had not applied for membership. Ankara, which views the attitude of some NATO allies regarding its S-400 purchase and military operations in Syria as problematic, is using the platform of the Ukraine crisis and its outcome to further strengthen the alliance.
Addressing Turkey’s security concerns would be a sign of intra-alliance solidarity. All relevant countries should follow Britain’s suit and lift all restrictions regarding the Turkish defense industry. It is important to remember that Turkey, too, will shoulder the burden of admitting Sweden and Finland.
That Turkey will carry out additional counterterrorism operations in Iraq and Syria against the PKK/YPG, too, is closely related to that security solidarity. Both Russia and the United States must keep the promises they made to Turkey to remove the PKK/YPG from any area in northern Syria up to 30 kilometers from the Turkish border.
Russia, which withdrew the Wagner Group and its battle-tested soldiers from Syria due to the war in Ukraine, has created a vacuum. That vacuum could be filled by Iranian militias. Again, it is Turkey, a U.S. ally, not the PKK terrorist organization’s Syrian wing, the YPG, that shall address Washington’s concerns over the possible resurgence of Daesh.
If the United States tilts the balance of power between Turkey and Greece to the latter’s advantage, that will be a mistake, which it will eventually have to undo. In this sense, Erdoğan did not start a crisis with his recent moves. He highlighted the framework for justice and a lasting alliance in Turkey’s relations with NATO, the United States and Greece.