Despite attempts in the early 2000s to pursue a policy of “zero problems with neighbors”, the contemporary Turkish establishment has favored an assertive and increasingly aggressive foreign policy. The AKP party, under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeks a stronger position as a regional power in Eurasia and the Middle East, which has hindered not only Turkish commitments to NATO but the effectiveness of the alliance itself. Additionally, Turkey’s episodic relations with Russia, notably since the purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system in 2017, and the subsequent souring of Turkish-US relations have brought into question the future of Turkey as a reliable NATO member.
Turkey’s conflicts with Armenia, Greece/Cyprus, and the Syrian and Turkish Kurds pose wider questions concerning Turkey’s commitments to regional security and have resulted in wider operational issues regarding NATO and the European Union, leaving the two organizations unable to effectively cooperate since Cyprus joined the EU in 2004. This ‘participation problem’ stems from Turkey’s consistent barring of the Republic of Cyprus (unrecognized by Turkey since 1963) from NATO’s ‘Partnership for Peace’ program – a scheme which enables both EU and NATO states to exchange intelligence regarding state security. Due to the existence of EU legislation that calls for the appearance of all member states at security meetings with NATO, Turkey’s domestic grievances have thus resulted in an ineffective partnership at the multilateral level. Realistically, the issue is unrelated to Turkey’s tendency for authoritarianism. When Portugal was named a founding member in 1949 they were a dictatorship and Greece remained an important member despite it’s 1967 coup. The problem lies in Turkey’s willingness to undermine it’s allies in order to improve its position.
Furthermore, with the AKP coming to power on a “mildly Islamist” basis, alongside continuous democratic backsliding (exacerbated by the 2016 assassination attempt of President Erdogan) and a lack of commitment to human rights, both EU and NATO states have brought up the ‘identity question’, when deliberating Turkey’s EU accession, of which it has been a candidate since 1987. Despite the nation’s geopolitical importance at the crossroads of the Middle East, Balkans, eastern Mediterranean, and Caucasus, the sustainability of Turkey’s regional ‘balancing act’ has increasingly been called into question.
Turkey’s relationship with Armenia has been strained since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s and the Turkish genocide of an estimated 600,000 to 1.2 million Armenians in the aftermath of the First World War, which Turkey refuses to recognize. Turkey maintains its denial of the genocide, which further inflames tensions as NATO members Canada, France, Italy, Germany, and the United States formally recognize the atrocity. Turkey’s soured relationship with Armenia centers around territorial claims both Azerbaijan and Armenia have to the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is situated inside Azerbaijan but in which ethnic Armenians make up 95 percent of the population. Turkey’s refusal to open its borders with Armenia, its economic blockade of the country, and its vocal support of Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have all contributed to an atmosphere of hostility between the two countries.
The first Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (1991–1994) left Armenia with the majority of the autonomous zone. Following a 2010 strategic partnership agreement with Azerbaijan, Turkey has become a key player in the conflict, supplying Azerbaijan with military aid when fighting broke out again in July 2020. This material support, alongside the aid of Syrian mercenaries, enabled Azerbaijan to recapture swaths of the Nagorno-Karabakh before a ceasefire was brokered by Russia in November 2020. Further complicating Turkey’s role is the fact that Armenia is a formal ally of Russia through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO), which like the Turkish-Azerbaijani partnership guarantees mutual aid in the event of another conflict. Russia seeks to maintain its influence in the south Caucasus, and therefore, a conflict against Azerbaijan and, by proxy, NATO member Turkey is undesirable. However, Turkey’s attempts at regional influence and in acting against the wishes of Minsk Group members France, Russia, and the United States have led to increased questions regarding Turkey’s viability, not only as a NATO member but also as an ally of Russia.
Furthermore, Turkey has become as much of a chess piece for Azerbaijan as Azerbaijan is for Turkey. This is seen in the aftermath of the 2009 Turkish-Armenian agreement signed in Zurich, which aimed to begin the process of relational normalization between the two nations. The Azeri’s responded by threatening to drop out of their energy projects with Turkey, which led to the collapse of the agreement, leaving the fragile geopolitical landscape of the Southern Caucus to be held together by a shaky ceasefire. However, the rocking of south-central Turkey and north-western Syria by a devastating earthquake on February 6, 2023, led to the opening of the Turkish-Armenian Magara border bridge for the first time in 30 years, for the purposes of humanitarian aid. The bridge last opened in 1988, when Turkey sent aid in the aftermath of Armenia’s Spitak earthquake.
The relationship between Turkey and Greece has for many years been a source of tension in both NATO and the geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean. Various disputes, including Turkey’s occupation of Northern Cyprus as a result of the 1974 Turkish invasion of the nation, maritime boundary disputes in the Aegean Sea, and Turkish incursions into Greek airspace, have hampered NATO cooperation in the region and further brought into question Turkey’s role in the future of the alliance.
Following World War I, in one of the final post-war peace settlements, Article 20 of the Treaty of Lausanne stated Turkey’s recognition of the British annexation of Cyprus, through which all Turkish citizens on the island would become naturalized British citizens. Despite this, Turkey in the contemporary era justifies its involvement in the nation due to the need to protect the interests of Turkish citizens. Since 1974, Cyprus has been partitioned, with the northern third recognized by Turkey as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and the southern two-thirds belonging to the Republic of Cyprus (ROC), which has been a member of the European Union since 2004.
The inflammation of tensions in the eastern Mediterranean began with the discovery of sizeable gas deposits in Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which, if tapped into, would undermine the dominance of Russian energy giant Gazprom in the region and enable wider Europe to diversify its energy sources. Turkey opposes any development projects concerning the gas deposits due to its political standoff with the ROC in addition to the fear that the TRNC would not reap the proposed economic benefits.
Additionally, in 2012, Turkey began illegally drilling hydrocarbons off Cyprus’s coast, which culminated in a November 2019 Libyan-Turkish memorandum regarding maritime jurisdiction and joint resource extraction ventures in the Eastern Mediterranean. Between the two nations lie several Greek islands: Crete, Lesbos, and Rhodes. The memorandum was seen by Greece as a blatant violation of Greek sovereignty, and in addition to the continuous Turkish incursions into Greek airspace, they have resulted in a diplomatic breakdown between the two NATO members and have hindered NATO cooperation with various nations in the wider region.
In response, the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), whose members include the United States, Italy, France, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan, was formed as a counterweight to Turkish energy ambitions in the region. This forum is a stark marker of the distrust that has seeped into NATO due to subpar Turkish strategic thinking and what is seen as continuous disregard for the interests of its fellow NATO members.
More recently, rhetoric has inflamed the potential for armed conflict between Greece and Turkey. In a December 2022 speech, President Erdogan made comments about newly developed missile systems being capable of striking Athens. “Of course, this production (of missiles) scares the Greeks. When you say ‘Tayfun,’ the Greeks get scared and say, ‘It will hit Athens.’ Well, of course it will.” He added, “If you don’t stay calm, if you try to buy something [military hardware] from here and there, from America to the islands, a country like Turkey will not be a bystander. It has to do something.”
Following since have been a number of armed skirmishes and veiled threats between the two allies, particularly over maritime border incursions. Greece and Italy have also blamed Turkey for “giving its blessing” to human smugglers as they send desperate migrants on regularly perilous voyages across the Mediterranean, leading to hundreds of deaths per year.
Turkey’s longstanding conflict against the Kurds has its roots in competing claims made to land, resources, and rights to political power. The conflict has been exacerbated by an insurgency, waged since 1984, by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its offshoots for the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region between the Turkish and Iranian plateaus, the deserts of Syria and Iraq, and the Taurus and Zagros mountains. With the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the nation’s first President, undertook a series of political, economic, and social reforms that sought to create a nationalist and secular Turkish identity. As a result, the Kurds, who primarily reside in Turkey’s southeast, were brutally repressed. Thus, the contemporary Turkish-Kurdish conflict stems from the Turkish state’s established policy of denying Kurdish autonomy and self-governance.
Furthermore, the complexity of the Syrian civil war highlights Turkey’s increasingly assertive foreign policy and unusual balancing act. Since 2016, Turkey has sought to halt the establishment of Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria in an attempt to limit the creation of a de facto enclave among Turkey’s Kurdish southeast. As a result, Turkey has supported opposition forces fighting against the Syrian government and has launched multiple military operations against the Kurdish-led, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Additionally, Turkey views the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), despite its designation as a terrorist organization by the US in 2002, and although the designation only came in exchange for Turkey’s support of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) during the US’s war on terror.
Additionally, with the SDF and YPG—the military wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)—becoming internationally recognized as a result of their gains against the Islamic State, the US has been unwilling to pull back its military and logistical support, which also extends to the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, thus further complicating the Turkish-US/NATO relationship. France, for it’s part, suggested Turkey should not expect NATO support should it continue it’s attacks in Syria, causing a diplomatic spat to ensue.
The continuous US support of the Kurdish fighters in both Syria and Iraq as key players in the wider war on the Islamic State has driven Turkey to voice its discontent by disrupting NATO summits. This was seen during the 2019 NATO summit on defense planning for Poland and the Baltic states, through which the proposed defense policy was blocked and would continue to be blocked by Ankara unless its NATO allies agreed to designate the PYD and YPG as terrorist entities. Most recently, Turkey justified its veto of Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO by stating the two nations must take a harder stance against the PKK, in addition to claiming Sweden harbors militants of the group, which it refuses to extradite.
As the alliance moves into it’s 75th anniversary, the future is called into question as several major leaders have openly doubted the alliance’s necessity. Experts have pointed to “death by a thousand cuts”, wherein member states gradually erode confidence in the alliance as they squabble over regional supremacy and historical grievances, often holding hostage NATO training, exercises, and votes. The war in Ukraine has seemingly dispelled many of these notions for a time, with the addition of new members and the common purpose member states once again hold. However, as the world shifts focus from Europe to Asia, NATO sits at a critical juncture. Often, member states have shown a willingness to play ball with China, despite the United States insistence otherwise. Highlighted this month was European strategic autonomy, with French President Macron calling into question the mission and reliability of the United States. Needless to say, NATO has been facing its most difficult challenges since long before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The culmination of these issues reaches a precipice surrounding Turkey. The Turkish government has found itself playing all sides and none at the same time.
Still, Turkey remains a strategic location for operations throughout the Middle East and acts as an important pressure point on the southern Russian flank. As former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis points out, “NATO needs Turkey to continue being an active and positive member. It also needs to add Finland and Sweden. No one wants to have to choose between them. It’s up to Erdogan to ensure that doesn’t have to happen.”
– Co-authored by Bianca Bridger and Joshua Paulo