German Military to Leave Turkish Airbase: Split Inside NATO

Amid a major breakdown in diplomatic relations between Turkey and Germany, Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that Berlin must decide between its friendship with Ankara and alleged coup plotters, after Germany granted political asylum to military officials with suspected links to last year's failed coup d’état. In retaliation, Turkey refused to allow lawmakers to visit Incirlik base near Syria.

Last year Turkey banned German parliamentarians from visiting the base for months in response to a resolution in the German parliament declaring the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces genocide – a term Ankara rejects. Germany has about 250 military personnel stationed at Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey, flying Tornado surveillance missions over Syria and refuelling flights as a member of the US-led anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition.

The move made Chancellor Angela Merkel take a decision to withdraw all German military personnel stationed at the base. According to her, Germany will have «to explore other ways of fulfilling our mandate». One alternative among others is Jordan.

This flare-up marks the latest in a series of clashes between the two NATO allies. The relations have become strained over the past year due to a number of issues, including Germany's greenlight for asylum petitions of Turkish nationals.

During campaigning for a referendum earlier this year that allowed Erdogan to increase his powers, several Turkish ministers were barred from speaking to German Turks at rallies, which led to President Erdogan accusing German leaders of «Nazi practices». He has also alienated European governments by the announced plans to hold a referendum on the reintroduction of the death penalty. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said the return of capital punishment would scupper Ankara’s hopes of joining the European Union.

The Germany’s decision to leave Incirlik air base is a momentous event in the history of the North Atlantic Alliance. It reflects the general trend of Turkey moving away from NATO as Ankara suspects the bloc had a role to play in the last year’s abortive coup. Turkey was angered by what it saw as lukewarm condemnation by its Western allies of the putsch against President Tayyip Erdogan. The relationship soured to the point when Ankara’s NATO membership is questioned. After the coup attempt, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu threatened Turkey would «think of exit».

After the tragic event Turkish Hurriyet Daily News reported that «Anti-Americanism and Western skepticism are common phenomena among Turks. It is not limited to certain segments of the society. One would be surprised to see the intensity of anti-Americanısm and Euroscepticism among the educated elites, even the Western educated ones».

In Syria, Turkey and other members of NATO pursue quite different goals. The Ankara’s priority is to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state or autonomy on the Syria border while other members of the alliance view the Syrian Kurds as reliable allies in the fight against the Islamic State.

Turkey cooperates with Iran as a member of the Russia-Turkey-Iran trio leading the peace process – the emerging alliance viewed with great caution by the West. The US administration is openly hostile to Iran. With opposite views on the role of the Kurds in Syria, Turkey and the West are doomed to go separate ways in Syria. The differences come to surface from time to time. Last December, President Erdogan said that US-led coalition forces have helped support terrorists in Syria – including IS.

In theory, losing NATO membership will not hurt Turkey much. Ankara has mended fences with Russia and Israel returning to the policy of zero problems with neighbors. Article 5 of the Washington Treaty envisions support of other NATO member countries in case of external aggression. The response measures are left at the discretion of member states – it can be a mere diplomatic note of support without providing any real aid. NATO never exercised Article 5 in cases of Turkey clashing with other states, despite Turkish attempts to initiate the process.

Turkey has a larger military and higher defence spending than any one of its neighbors or its NATO allies except the United States. Its defense capabilities may even increase as the country will be under no pressure to sign deals with non-NATO states to enhance them. For instance, NATO made Turkey reject a lucrative deal with China to enhance air defenses. NATO never compensated the loss.

The NATO annual report for 2016 says Turkey only took part in four of the 18 key NATO exercises held last year. Despite having the fourth-strongest military in the bloc (after the US, France and the UK but ahead of Germany) and the second-highest number of military personnel, its involvement in NATO's deployments is small, amounting to just 4 percent of the personnel in the mission to train the Afghan security forces, and 7 percent of the Kosovo force.

Ankara has recently blocked some rolling programs with NATO, including political events, civilian projects and military training, in an escalation of the diplomatic dispute with a number of European states. Turkey's action encompasses many more areas of NATO’s activities. The programs cover most of Europe, plus many countries in the Middle East and Asia. Kosovo, Georgia, Ukraine and Afghanistan are affected.

NATO is more interested in Turkey than Turkey is in NATO. Turkey has sent thousands of troops to serve under the NATO flag in multiple military operations in the Balkans, Syria and Libya. The western Turkish port city of Izmir hosts one of the five NATO headquarters, which is responsible for coordinating major operations of land-based forces. The loss of at least five major military facilities in Turkey will greatly diminish NATO capabilities for out-of-Europe operations. NATO’s advanced radar systems in Kurecik, in eastern Turkey, are important for NATO BMD system in Europe. Significant Black Sea presence is unthinkable without Turkey. 

Turkey serves as the linchpin to America’s security strategy in the Middle East and the Balkans based on its geography and longstanding alliance with the United States. The fight against IS will become more challenging.

The NATO membership has not helped find a solution to the territorial dispute between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean Sea and Turkey’s support for Northern Cyprus has traditionally spoiled relations between Turkey and the alliance. All in all, it proves that Turkey is a major NATO asset; indeed, it’s been more of a benefactor than benefiter from the alliance.

The results of the Turkish referendum giving the president special powers, the issue of human rights as the West sees it and probable return of death sentence – all these issues widen the gap which is extremely hard to bridge.

Turkey’s relationship with the EU is in doldrums. The European EU members are largely NATO countries, too. So, moving away from these organizations to diversify foreign policy partnerships strengthens Turkey’s hand in dealing with the West in general.

Deeply frustrated by its Western allies, Turkey is renewing efforts to knit closer ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an attempt, which may well bear fruit. Turkey has been a dialogue partner to the SCO since June 2012. Turkey's chance to obtain observer status is now higher due to the positive attitude of the major players in the SCO, namely Russia and China. Turkey was selected to chair the organization's Energy Club in 2017, becoming the first non-SCO country to hold the term presidency. Ankara can assume the role of a center that could facilitate communication between the East and the West. With the hopes for EU membership almost relinquished, Turkey will gain a lot if the SCO takes steps in the future toward an economic integration among member nations. Turkey’s accession would bring together the SCO and the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States (CCTS).

Ankara is also showing increasing interest in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). It was invited to join the organization in 2014. This will open new opportunities for Turkey to trade with these countries and draw the economic benefits of it. Furthermore, many of the present and potential members of the EAEU are countries with whom Turkey already has close relations in many fields. Further progress on the way of Ankara’s integration with the SCO and the EAEU will facilitate the multi-dimensional foreign policy strengthening Ankara’s standing in the world.

The relations with NATO and the West in general continue to worsen with no hope for improvement in sight. This trend was confirmed during the Trump-Erdogan summit on May 17 when the Turkish President was outgunned. Turkey will continue to be reaching out to other poles of power. It does not have much to lose on this way but it can make significant gains.