Turkey is a key member of the alliance, mobilizing the second largest military in NATO after the United States, with an estimated force of 411,000 soldiers, and is the seventh largest defense spender, in terms of percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Ankara makes significant contributions to NATO operations, including its maritime presence in the Mediterranean to prevent human smuggling and in NATO’s Operation Active Endeavor patrol mission.
Turkey forms a geopolitical bridge between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia and hosts several US bases, including the Incirlik Air Base located in the south of the country, from where US aircraft operate against ISIS. The looming danger is that the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will veer away from Washington, becoming a less reliable NATO ally, thus exacerbating volatility in several already unstable regions.
Erdoğan has imposed a three-month state of emergency and is purging the military with the reported arrest of one third of all senior officers. This could affect Ankara’s ability to defend itself and contribute to common NATO security goals. The purpose of Erdoğan’s crackdown in various state institutions, including the army, is to eliminate the network of supporters of Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan’s exiled arch-rival who the president accuses of inspiring the coup and wants extradited from the US.
Turkey’s army, which was once a bastion of secular Kemalist ideology and pro-Western democracy, has become a battleground between two essentially Islamist factions, in which nationalist anti-Westernism has been spreading. As a consequence, the integrity and performance of the military will be severely affected and its role in NATO impaired. Erdoğan’s purge will rid the army of Gülenist influence, but it can also inflict major damage on the upper command while lowering morale and capabilities.
A weaker Turkey would become more vulnerable to terrorist attacks, increasingly prone to Kurdish separatism, less effective in the Middle East, and more exposed to Russia’s expansive influences. At the same time, Ankara’s relations with the United States may experience severe strain. Without the extradition of Gülen, presumably based on credible evidence that he was involved in the coup attempt, Washington will stand accused in Turkey of favoring the overthrow the Erdoğan administration.
President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin wants to welcome Erdoğan as a fellow autocrat jointly resisting Washington’s meddling, including its alleged export of color revolutions and coup d’etats to effect regime change. Rationally speaking, Turkey needs NATO as a sword and shield given the unrelenting conflicts in the Middle East, escalating Russian assertiveness, and Ankara’s competitive relationship with Iran. However, Moscow is hoping to benefit from Turkish disarray and any weakening of its military potential and calculates that it will gain advantages in several nearby regions.
In the Black Sea, Ankara will be less likely to support Romania’s initiative to strengthen NATO’s naval presence as protection against Russia’s militarization. In the Middle East, Russia’s role will rise if Turkey curtails support for US missions against ISIS and focuses on combating the Kurdish threat. In the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan may find itself more isolated from the West if Turkey, its key regional partner, moves closer to Moscow. The resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the return of Azerbaijan’s territory occupied by Armenia will become even more problematic.
In the Balkans, Turkish influence is likely to wane if the country consolidates its authoritarianism and Islamism, thus alienating the secular democracies in the Balkans that aspire to EU membership. This can leave more terrain open to Russian influence, whether through economic or political penetration. Moreover, Moscow will be able to exploit Ankara’s economic needs for its own ambitions. For instance, one can expect the revival of the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline designed to make the Balkans more dependent on Russia.
Turkey’s volatility will also impact on the EU, where Ankara’s support is crucial in stemming mass migration and the flow of terrorist recruits. An agreement signed between Brussels and Ankara in March 2016 has greatly contributed to reducing refugee inflows this summer. This flow could again be unplugged if the Turkish government feels it is unjustifiably under attack by its EU partners.
The results of Erdoğan’s August 9 visit to Moscow need to be closely monitored, as the West risks losing Turkey as a NATO ally if Ankara decides on a closer security link with Russia. During the Cold War, NATO dealt with much more serious setbacks to democratic rule than we are currently witnessing in Turkey, such as successful military coups in Greece and Turkey and a dictatorship in Portugal. But the stakes were too high to abandon vital alliances. In an increasingly conflictive and unstable mega-region that Turkey straddles the stakes may be even higher than during the Cold War.