Part of being, or becoming, allies is agreeing who your common enemies are and aren’t. Otherwise, there’d be no need for the alliance in the first place. But that’s easier said than done, especially when at least one ally is on an ego trip worthy of an Ottoman sultan.
In the NATO alliance, that would yet again be Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He’s out only for himself, and making things unnecessarily complicated as a result. To look strong at home before an election next June, he keeps messing with the minds of friends and foes alike, caring not a whit whether his shenanigans undermine Western cohesion and European security in general.
Almost all of NATO’s 30 member nations agree that Russia under President Vladimir Putin is the alliance’s main adversary. The word “almost” is necessary only because one member, Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, refuses to line up unequivocally with the West and Ukraine against Moscow. Erdogan, too, is keeping his options open, often playing frenemies with Putin. Sometimes that produces good results, as when the two struck a deal to let Ukraine export grain. Other times, it just raises eyebrows.
Erdogan is behaving even more irresponsibly when it comes to Sweden and Finland, two non-NATO countries that want to join the alliance. Their memberships would be good for all involved. The Nordic nations would be safer under NATO’s Article 5, the one that says that an attack on one is an attack on all. And NATO would be stronger for the Nordics’ military prowess and strategic geography.
But Turkey and Hungary are dragging their feet in ratifying the two accessions. Erdogan is the main problem. In effect, he’s blackmailing the Swedes to adopt his view of politics in the Middle East. To Erdogan, all Kurdish organizations, whether they’re based in Turkey, Syria or elsewhere, are terrorists needing to be banned and fought. And he wants other countries, notably Sweden, to toe the same line.
Erdogan isn’t totally wrong about terrorism, or about the Kurds. On Sunday in Istanbul, a bomb killed at least 6 people and injured scores — a woman has been arrested, although it’s unclear whether she has any ties to Kurdish organizations, as Turkey’s interior minister claims.
The US and the European Union have also outlawed the PKK, a Kurdish group in Turkey. But they haven’t blacklisted the YPG, a Kurdish militia in Syria that has ambiguous links to the PKK and has been an ally in fighting the Islamic State. Similarly, Sweden, which has a large Kurdish diaspora and several members of parliament of Kurdish descent, has also taken a nuanced approach so far. Erdogan wants to end that.
The Swedes now appear ready to meet Erdogan’s demands as best they can. And they’re right to do so. For Sweden, membership in NATO and security against Russia are much more important than policy toward the Kurds.
Where Erdogan is completely out of line is the Aegean Sea. NATO’s worst internal tension has for decades been the enmity between two nominal allies, Turkey and Greece, who really consider each other enemies. Ever since they emerged from the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the two states have been bickering, daggers drawn, over islands in the Mediterranean, the rights to explore its sea beds for natural gas, and more.
Lately, their sparring has become more than verbal again. The Greeks complain that the Turks are constantly violating Greek territorial waters and airspace. The Turks accuse the Greeks of harassing Turkish jets during a joint NATO mission, and even of locking an anti-aircraft system onto Turkish F-16s near Crete.
With allies like these, who needs enemies? “The islands you occupy do not bind us,” Erdogan taunted the Greeks the other day. “We will do what is necessary when the time comes. As we say, we can come suddenly one night.” You read that right: Erdogan is actually threatening war against another NATO country.
All alliances, like most families, have their tensions. And Erdogan has already been playing the role of bête noire for years — to the particular chagrin of other allies, he even bought an air-defense system from Putin that could compromise the technology inside American-made fighter jets.
But unlike Hungary, say, Turkey is also strategically indispensable. It has NATO’s second-largest army, after the US. And thanks to its geography, it can project power into the Black, Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, as well as southeastern Europe, northern Africa, the Caucasus and the Middle East.
Trying to figure out what Erdogan really wants has therefore become an obsession in NATO capitals second only to analyzing Putin’s mind. Is Erdogan just blustering in the runup to the election? Is he angling for sweetheart military deals with the US? Does he actually want to rebuild Turkey in the image of the Ottomans, rather as Putin fantasizes about restoring the empire of the Tsars? Above all, would Erdogan be a reliable ally in the event of war?
The times we’re living in are much too serious for these kinds of distractions. The West must stay united and strong. For that, we must close ranks with the Nordics, and put aside ancient but vacuous feuds like the one between Greeks and Turks. One objective must override all others: to deter Putin from escalating and widening his war. As Turks should remind their president, that is just as much in Turkey’s interest as in NATO’s.