How Differences Over Syria Can End Turkey’s NATO Membership

The differences on Syria can go beyond the US-Turkish ties so as to question Ankara’s NATO membership.

Although Washington’s refusal to extradite cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is believed to be the mastermind of the failed coup attempt in Turkey, triggered the most recent deterioration of the US-Turkish ties, it is the divergence of views on the future of Syria that is the key reason of tensions between the two states with the potential of undermining Ankara’s NATO membership, a Turkish analyst interviewed by believes.

“Turkish-American relations have always been ambiguous, but the latest failed coup attempt deteriorated the situation between Ankara and Washington to an unprecedented level,” Volkan Özdemir, Director of EPPEN Institute & Instructor at Department of Eurasian Studies, Middle East Technical University, Ankara, says. “The relations cannot be improved immediately because of the fundamental conflict of interests between the two parties.”

The relations between Ankara and Washington frayed when Turkish officials accused the US of aiding the coup plotters by harbouring Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania, and demanded his extradition. According to former US ambassador Arthur H. Hughes, writing in EurActiv, Gülen received considerable assistance from the CIA.

However, Özdemir believes it is incorrect to explain the current situation in US-Turkish relations by the Gülen factor alone. “It is the geopolitics and developments in Middle East in particular,” he says. “The parties have their own policies, choices and strategies regarding the Syrian civil war. The future of the partnership depends on the developments in Syria, not Gülen.”

Ankara believes the United States’ strategy is to create a Kurdish state, which is at odds with Turkey’s goals, Özdemir says. “Syrian Kurds are the most advantageous part of this conflict, because they only constitute 10 percent of the Syrian population, but now control more than 20 percent of the country. They have clear and official support of the Pentagon. As we observe the situation on the ground, we can see that this plan is being step by step realized.”

A Kurdish state is “a nightmare for Turkey and Turkish politics”, according to Özdemir. This is why Ankara sent its troops to Syria last week with Turkish tanks crossing the border at Jarabulus.

“Although this operation is against ISIS, it also aims to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish corridor,” Özdemir said, referring to the area between the Kurd-populated areas in the northeast of Syria controlled by PYD, or the Democratic Union Party, and the Afrin canton in the country’s northwest. Turkey considers the establishment of a vast Kurd-controlled area along its southern border a threat to national security.

Even though Washington endorses Syrian Kurds, it had to support the Turkish operation in Jarabulus, Özdemir believes. US Vice President Joe Biden even declared in Ankara last week that Kurds should retreat to the east of the Euphrates river, he points out. “But Washington follows a dual policy. On the one hand it has not given up its support of the PYD, but on the other hand it does not want to escalate the conflict with Ankara, as relations are very fragile at the moment,” he says.

Meanwhile, the Turkish operation in Syria started with approval from Moscow, and the prospect of a Turkish-Russian tactical alliance on Syria makes Washington really anxious, Özdemir believes.

“It is a direct product of the St Petersburg agreement between Turkey and Russia,” he says, referring to the Turkish assault on Jarablus.

Moscow has voiced support for the Syrian Kurds, but, unlike Washington, it does not base its Syrian policy on the Kurds, Özdemir adds. “Russia has some ties with Syrian Kurds in the Afrin Canton in the western part of Syria, but the main stronghold of Kurds is under the US control. So, rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow might be based on the following: Ankara stops to demand a regime change in Syria and in return for this Moscow will decrease, if not cut, its support to Syrian Kurds. Of course, Moscow can see Syrian Kurds as an instrument of its multidimensional policy, but its stronghold is the Assad regime,” the analyst says.

The differences on Syria can go beyond the US-Turkish ties so as to question Ankara’s NATO membership, Özdemir believes.

“The problem is that Turkey is still a part of NATO alliance, but it is the only NATO member that cannot share the view of common threats in the organization,” he points out. “The source of the problem is Washington because Americans with its European allies is behind the PYD/PKK in Syria and in Turkey.”

Turkey considers the PYD as a Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, NATO, and the European Union. However, as former Turkish Foreign Minister Yaşar Yakış told earlier, this link is rejected both by the United States and Russia.

Russia maintains ties with the PYD, and last February the Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria opened its office, dubbed as a semi-official embassy of the Syrian Kurdistan, in Moscow. But the Russian-PYD ties should be seen differently, Özdemir believes. “There is no formal strategic level and formal security alliance between Ankara and Moscow. But this is not the situation in Turkish-US and Turkish-NATO relations. All those NATO countries including United States, Germany, Belgium, France, they are supporting a Kurdish organization in Syria and their strategic goal is to create a Kurdish state or states in the territories of Iraq and Syria. Sooner or later this will have ramifications for the territorial integrity of Turkey. So if Turkey’s formal allies aim to create a Kurdish state in the Middle East, it means that being part of such an alliance is at least controversial.”

However, it is too early to talk about a total collapse of Turkish-NATO or Turkish-American relations, Özdemir warns.

“First, if Turkey decides to exit NATO, then the question is what’s next. Is there any alternative international security organization that Turkey could ally with? Surely, not now. Moreover, Turkish-Russian relations are in a process of redesign. It has not matured enough yet. Maybe strategically important energy projects, such as Turkish Stream gas pipeline, could be a catalyser in this process if parties do not repeat their previous mistakes. However, we are now far from the final outcome and the result depends more on Russia’s choice and intentions. Second, although Turkish defence industry has had big progress for the past two decades, regarding the critical military technologies, Turkey still partly depends on the west.”

According to Özdemir, the Turkish-NATO relations will become more complicated, but they remain “a necessary evil alliance” for the short term. “Maybe not now, but in the long term form of the relationship could change, because strategic interests and perception of threats by NATO and Turkey are not compatible. So this is why we are now witnessing the process – not the end, but a process – that Turkey and NATO will one day have to separate their ways. And if this occurs, it means a big change in balance of power in international system taking the role and power of Turkey into consideration”.
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