The track record of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with regard to the NATO alliance suggests he has often seized on the opportunity to be a spoiler and made threats but did not really follow them through to the end, eventually caving under pressure.
The recent crisis with Erdoğan’s move to try to make the best out of Sweden and Finland’s application to join NATO follows the same and familiar pattern, although the domestic checks and balances on the Islamist president’s rule are no longer there, making the situation more volatile in contrast to other cases from the past.
Looking at several examples from the recent past when the Erdoğan government entertained the idea of blocking significant moves made by NATO and member states can shed some light on the characteristics of the Turkish government.
One such case took place in 2009 when Turkey gave its consent to France’s return to full participation in NATO’s military command after a 43-year absence, and the other was Turkey giving the go-ahead to the candidacy for NATO secretary-general of former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen during a NATO summit the same year.
Ironically, on May 20, Erdoğan criticized the Turkish government’s decision to allow France’s return to the military command as if he were not the prime minister who led the government at the time. When then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced publicly in April 2008 that his country had a desire to rejoin the military arm of the alliance, the Erdoğan government expressed reservations, which was interpreted at the time as a response to France’s blocking of some accession chapters during Turkey’s talks to join the European Union.
However, Turkey did not drag its feet and agreed to green light France’s return within the sprit of alliance unity, and France returned to the military command in a unanimous vote. France had already been on the NATO Military Committee since 1994, allowing it to participate in the alliance’s military and political activities for more than a decade.
The second case when Turkey raised its objections took place when Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen was presented as a frontrunner for secretary-general in 2009 to replace incumbent Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. Then-Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said Turkey would not back Rasmussen to become the new NATO chief, adding that a candidate must have the trust of all member countries. Similar comments were echoed by other government officials as well.
Turkey put three issues on the table to challenge Rasmussen’s candidacy. It said Demark allowed a pro-Kurdish militant television station, ROJ-TV, to broadcast from Denmark, and recalled comments by Rasmussen in 2003 saying that Turkey would never be a full EU member. Moreover, the Erdoğan government was not happy with Rasmussen’s handling of a “cartoon crisis.”
The cartoon row erupted in 2006 after a cartoon published by a Danish newspaper depicting the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban was reprinted across Europe. Rasmussen refused to apologize for the cartoons, which sparked riots and attacks on Danish embassies in several Muslim countries.
Despite a lot of noise in Ankara that suggested Turkey might block Rasmussen from becoming NATO’s next secretary-general, the Turkish government green lighted him in the end. The approval came two days after Erdoğan said he had talked to Rasmussen and informed him about the opposition to his candidacy for the top NATO post.
Perhaps Erdoğan wanted to block both France and Rasmussen’s bids in NATO but did not feel strong enough in Turkey and had not yet consolidated his power. Turkish institutions, especially the army, which is NATO’s largest after the US in terms of manpower, resisted such blocks in the alliance. The Turkish media was still vibrant, overwhelmingly following a pro-NATO editorial line. Erdoğan had to go with the flow after he realized that he could not overcome the institutional opposition that focused on maintaining Turkish interests rather than appeasing Erdoğan for political gain with his core Islamist voter base.
However, today there’s a different climate in Turkey, where checks and balances no longer exist. The army purged nearly all pro-NATO officers from its ranks, including two-thirds of admirals and generals in the aftermath of a false flag coup bid in 2016. Many were jailed on so-called criminal evidence that showed them serving in one of the NATO posts in the US, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain or Norway. One-third of all diplomats including ambassadors were dismissed on fabricated charges of terrorism. The vacancies were filled with partisans and loyalists who were selected mostly from Islamist, nationalists and neo-nationalist who were committed to an anti-Western ideology.
Erdoğan has dozens of chief advisors who would not dare express views that could be construed as challenging Erdoğan’s line.
Therefore, President Erdoğan can drag this crisis on for a while and keep using Sweden and Finland as a punching bag for domestic political consumption. He appears to have already decided that the theme for the campaign for the 2023 elections will be constructed on the superficial battle between the Crescent and the Cross, with Turkey supposedly leading the charge on behalf of Muslims against Western Crusaders. Whether Turkey’s strategic interests in keeping in good standing within the alliance would be damaged is of no concern for Erdoğan, who sees his personal survival in Turkey’s politics trumping the nation’s interests.
There is another challenge for the NATO alliance when it comes to Turkey. Since the critical and independent media has been wiped out by the Erdoğan government in the last decade, Turkish voters hear only one narrative, which is shaped by the Erdoğan government’s storyline. The opposition is cowed into silence and dissidents are either in jail or forced to live in exile. The opposition’s message is not reaching most voters and is mostly confined to metropolitan cities.
The only factor the Turkish president cannot control on the domestic front is the economy, which is deteriorating rapidly, hurting average Turks who are struggling to make ends meet amid soaring food and energy prices, rising unemployment and the declining value of the Turkish lira. The West, especially the Americans, can apply serious pressure by using the leverage they have from trade to finance and force Erdoğan to cave. Knowing how Erdoğan was quick in making U-turns when he was cornered, it would not be a surprise when he comes out endorsing Sweden and Finland’s candidacy in the end.
Expecting that Erdoğan will stand his ground and keep blocking and even vetoing the membership bids of two Nordic countries is not realistic.
He is also using the crisis as an opportunity to bargain with the Americans, not necessarily for the removal of arms restrictions, the purchase of F-16s or Turkey’s return to F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. He wants to sit at the table and negotiate with the Biden administration, which has been keeping him at arm’s length. His main concern is the Halkbank trial, which is due to start in US federal court.
In 2019 US federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York indicted Turkish state lender Halkbank (Türkiye Halk Bankası A.Ş.) on six counts including fraud, money laundering and sanctions offenses related to the bank’s participation in a multibillion dollar scheme to evade US sanctions on Iran. During the trial it is expected that the evidence will incriminate Erdoğan, who personally approved the sanctions evasion scheme in exchange for bribes.
The Turkish foreign minister revealed that he had talked about the Halkbank case with his US counterpart on May 18, 2022:
He has been trying to cut a deal with the US ever since. The Turkish president thinks he can capitalize on Sweden and Finland’s aspirations to join NATO and use that as leverage in bargaining with the Americans. In fact, following a meeting with his counterpart, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu revealed negotiations on that matter.
Turkey’s top diplomat told reporters that he had conveyed Turkey’s expectations regarding the case of Halkbank, which is accused of evading US sanctions on Iran. Describing the case as political, Çavuşoğlu claimed the evidence is fabricated and argued that Halkbank had immunity from prosecution in the US because it is a state bank. He said he had raised this during a meeting with his counterpart in Washington.
One must understand that although Erdoğan has proven to be pragmatic and made quick U-turns on many cases in the past, he is personally committed to an anti-NATO and anti-Western ideology stemming from his political Islamist background. Whenever and wherever he finds an opportunity, he is quick to seize it to promote that ideology as long as real politics allows him to do so. At times, the policies of appeasement of the West encouraged him to continue down this path as well.
The solid evidence of Erdoğan’s real thinking about NATO came out during a confidential counterterrorism investigation into Iran’s Quds Force cells in Turkey. The evidence was uncovered in 2011 by Turkish investigators working the case.
“When I get a chance, I know what to do with NATO, Europe and Israel. I’m going to f*ck their mothers. NATO and the US are as terrorist as Israel,” Erdoğan, then prime minister and running the government, told his loyalist lawmakers in a private meeting.
The outrageous remarks that were uttered by Erdoğan were delivered during a conversation about the proposed establishment of a new radar base in Malatya’s Kürecik district as part of NATO’s missile defense system, which works with missile interceptors in Romania and Poland.
Turkish president revealed on May 23, 2022 his country’s opposition to NATO enlargement, a policy that signals the reversal of Turkey’s earlier position endorsing enlargement::
Erdoğan was clearly not happy with the NATO plans laid out at the 2010 Lisbon leaders summit but at the time felt he had to go along with them in the face of pressure from the military and other government agencies that considered Iran a threat to Turkey’s national security. The Turkish government had long talks with the US, in particular over naming Iran as a threat to the alliance and the possible sharing of intelligence with Israel.
Erdoğan was particularly feeling the heat domestically from the Turkish military, which supported the NATO project, and he had not consolidated enough power in his hands to overcome this resistance. In September 2011 Turkish officials signed a memorandum with the US on the deployment of the American radar in Kürecik as part of a NATO-backed missile defense system designed to protect European members of the alliance from missile threats.
In the face of pressure, Erdoğan will most likely take a step back and drop his opposition to the membership bids of Sweden and Finland. But he will wait for the next opportunity to make another spoiler move in NATO. The alliance is paying a price for appeasing Erdoğan, especially in the aftermath of the 2016 false flag coup that Erdoğan orchestrated to launch a mass purge of NATO officers from the ranks.
On Monday Erdogan unveiled his government’s plans to launch a new military operation in Syria, saying that as soon as the military, intelligence and police are done with their preparations, Turkey will start expanding what he called a safe zone some 30 kilometers deep into Syrian territory from the Turkish border.
Perhaps his escalation in anti-Western rhetoric and the threat of a veto for the new applicants for the NATO alliance to some extent has to do with Turkey’s planned move to launch a new military incursion. He was hoping to counter or even mute the West’s reaction and perhaps secure tacit approval in exchange for softening Turkey’s attitude towards Sweden and Finland.
The Turkish president revealed that a new military operation in Syrian territory would soon be launched: