NATO is in big trouble—and not just because of incoming President Donald Trump’s habit of calling it “obsolete.” Also deeply problematic is Turkey’s future as a NATO member.
As summarized by Henri Barkley, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Turkey’s strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been having a love-in recently with Russia’s strongman, Vladimir Putin, leaving the U.S. on the sidelines as a jilted suitor. Not even the Turkish shoot-down of a Russian jet in 2015 or the more recent murder of the Russian ambassador in Ankara has slowed down this rapprochement.
Turkey and Russia are now coordinating closely when it comes to Syria, with Erdogan having apparently given up hope of ousting Bashar Assad and becoming increasingly alarmed by the gains made in northern Syria by the U.S.-backed YPG militia. That Kurdish group has links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been waging a long-standing war against Ankara’s rule. Russia is even conducting air strikes in Syria in support of Turkish troops, which are there ostensibly to fight Islamic State but exist in reality to stop the Kurds from carving out their own state in northern Syria.
Along with the increased Russia-Turkey cooperation has come an intensification of the already-high level of anti-American invective from Erdogan. He and his minions, faithfully echoed by the government-controlled press, regularly blame the U.S. not only for staging a failed military coup last summer against Erdogan (a ridiculous accusation believed by as many as 79 percent of Turks) but also for supposedly supporting Islamic State. Turkey’s president said as recently as Dec. 27 that “it’s very clear” that the U.S. backs ISIS, an accusation rightly dubbed “ludicrous” by the State Department spokesman.
Meanwhile, Erdogan has been busy stamping out the last remnants of Turkish democracy, an affront to the common values that Turkey is supposed to share with other Atlantic Alliance members. Erdogan is filling his prisons with thousands of academics, journalists, military officers, judges, and other prominent citizens who are accused, based on spurious evidence, of being tools of Fethullah Gulen–the exiled Muslim preacher who has become for Erdogan what Trotsky was for Stalin, a convenient scapegoat.
Accounts abound of the Orwellian ordeals suffered by Turkey’s political prisoners as they try to figure out why they were jailed and how they can get out. A recent Wall Street Journal article detailing the arrest and imprisonment of a well-known Turkish judge was particularly infuriating and affecting. Significantly, the Erdogan regime even dared to lock up Wall Street Journal reporter Dion Nissenbaum for two and a half days, allowing him no contact with his wife or colleagues—a sign of how little Erdogan fears Washington’s wrath.
More concerned about cooperation about ISIS than progress on human rights, President Obama has largely given Erdogan a pass on his increasingly illiberal rule. President Trump is likely to continue and even intensify that trend. He might even extradite Gulen from Pennsylvania to face a kangaroo court in Turkey, as suggested by National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. And he might very well increase cooperation with Russia in Syria, which might put the U.S. and Turkey in greater sync even if neither Russia nor Turkey has shown much interest in fighting ISIS. But will Trump be willing to abandon U.S. support for the YPG, one of the few militias in Turkey that cannot be accused of being tainted by radical Islamist ideology?
Certainly, the U.S. and the rest of NATO can’t afford to simply write off Turkey, which is an important player in the Middle East with considerable military capacity and political influence. But it is harder than ever to claim that Turkey shares common interests, values, or an outlook with the rest of NATO, and that in turn puts yet another question mark over the alliance’s future.