Last week, the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, were in the Turkish capital, one after the other, to ask for Turkey’s contribution to a coalition of allies in a U.S.-led war on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS, aka The Islamic State].

Not only will Ankara take no military action, it will also forbid the U.S. from using a critical U.S. air base in southern Turkey to conduct strikes against the jihadist terrorists, the Turks told Messrs. Kerry and Hagel.

Earlier during the week, Turkey also abstained from signing a communiqué which Arab nations penned, seeking stronger action against ISIS.

Some call Turkey «a U.S. frenemy,» others refer to it as «NATO’s Qatar.» Unsurprisingly, on Sept. 9 the U.S. Congress delivered its staunchest warning to date that Turkey and Qatar could face financial and other penalties if they continue to support Hamas and other U.S.-designated terrorist organizations.

«The friend of my enemy is my… frenemy?» U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with the new Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, before a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in Newport, Wales, Sept. 4, 2014. (Image source: U.S. State Dept.)
Jonathan Schanzer, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that Congress could start exploring alternatives to the U.S. air base at al-Udeid in Qatar. Echoing that view, the Wall Street Journal claimed in its Sept. 13 editorial that it is the «unavoidable conclusion» that the U.S. needs to find a better regional ally than Turkey to fight ISIS, and suggested that the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey should be moved somewhere else, perhaps to Iraqi Kurdistan. The Wall Street Journal argued that the Turkish government, a member of NATO, long ago stopped acting like an ally of the U.S. or a friend of the West.

Meanwhile, former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone said that the Turkish government «frankly worked» with the al-Nusrah Front—the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria—along with other terrorist groups. It is an open secret that Ankara also looked the other way as foreign radical groups used Turkey as a transit point on their way to Syria and Iraq.

Ironically, on the exact day as the Turks were telling American dignitaries, «We are sorry, but don’t count us in,» the Transatlantic Trends Survey 2014 revealed that Western institutions still matter for Turks.[1]

Turks have a confused mind about their six decade-long alliance with the West. After twelve years of systematic indoctrination by their government that their country is on a fast journey to revive its glorious imperial past, the Turks believed that it would soon be «Turkey’s rules» first in their region, rather than elsewhere. Sadly, they had to wake up to regional realities instead: Their country is the only one in the world without ambassadors in Jerusalem, Damascus and Cairo; and at various degrees of cold wars with several countries in its vicinity. Its citizens are high-value currency in the Middle East’s hostage market. The abduction of 49 Turks — diplomats and their family members, including the consul general — on June 11 in Mosul, northern Iraq has made the wannabe regional power itself a hostage to ISIS too. The safe return of the hostages on September 20 does not mean that Turkey has freed itself from captivity: Ankara, fearing a wave of terrorist attacks on its soil, cannot openly clash with ISIS.

Despite a slight improvement in the Turks’ perceptions of the West and its institutions, it is, once again, «directionless Turkey.» The Americans pretend to be disappointed by their part-time ally. They looked «shocked.» They should not be. As NATO official Michael Ruehle once reminded us, Noah’s rule is: «Predicting rain does not count, building arks does.»

Under the Islamist rule of former Prime Minister, now President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey was already on a path to become a challenge to NATO. That journey of «fading likeminded-ness» did not begin last week. Turkey’s case has been quite conspicuous since 2009 when then-Foreign Minister, now Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu took the helm of foreign policy.

Taking refuge from the August heat at Alexei Kosygin’s Kremlin banquette back in cold war-stricken 1965, Turkish Prime Minister Suat Hayri Urguplu said that he was «very pleased to be witnesses to the gradual and confident development of mutual understanding with the Soviet Union.» The next day, an Istanbul daily commented that: «Improvement of Turkey’s relations with the Soviets is fine on one condition: that we always remain an ally of the United States and in NATO.»

Forty-two years after, in 2007, some bigwigs in Turkey’s security bureaucracy began weighing the merits and demerits of a non-aggression pact with Russia.

Two years after that, in April 2009, military teams from Turkey and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria crossed the border and visited outposts during joint military drills. That was the first time a NATO army was exercising with Syria’s.

In September 2010, Turkish and Chinese air force aircraft conducted joint exercises in Turkish airspace. That, too, was the first time a NATO air force was conducting military exercises with China’s.

In 2011, a Transatlantic Trends survey revealed that Turkey was the NATO member with the lowest support for the alliance: just 37% (down from 53% in 2004, but up to 49% this year).

The same year, before finally providing NATO forces with limited logistical support, Turkey’s then-Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now President, angrily asked: «What business can NATO have in Libya?» Also in 2011, the Turkish government announced plans eventually to build a ballistic missile with a range of 2,500 kilometers. Military experts were left pondering which city could be the potential target: London? Moscow? Tel Aviv? Brussels?

In 2012, Turkey joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] as a dialogue partner. (Other dialogue partners are Belarus and Sri Lanka; observer nations are Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia). Since then, Erdogan has, at least a few times, publicly said that Ankara would abandon its quest to join the European Union if it were offered full membership of the SCO.

In September 2013, Turkey announced that it had selected a Chinese company (on a U.S. sanctions list) for the construction of its first long-range air and anti-missile defense architecture. Turkish officials claimed that local engineering would make the Chinese system inter-operable with the U.S. and NATO assets deployed on Turkish soil.

It took the Turks a year, dozens of warnings from NATO’s HQ and hundreds of visits to warn Ankara that a Chinese air defense system could not be made inter-operable with U.S. or NATO assets. It also took threats of putting Turkish firms on the same U.S. sanctions list before they reversed course and started talks with a European bidder.

At the beginning of this year, the Financial Act Task Force, an international body setting the global rules and standards for combating terrorist financing, ruled that Turkey should remain on its «gray list.» Once again, Turkey was the odd one out: the only NATO member country on the gray list (the others are Algeria, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen).

Experts have since warned that troubling questions remain about Ankara’s relationships with Iranian gold traders, Hamas leaders, al-Qaeda in Syria and persons designated under the U.S. sanctions regime.

All that was enough to make Turkey a bizarre ally: It is a NATO member in which only a third of the nation supported membership merely three years ago; its air force engages in exercises with China’s air force; the government commissions a Chinese company on a U.S. sanctions list to build a NATO-inter-operable air defense architecture. Meanwhile Turkey seeks full membership in SCO while remaining on an international list of potential terrorist sponsors — sharing this list with, among others, Syria and Yemen.

It is true that Turkey’s position is convergent with NATO’s on Ukraine; and that Turkey has other converging interests as well, such as preserving the stability of the global commons: air, sea, space.

But while NATO wishes to reinforce its outreach to like-minded democracies (such as Australia and Japan), Turkey is trying to forge, though often unsuccessfully, regional and wider partnerships with the Arab world, Africa, Russia, China, Central Asia and the Caucasus — and with a bunch of terrorist organizations including Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Nusrah Front.

With all those credentials, Turkey remains only a part-time ally of the West, and NATO’s odd-one-out.

In all reality, for its Western partners, Turkey is a portmanteau of ally and antagonist. Being NATO’s only Muslim member for several decades was fine. Being NATO’s only Islamist member ideologically attached to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas is quite another thing.

Burak Bekdil, based in Ankara, is a Turkish columnist for the Hürriyet Daily News and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

[1] The survey found that 45% of Turks — a 10 percentage point increase from 2013 — described their opinion of the EU as favorable. For the first time since 2010, a majority of Turks (53%, or up eight percentage point from 2013) thought that EU membership would be good for their country. Turkey was also slightly less likely than in the past to prefer unilateralism: 33% of Turkish respondents said that Turkey should act alone on international matters (down five percentage points since 2013) while 28% said that Turkey should work with the EU (up seven percentage points since 2013).

Turks were also more positive on NATO, with 49% saying it remained essential to their security — a 10 percentage point increase from 2013 and the highest level of support measured since 2005. When asked what NATO should be doing, Turks were divided. Fifty-seven percent supported its role in the territorial defense of Europe; a 42% percent plurality opposed its operating out of area, and a 47% plurality opposed its providing arms and training to other countries.

Turkey: What Ally?

by Burak Bekdil
September 22, 2014 at 5:00 am

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