As NATO turns 70, Turkey darkens the alliance’s hope for a bright future

by Claude Salhani

Turkey’s flirtation with Russia constitutes a clear threat to the security of the other 28 NATO members and is unbecoming of a member of the organisation.

Set up in the aftermath of World War II to counter Soviet expansionism in Europe, NATO added Eastern European members after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of communism on the continent. This was a rude wake-up call for Moscow.

As the leaders of the NATO members gathered in London to celebrate the defence organisation’s 70th anniversary, dark clouds emanating from Turkey hang like a bad omen over the institution’s festivities and role in the defence of Europe.

Despite efforts by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, it appears the alliance and Turkey are on a collision course over Ankara’s flirtation with Moscow.

The members of the alliance are angered by Ankara choosing Russian-made S-400 ground-to-air missile defence systems over US-made ones in use by other NATO member countries.

There has been additional friction between Ankara and other NATO countries over Turkey’s role in the Syrian civil war. The alliance was not pleased when Turkish troops crossed the border and engaged actively in the conflict in Syria. Some Turkish troops have been accused of engaging in war crimes, which Turkey has denied.

The incidents are cause for concern along with fears from European countries that the United States under President Donald Trump may withhold some funding for NATO because he is not satisfied with the low contribution by European members.

The problems within NATO are such that they prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to state that the organisation was brain-dead.

“Turkey’s actions with Russia constitute a clear threat to the security of the alliance’s members,” said Robert Pearson, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Turkey, which played a key role in defending NATO’s southern flank during the Cold War, is today the organisation’s weakest link.

Turkey demands a full role in NATO’s decisions plus all the material and command benefits of membership, yet simultaneously binds itself to a resurgent Russia.

As expected, Ankara claims it is a victim of European and US opposition, yet it appears unprepared to modify its behaviour.

Among the top security concerns expressed by NATO leaders involved those in the eastern Mediterranean. Security for cargo and passenger ships sailing the Mediterranean is at its weakest point since Turkey’s accession to NATO membership.

Two monumental mistakes by Western powers allowed Moscow to become involved in the Syrian conflict and in the greater Middle East to the point that Russia could establish a foothold for its fleet in the Mediterranean.

This Russian expansion occurred during the closing days of the Obama administration but has continued well into the Trump administration.

Russian troops in Syria will allow for a greater presence in the country of Russian intelligence-gathering agents.

The Turks have come — rather late in the game — to realise the threat posed by Russian expansionism. Turkey has realised, very late, the extent of the military threat from Russia, particularly in the Black Sea.

Unless cooler heads prevail, a military incident could easily occur. NATO’s Article 5 states that an attack on any one member is an attack on the entire alliance.

The question asked in Moscow, as well as in Ankara, is whether Western countries are willing to confront Russia over Turkey after its unilateral action in Syria. Given Trump’s affinity for anything coming from Russian President Vladimir Putin, the United States’ reaction is difficult to predict.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly.

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