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Turkey and NATO: 45 years ago, 45 years later
NATO was established in 1949. Turkey and Greece became members in 1952. And if there was no NATO at the time, Turks would have had to invent it. Russia was breathing down Turkey’s neck, and it needed Western allies to keep it in check. And Turkey paid for that protection in its blood. A 5,000-strong Turkish brigade shipped off to the Korean War in 1950. 741 of them died. Yet these days people keep asking me “Why are Turkey and NATO growing apart?” Are they really? I don’t think so. Let me elaborate.
Whenever I face this question, I have an image in my mind. It is the image of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. From the air, Kabul looks almost like one of those empty ancient cities where all the inhabitants packed and left centuries ago. At dusk, as your plane descends, the airport is a small, dark place. It’s a holdout where you check out from modernity.
Hamid Karzai Airport is used both for private and military purposes, and it is protected by Turkish soldiers who are part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO-led, UN-mandated mission to Afghanistan. Turkish Armed Forces are also on active duty in Somalia and Kosovo, both under NATO command. The ominous question “why are Turkey and NATO growing apart?” does not come anybody’s mind, if you are in any of those places. It’s clear where Turkey stands. When it comes to Syria however, it is different. Why?
Geography is destiny. We have a 900-km border with Syria, while Afghanistan is a faraway country. Since the start of the civil war in Syria, around 3.5 million Syrians moved to Turkey. Both ethnic and religious fault lines have become more active inside Turkey as a result of Syrian developments. Our peace process broke down, and groups based in Syria staged attacks on civilians in our major cities, including in Ataturk airport. This is a priority far more elemental than an international commitment could ever be.
What President Erdoğan felt was not unlike the frustration felt by various Turkish prime ministers since the intercommunal violence started in Cyprus in December 1963. In June 1964, the New York Times reports it as “Violence between the two communities broke out in December over the Greek Cypriotes’ efforts to alter the Constitution to strengthen their governmental authority.” Turkey as a country with a 500 dollar per capita GDP had no planes outside NATO use, and no landing ships to intervene Cyprus. Turkey still made noises about intervention however, which led President Lyndon Johnson write a letter reminding Prime Minister İnönü of “the commitment of your government to consult fully in advance with the United States." He also went on about Turkey’s duty to NATO and the United Nations, but he needn’t have. It was deeply humiliating to Turks.
The incident was the spark Turkey’s defense industry needed. It took a decade to build the military capacity, but when ready in 1974, Turkey acted despite American warnings. Both Greece and Turkey were members of NATO at the time. In 1975, the United States put an arms embargo on its NATO ally, but Turkey had already changed the game. Things smoothened out over time, so much so that by the time Turkey and the US stood on different sides of a conflict in Syria, people thought it was a first.
That’s how I see Operation Olive Branch today. Turkey needs to respond to existential threats. Whether these threats are indeed existential or not is a different discussion. What’s important is that Ankara feels that they are, and it acts to preserve its interests. And it’s a frustrating experience for Ankara. Frustration in not being able to do something effective for a very long time. In both cases, it is the apathy of our Allies that led to the buildup of this frustration. Turkey is part of this alliance, and every once in a while, feels like it needs to put its foot down. This does not necessarily mean that it is bound to leave.