Discover more from The Freemen News-Letter
Dealing With NATO's Problem Child
The US-Turkey relationship is one of convenience, one that America must reckon with politely but firmly.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan is once again hesitating on Sweden’s NATO accession, after agreeing to approve it back in July. He did so only after a year of dithering over a list of undemocratic demands. That decision came two months after an electoral win that cemented his power for the foreseeable future: a united opposition couldn’t overcome Erdogan’s control of the media and hold on society at large. Erdogan is not going anywhere, and neither is his obstructionism. So the United States needs a new strategy to deal with NATO’s problem child: one that understands Erdogan’s own modus operandi and induces good behavior through strategic leverage, not idealistic hopes of vague shared values.
Erdogan is not our friend. His authoritarian government holds tens of thousands of political prisoners, including the former head of the second-largest opposition party—sentenced for, among other things, insulting Erdogan. And Erdogan goes about making his general neighborhood unsafe.
Thanks for reading City On a Hill! Subscribe for free to receive new issues of this and other Freemen News-Letter offerings.
Erdogan has engaged in military interventions in Libya, Armenia, Syria, and Iraq, invariably on the wrong side, and frequently through the use of Syrian jihadist mercenaries, a strategy reminiscent of Russia’s Wagner deployments.
Erdogan is like Putin in more ways than one: both have neo-imperial dreams, in Erdogan’s case neo-Ottoman ones, both are authoritarian and opportunistic, and Erdogan’s brutal campaigns against Kurdish groups in the nation’s southeast resemble Putin’s Chechen War. Erdogan takes care to maintain relations with Russia, too, probably because Putin backs Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and Erdogan hopes to strike a deal that allows his troops to seize some of the Kurdish-controlled border regions currently guarded by Russian forces.
Some years ago, Erdogan even bought Russian S-400 missiles, a purchase that led the US to cut Turkey from the F-35 program. Nor is Erdogan a constructive NATO partner: apart from his obstructionism on Finland and Sweden, he continues to threaten Greece every few months.
But Turkey also isn’t an enemy. It’s a natural Russian rival and has been for centuries; that and its control of the Bosporus make it a natural fit for NATO, and a strategically vital member of the alliance. And Erdogan, though careful about antagonizing Putin, has also aided Ukraine, facilitating an important grain deal and providing drones and vehicles.
The Freemen News-Letter publishes all its content for free thanks to the generous donations of its supporters. Please consider joining those who value our efforts to elevate the political and cultural dialogue in America by offering a one-time, monthly, or annual donation.
The key to understanding Erdogan, then, is to see him as a cunning realist engaged in the pursuit of his own vision of Turkish greatness. The US-Turkish relationship is not one of friendship or enmity, but rather one of mutual strategic convenience, and extends only as far as that convenience does—at least for Erdogan.
Erdogan pursues his interests by amassing strategic leverage. He understands his own important strategic position and knows that he can get away with things other NATO members cannot. So he takes numerous small actions that will discomfit the US, like threatening Greece, obstructing NATO expansion, attacking America’s local partners in Syria, and so on. With that head start, he can extract concessions in exchange for giving ground in areas that don’t really matter to him.
For instance, he got Sweden to agree to act against some Kurdish groups and extradite Turkish citizens in exchange for NATO membership. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief—but the whole problem only existed in the first place because Erdogan invented it, and meanwhile, he’s still threatening Greece, our Syrian allies, and all the rest. He is even trying to use acquiescence on NATO to finally get Congress to approve F-16 purchases—something we have so far refused because he is only going to use them to bomb the Kurds.
The United States cannot stop this behavior by being nice and hoping that Erdogan will eventually come around. That only emboldens him to keep creating artificial crises and using them to extract other benefits. America must instead respond by accruing leverage of its own.
The task is not so difficult. Our first source of leverage is obvious: Syria. America maintains a small Syrian military presence to train and support the Syrian Democratic Forces, a multiethnic coalition that served as our Syrian anti-ISIS partner and sacrificed thousands of lives to win that war.
The SDF currently runs a semi-autonomous region in northeastern Syria—the only part of the country that protects basic human rights. Erdogan has been trying to make us leave for years. Much of the SDF’s leadership traces its roots to the PKK, a Kurdish insurgent group in Turkey, so Erdogan would like to crush it.
Until 2019, American troops patrolled the entire area, having promised to protect the SDF against Turkey. But Erdogan convinced President Trump to partially withdraw in October of that year, and promptly invaded, until the SDF convinced Assad and Russia to take over patrols in the areas America had vacated. Instead of bowing to his demands, we should continue to protect our Syrian partners—and should be prepared to restart patrols throughout all of the SDF’s territory if Russia withdraws, thus pre-empting Turkish action.
But we can find other leverage points, too. For example, we should continue efforts to pry Armenia from Russia’s orbit, promising protection against Turkish-supported Azerbaijani aggression if Armenia continues moving toward the West (as it has begun doing in light of lackluster Russian aid). Even attempts at brokering peace will supplant Turkish influence there. The US should not sell F-16s, either. And it should maintain relationships with figures in the Turkish opposition.
America must then use its newfound leverage as a tool. When Erdogan obstructs NATO expansion or threatens Greece, we float the idea of supplying anti-air missiles to the SDF or facilitating its oil exports, or we reiterate our reluctance to extradite political opponents, or we offer more support to the Armenians. That doesn’t mean never giving ground, but it does eliminate one-sided deals that serve only Erdogan. Turning Erdogan’s methods against him—politely but firmly, one might say—prevents America from being led about by the nose, recognizes the US-Turkish relationship for the marriage of convenience it actually is, and makes the best of it.
Jonathan Meilaender is a JD candidate at Harvard Law and is concurrently engaged in a Master’s program in German and European studies at Georgetown University. He received his BA in Politics from Saint Vincent College where he was also Editor-in-Chief of the Saint Vincent College Review. @JMeilaender
Currently, all freelance contributors to the Freemen News-Letter have volunteered their writing abilities Pro Bono, but one of our major goals is to have enough cash on hand to pay those who offer their submissions freelance fees for their efforts. If you value the written word as we do, please consider offering a one-time, monthly, or weekly donation to the Freemen Foundation and help us with this goal.