Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, November 2018. Photo courtesy G20 Argentina, licensed under CC BY.
President-elect Joe Biden will face a familiar roster of global adversaries when he takes office in January. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are all under the same management as when the Obama administration departed four years ago.
But Biden will confront serious new problems from another familiar face, and one who heads a nominal NATO ally: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Pursuing his own authoritarian ends since a failed 2016 coup, Erdogan is playing Russia and NATO against one another. He has had considerable success, much to the consternation of capitals on both sides of the Atlantic.
Biden and other Western leaders may soon need to decide whether the alliance is stronger with or without Turkey. Either way, NATO is weaker than it would be if Turkey continued to play its former role as a robust and reliable citadel guarding Europe’s southeastern flank. Besides Erdogan, the primary beneficiaries of Turkey’s recent gamesmanship are apt to be Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin. Honorable mention goes to the mullahs who rule Iran and to Bashar Assad, who presides over the rubble that used to be Syria.
Erdogan makes no secret of the fact that Turkey armed and supported Azerbaijan in its autumn assault on the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Though nominally part of Azerbaijan since it and Armenia were both part of the Soviet Union, the enclave was seized by ethnic Armenians in a bloody three-year war in the early 1990s. It had existed in an uneasy cease-fire since then.
Turkish support allowed Azerbaijan to outgun the Armenian defenders. This drew Russia into the conflict, through an existing defense treaty with Armenia; at one point the Azerbaijanis mistakenly shot down a Russian military helicopter, killing two crew members. Azerbaijan, which also maintains friendly relations with Russia, quickly apologized.
The upshot is that the Russians were readmitted to the southern Caucasus, which is not a place where NATO wants them to be, through a peace treaty brokered by Putin. Putin helpfully offered his own troops as a peacekeeping force. The agreement allows Azerbaijan to keep the territory it captured in the fighting. It went further, too, agreeing to open a corridor through southern Armenia to connect a previously isolated enclave and give the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, direct highway access to Turkey. The conflict allowed Turkey to show off its armaments industry, diminish Armenia – a country with which it has had a hostile relationship dating back to the genocide that Turkey insists did not happen over a century ago – and open new sanction-busting smuggling routes into Iran. Turkey also provided gainful employment opportunities to Syrian mercenaries whom it has used to attack ethnic Kurds along its border with that country.
Turkey’s warmongering in Nagorno-Karabakh followed a host of other actions that brought it into conflict with its fellow NATO members and its non-NATO neighbors in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey intervened earlier this year on behalf of the UN-recognized government in Libya against an insurgency backed by France and other Mediterranean countries. The autumn has been marked by verbal sniping between Erdogan and French President Emmanuel Macron over Islamist terror attacks attributed to display of cartoons published in the West depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Last but hardly least, Turkey has a historic but very active enmity with Greece, another NATO member with whom it has reciprocal military defense obligations. Turkey recently triggered a row with Greece by sending naval vessels to escort a gas-drilling research ship in disputed waters near the two countries and Cyprus. Cyprus itself remains under ethnically divided control, as it has been since 1974, when Turkey intervened militarily to carve out a breakaway territory on the northern part of the island. No other nation recognizes the sovereignty of the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
At some point, NATO leaders need to question why they need an adversary like Russia when they have an ally like Erdogan. But casting Turkey aside is much easier said than done. The country sits astride the critical outlet that Russia’s Black Sea fleet must use to reach the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. It has one of the alliance’s largest militaries and a well-developed armaments industry. It shares a long border with Iran, as well as a shorter frontier with Syria. Booting Turkey from NATO would surely mean sacrificing a U.S. air base at Incirlik. It would also mean giving up NATO’s easiest land and air access to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.
The Biden administration will find little delight in confronting Turkish assertiveness. Much of the foreign policy establishment has been critical of Biden’s predecessor for supposedly coddling Erdogan, but they have offered little in the way of practical suggestions for what else to do. Maybe a new administration will approach the subject with a fresh set of ideas. For now, Turkey looks like one more headache in a corner of the world that did not need it.