Turkey Unhinged: The Southern Tier and Alliances in Play

By Robbin Laird

Turkey has been a bulwark of NATO’s Southern Flank during the Cold War and a key player afterwards in terms of shaping security and defense capabilities for NATO and the European Union over the past two decades.  This has changed dramatically as President Erdogan came to power and has navigated the Turkish political system to shape a sharp break from the secular Turkey and pro-Western power that was set in motion by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Erdogan has served as the President of Turkey since 2014 and is a key part of the strategic shift affecting European defense and security in the post-2014 strategic shift. Erdogan has worked to create greater Turkish independence and to do so by leveraging more fundamentalist Islamic forces in what has been for decades a strongly secular society. And he has looked to shape a foreign and defense policy which would expand the flexibility of Turkish partnerships and allies and embracing ways to restore in some 21stcentury manner a version of what he sees as modern Ottoman state.

The Turks under Erdogan have expanded their military reach into Africa and in the Middle East, and he has pursued a policy of expanded arms industrial autonomy as well.

The Syrian crisis has been a multi-headed forcing function for Erdogan as well. On the one hand, the outpouring of refugees has provided both opportunities and challenges to his increasingly authoritarian rule. On the other hand, after leveraging NATO contributions to defend Turkey against enhanced threats posed by the Russians operating in Syria, he is now pursuing an expanded working relationship with the Russians to enhance Turkey’s arms options to defend itself.

Erdogan has operated under the umbrella neither the European Union nor NATO posing a direct threat to his expanded authoritarian rule. He has leveraged having no threat at his back to focus on the dynamics East and South of Turkey to expand his options.

A “coup attempt” against Erdogan in 2016 has been a very useful event in Erdogan’s efforts to expand his power base. Notably, he used the failed coup attempt to go after the Turkish military, notably the Air Force, and to reduce its political impact and significantly reduced its fighting competence and capabilities as well.

The Turkish leader has been involved in constant conflict with the European leaders about a range of issues, notably those involving migrations. And his shift from Turkish interest in joining the European Union to playing off the Europeans for more global influence is simply the more obvious shift in the President of Turkey’s approach to shape in effect a more Islamic state which can provide for leadership in the Middle East and work with other global powers outside of Europe to enhance his position in the region.

In a period where the global impact of the various strands of Islam are clearly providing significant global impact, the President of Turkey has focused on emphasizing the Islamic side of Turkey, not its secular tradition and its role as a leader in the Middle East shaping a more effective democratic path forward in a troubled region. In place of Ataturk’s vision, we have the Erdogan vision of a partial restoration of the Ottoman Empire with an expanded role of Turkey as a leading Islamic state operating in Africa and the Middle East.  He has also overseen the significant economic decline of Turkey, which means that the focus on the restoration of Turkish “glory” is not going to be funded by a dynamic Turkish economy closely integrated with the West.

In a critical but insightful article by Alon Ben-Meir on Erdogan , the author hihglights the psedo-Ottoaman approach being followed by the President.

“With little or no opposition at home, Erdogan moved to promote his Ottoman penchant to establish military bases in Qatar and Somalia, and military ties with Tunisia. Now he is scheming to build another military installation on the strategically located Sudanese Island of Suakin. Erdogan intends to utilize the island as a military outpost, as it had been during the Ottoman era. Egypt and Saudi Arabia believe that Erdogan’s military adventure will upset the regional balance of power, which is the recipe for instability and incessant violence.”1

Erdogan has acted if his membership in NATO is a birthright which allows him significant room for maneuver to expand South and East. The time is fast approaching when he needs to learn that he has significantly less room for maneuver if he continues to stab the West in the back.

An excellent example of how Erdogan is operating is his recent exploitation of the horrific slaying of Muslims in New Zealand. During his 2018 electoral campaign, he thought it acceptable to threaten the ANZAC community if they did not do whatever he thought was appropriate.

Ataturk was a brilliant Turkish military leader who defeated the allies in World War I when the attack was made on Turkey; he was respected because of his combat brilliance and because he went on to make Turkey a great nation. Erdogan who has no such pedigree seems to think that standing on the dead bodies of World War I soldiers and threatening their descendants will have no consequences.

In the summer of 2019 a key flashpoint was reached with the U.S. and NATO whereby the Trump Administration decided to terminate the Turkish involvement in the coalition-based global F-35 program.

The Turks are part of the F-16 European community and as such joined F-35. The issue which triggered this U.S. decision was the pursuit of the S-400 air defense system with the Russians.

This would mean that in an era where the U.S. and its allies are looking to shape greater integration of defensive and offensive systems and to enhance their ability to work together, the Turks proceeded down the path of not only not participating in such an approach, but are bringing the Russians directly into the air defense effort within Turkey and thereby NATO itself.

This is a key turning point and raises fundamental questions about the future of Turkey not only in NATO but more generally to how it will operate to defend itself and if whether in pursuing its independent course will leave the Southern Tier of Europe and the Southern Flank of NATO open to increasing conventional and hybrid war threats.

In other words, rather than Turkey being part of a comprehensive solution to sorting through the way ahead with regard to Southern Tier security and Southern Flank defense, Turkey is putting in motion the dynamics of change which could well change for a generation how Europe and the United States approach Mediterranean defense and security, and how to deter a growing range of authoritarian powers, of which clearly Erdogan is on the path to join the global trend.

Whether in NATO or not or whether allied with the European Union or not, Turkey is geographical located as it has always been at the critical juncture between the Middle East and Europe. This means that the European Union has worked and will continue to work with Turkey on the question of migrants as part of a broader security challenge.2

With more than three million Syrian refugees in Turkey, these expats have become important potential supporters of the new authoritarianism and also useful currency to negotiate with European nations and the European Union about as well.

Erdogan has openly embraced an agenda based on the greatness of the Ottoman Empire, a mix of religious and nationalist elements. His agenda has met with less than open enthusiasm by players in the region. As Zvi Mazel put it in an op-ed published in the JerusalemPost on August 1, 2019:

Dubbed neo-Ottomanism, a mix of religious and nationalist elements, this agenda led the president to embark on an aggressive foreign policy to assert Turkish domination in the Middle East on the basis of Islam, the common denominator of the region. It failed dismally. Only Qatar, which supports the Brotherhood, is still on friendly terms with him. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, as well as Iraq, mistrust him, and Syria sees him as an enemy. Relations with Egypt were cut following the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi.3

The response of Erdogan to his strategic shift has not been to go back to the previous Turkish strategy of siding with the West, but rather seeking new ways to enhance his flexibility and to leverage that flexibility to tighten his grip on Turkey itself. Combining his policy of leveraging the migrant crisis with deepening his military relationships with 21stcentury authoritarian powers has been his next round of policy innovation.

This approach puts the alliance structures in play in a very significant manner, not just the European Union and NATO but the Gulf Cooperation Council as well. Erdogan is unhinging Turkey to give himself greater strategic flexibility and to find ways to enhance his own control within his own society.

The Russians clearly see an opportunity here. 4

And this Russian challenge is the latest one to operate within NATO Europe itself, but also builds off the gains made by militarily engaging in Syria and building out a permanent military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In his significant book on Erdogan, fittingly entitled The New Sultan, Soner Cagaptay provided an overview of the rise of Erdogan and the significance of that rise to power and his shaping of power in driving a fundamental shift within Turkey itself. And because of fundamental shifts in Turkey, clearly the alliances with which Turkey has historically been part and have been important to the domestic evolution of Turkey itself are in the process of significant change as well.

Unlike previous Turkish leaders, such as Ozal, who saw himself as a conservative Muslim and a Westerner, Erdogan views himself as a conservative Muslim but not a Westerner. Accordingly, he no longer regards NATO as central, seeing it not as a club of nations with shared values, but rather as an outlet where he can purchase security through transactional deals. Whether or not the Turkish leader is the partner that the United States and the EU want, he is the ally they have been dealt at a critical juncture.5

In blunt terms, this means that alliance relationships are in flux in the most vulnerable region within Europe and which poses the most significant challenges to shaping an effective defense and security approach as the challenges of direct defense return to Europe. And unlike during the Soviet period, Turkey is not a stalwart barrier to Russian advances into the region; but at best an interlocutor with the Russians with regard to what and how effective those advances might be in the coming years.

As Cagaptay adds:

In any case, Erdogan’s transactional view of the NATO alliance will limit US ties with Turkey. Erdogan’s dim view of the EU and its liberal-democratic values will endow the EU with even less influence in Turkey. At best, Turkey’s Western allies can hope that the security they provide to Turkey against ISIS, Russia, and the Assad regime will be enough to keep Erdogan on their side. They can also dream that, in Erdogan’s wake, liberals will run Turkey one day, pivoting the country toward its traditional allies in the West—a long-term vision and hope.6



  1. https://consortiumnews.com/2018/02/01/turkeys-erdogan-in-the-shadows-of-the-ottoman-empire/
  2. http://mediterraneanaffairs.com/eu-turkey-refugee-agreement-scenarios/;  https://www.dw.com/en/the-eu-turkey-refugee-agreement-a-review/a-43028295
  3. https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Turkey-and-NATO-the-end-597430 https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Turkey-and-NATO-the-end-597430
  4. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/07/31/trump-is-letting-putin-poach-u-s-allies-s400-turkey-russia-trump-nato-allies/
  5. Cagaptay, Soner. The New Sultan . Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  6. Ibid.