Turkey’s increasingly fraught relationship with NATO has just entered a new crisis as Ankara threatens to remove a substantial US radar system from its soil, should Washington fail to complete the transfer of F-35 fighter jets ordered by Turkey.
The row has its origins in Turkey’s recent purchase of Russia’s powerful S-400 missile defence systems.
The Pentagon has announced that Turkey’s purchase of the S-400s “would jeopardise the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey”.
In response, Turkey has stated that if the F-35s are not delivered, Turkey may take steps to remove the Malatya- Kürecik AN-TPY-2 radar system that the US set-up on Turkish soil in 2012. Turkish media outlet Yeni Safak has reported that if Turkey were to force the removal of US radar facilities from its soil, the US would lose its key means of gathering intelligence on movements which occur inside Iranian borders. This is significant as Turkey and Iran continue to make further mutual commitments to bilateral security at a time when the US has upped its anti-Iranian rhetoric inline with near identical Israeli propaganda. By contrast, Washington’s other radar systems in the Middle East are not able to penetrate beyond Iran’s western borders.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has responded by challenging the “trustworthiness” of NATO. This comes days after Erdogan’s name as well as that of Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic were found on a poster of NATO “enemies” during a recent pan-NATO military drill in Norway, which Turkey subsequently withdrew from.
Erdogan has stated,
“Yesterday, you saw impudence at a NATO exercise in Norway. Some mistakes are not committed by fools, but by vile people. This impudence that targets me and the founder of our republic … reflects the distorted point of view that we have been observing in NATO for a while.
And now, when we try to buy S-400 air defense systems from Russia, the reaction from some countries of the alliance [NATO] proved this distortedness”,
Erdogan then issued a statement whose interpretations will be much debated internationally, over the coming days and weeks. Turning to the conflict in Syria, the Turkish President stated,
“We will also save Afrin and we will deliver Manbij (Kurdish enclaves on Syrian soil) to its original owners. We will clear terrorist organisations out of all areas”.
There are two distinct interpretations of this statement, should it be taken at face value. First of all, the interpretation that is consistent with international law is that Erdogan seeks to return Kurdish occupied territories of the Syrian Arab Republic back to the Syrian government which is literally rightful owner of its own territory.
Others will be quick to jump onto the fact that Erdogan may be referencing the Ottoman Imperial map of the region, in which Afrin and Manbij, like almost all of the Arab world were territories belonging to Ottoman Turkey. Some will assert that this is what Erdogan means when he talks about “original owners”.
The reality most likely leans towards the first interpretation of the remarks. Practical realities on the ground and in geo-political relations attest to the likelihood of this interpretation.
Turkey is now in a position, largely thanks to tacit Syrian approval and an implied Russian lack of disapproval, to go after unilaterally declared Kurdish regimes operating on Syrian soil. As the war against Takfiri terrorism draws gradually to a close, Syria has become intent on preventing any would-be Kurdish insurgencies, especially since this could be the cover the US seeks to expand its illegal occupation of Syria.
Because of Turkey’s increased reliance on its economic partnership with Russia, it is becoming equally clear that Turkey is not in a position to defy Russia in Syria, even if it sought to do so.
At present Turkey’s once illegal occupation of Syria has gained a quasi-legal status through Turkey’s participation in the Astana peace talks which are co-chaired by Syria’s allies Russia and Iran and whose decisions are each approved by Damascus.
However, when the conflict in Syria is officially over, Turkey will lose any mandate for a continued presence in Syria.
Today’s remarks by Erdogan shed clarity on his future goals for northern Syria. He seeks to deprive Kurdish insurgent groups of their ability to create a de-facto statelet on Syrian territory. Thus, Erdogan’s words signal a clear mission with a clear goal. This can be contrasted with remarks made in previous years by Erdogan, suggesting that the Turkish occupation of Syria would be an indefinite phenomenon.
While many will remain sceptical of Erdogan’s remarks seeing as Turkey has established post-offices and other state offices in Syria’s Idlib, this is by no means a sign of permanence. When the Soviet Union was illegally broken-up by the leaders of the Russian Russian Soviet Federation Socialist Republic, Ukrainian Soviet Soviet Republic and Belorussian Soviet Social Republic, facilities throughout the Soviet Union were instantly taken away from Moscow in spite of years of legitimate economic activity by Moscow on its own legal territory. Likewise, after 1991, Russia’s former allies in central and eastern Europe unceremoniously kicked Russia out, in spite of previous agreements. Russia left and has no desire to come back. Whether this was a wise decision or not is open to debate, but the facts dictate that it is possible for allied troops to leave a country when no longer welcome, in spite of a lengthy alliance, the kind which Syria and Turkey certainly do not have.
If Moscow could so easily accept the loss of control of its territories and influence over her allies after 1991, Turkey’s small state-ventures in Idlib suddenly appear minuscule by comparison. One way or another, Turkey will have to cut its losses and Erdogan’s remarks clarify that once Kurdish militants are pacified, Ankara will likely be willing to do so in one way or another, not least because without support from the US, Turkey will not want to anger its new partners in Russia or Iran whose relationship with Ankara remains generally positive for all sides.