Irascible Erdogan Trump Wasn't Only Problem at NATO Summit

Germany's conflict with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan is escalating following his government's refusal to allow members of parliament to visit German armed forces in the country. But it is unlikely to cause a major breach -- because NATO needs Turkey.

NATO leaders attend a ceremony during the NATO summit in Brussels.
Emmanuel Dunand

NATO leaders attend a ceremony during the NATO summit in Brussels.

By , , and


Angela Merkel, a ceremonial expression on her face, is standing next to a piece of concrete bearing the official label: "retaining wall element UL 12.41." U.S. President Donald Trump seems to be paying closer attention than usual and the secretary-general of NATO also seems moved as the German chancellor unveils a piece of the Berlin Wall.

The section had been part of the Berlin Wall along the Brandenburg Gate, blocking escape to the West during the Cold War. Now, it stands in front of the new, 1.1 billion euro headquarters of NATO, which Merkel praised in a short address last week as a guarantor of "cooperation," "freedom" and "trust."

The brief list of Western values was aimed at a man who, though he stood in the second row at the ceremony, actually dominated the agenda of Thursday's NATO summit: Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the heavy-handed Turkish ruler who is in the process of transforming his country into an autocracy. The same man who disparaged Merkel earlier this year as a "supporter of terrorism" and who has plunged the Western defense alliance into chaos.

At the summit, leaders of NATO's member states bickered publicly about money, thus diverting attention from the dispute with Erdogan, another conflict in the alliance that is causing at least as much concern.

Few days have passed in recent weeks without a deliberate provocation from the Turkish autocrat aimed at the alliance and, in particular, at Berlin. He prevented a delegation of German parliamentarians from visiting German soldiers at the Incirlik base in central Turkey by arguing that Berlin had provided unlawful asylum to Turkish military officers. He then canceled a visit by Claudia Roth, the Green Party vice president of German parliament, because he claimed that Turkish politicians had been treated poorly in Germany ahead of the recent referendum. In Germany, parliament has oversight over deployments of the Bundeswehr, as Germany's military is known, and visits by lawmakers to soldiers stationed abroad are routine. But Erdogan's government has been blocking them for months.

In the wake of the failed July 2016 coup attempt against him, Erdogan has been throwing his weight around inside NATO. He has torpedoed NATO cooperation with Austrian forces in the Balkans. He fired hundreds of officers with important positions in the alliance. And he has taken advantage of any opportunity he can to issue wild threats to his own allies. "If Europe continues this way," Erdogan said in March, "no European in any part of the world can walk safely on the streets."

Irascible Erdogan

The question as to how best to deal with the irascible politician in Ankara is now dividing the West. In Europe, politicians and diplomats are wondering how they can still work together with a government that arrests domestic and foreign journalists and puts them in solitary confinement; a government that has ordered the conviction of tens of thousands of judges and teachers in mass trials because of their alleged connections to in the 2016 coup attempt. For his part, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), believes "we have already reached the limits of what is acceptable." Following last week's indignity over Incirlik -- where German reconnaissance jets and tanker aircraft are stationed to provide support for the coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS) -- Gabriel said it was time for the German government to finally take appreciable measures.

But political leaders in the West continue to focus on appeasement. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is determined to tolerate Erdogan's attacks because he needs Turkey as a base for Middle East operations. And Chancellor Merkel is unlikely to oppose Erdogan too strongly because she pegged her political fate to Ankara's goodwill by making Turkey the gatekeeper for refugees yearning to make their way to Europe.

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It appears that NATO, under pressure from Erdogan, is shifting from being a values-based community to one based solely on words. A few strong statements are directed at the provocateur Erdogan, but little else is done -- and NATO just goes on with its business.

Nothing is more demonstrative of the West's helplessness than the back-and-forth inside the German government over the ban on Incirlik visits. Merkel recently mused that if the situation doesn't change, Germany would have to move its troops to Cyprus or Jordan. Foreign Minister Gabriel, meanwhile, demanded further measures. If Erdogan doesn't relent, he says, Germany should also remove its Bundeswehr units from a base in the Turkish city of Konya.

Operation Could Be Threatened

Although doing so would demonstrate firmness, it would also have far-reaching military consequences. Konya, after all, is where NATO AWACS reconnaissance aircraft, used to monitor airspace as a part of the alliance's deployment against IS, are based. If the Germans withdrew, it would threaten the entire operation.

And yet Gabriel still felt emboldened to make that statement -- in part because he had discussed the issue with other cabinet members. During a conference call with Merkel and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, the three agreed in mid-May that NATO needed to intervene in the Incirlik dispute. Erdogan's current political course, they concurred, is having an impact on the stationing of German AWACS crews in Konya.

But Merkel's government didn't maintain its stance for long. After Stoltenberg declared the conflict to be "a bilateral issue" between Turkey and Germany, Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert struck a different note, saying there was "no discussion" of "any withdrawal of the AWACS from Konya."

At the summit last Thursday, NATO agreed to continue its AWACS mission under a new name -- with agreement from Germany, which continued looking for possible compromise formulas relating to the problems with visiting Incirlik. Perhaps, Chancellor Merkel is vaguely hoping, now that the military alliance has officially joined the battle against IS, Stoltenberg might now seek to actively defend Germany's right to visit the base in Turkey. The German military is nevertheless preparing for the possibility of moving its Tornado jets to Jordan.

German Armed Forces (Bundeswehr) Tornado jets stationed at Turkey's Incirlik air base. The aircraft are used to provide support for the alliance in the fight against Islamic State in Syria.
THORSTEN WEBER/HANDOUT/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

German Armed Forces (Bundeswehr) Tornado jets stationed at Turkey's Incirlik air base. The aircraft are used to provide support for the alliance in the fight against Islamic State in Syria.

"Germany must continue applying pressure to ensure that disputes with alliance partners aren't carried out bilaterally, but are addressed in the NATO Council," says Roderich Kiesewetter, the foreign policy spokesman for Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party.

In the Konya dispute, a solution appears to be emerging. If Ankara agrees that all flights to the base be declared NATO flights, trips by German parliamentarians to Konya would not have to be individually approved by the Turkish government, Gabriel suggested in a conversation with Stoltenberg. All the alliance would have to do is inform Ankara in such instances. Behind closed doors in Brussels, the Turkish government has signaled it may consent.

On the Incirlik issue, however, there have not been any steps toward reconciliation. Merkel had a 20-minute conversation with Erdogan in which she criticized the detainment of journalists and the refusal to allow members of the Bundestag to visit Incirlik. Erdogan, in turn, complained about the decision to provide asylum in Germany to Turkish officers who fled the country fearing arrest.

In a hastily convened briefing held for members of the Bundestag last Friday night, high-ranking officials from the Foreign and Defense Ministries said they wanted to continue talks with Ankara. Only if no progress was made would the government vote in two weeks on whether to withdraw from Incirlik. Internally, though, officials at the ministries, and at Merkel's Chancellery, have little hope that a solution will be found with Erdogan.

A 'Degraded' NATO

The dispute over the German plane crews isn't the only point of contention between Erdogan and NATO. The military purges he conducted in the wake of the failed coup have also had conseqences for NATO. At least 150 of 300 Turkish officers have been forced out of their posts at NATO's official headquarters in Brussels and at its allied command headquarters in Mons, Belgium. Military attachés in embassies in European capitals from Riga to Brussels have also been purged. Internal documents from the Turkish General Command indicate that more than 270 mostly high-ranking Turkish officers have been purged by Erdogan.

Even if most of the posts have since been refilled, the new officers often have a lot of catching up to do. NATO diplomats have complained that they lack foreign-language skills and Curtis Scarparotti, NATO's supreme commander, has complained openly that the purge of the Turkish military has left NATO "degraded."

The problem has been exacerbated by the fact that many Turkish soldiers are deployed in sensitive areas of NATO, like the planning of airspace surveillance along the border to Russia or the top-secret defense plans of numerous NATO member states. Many alliance members are now wondering whether the new envoys from Ankara are as reliable as the old ones.

Drifting Partner

Concerns that NATO's eastern-most alliance partner might be drifting away are considerable, but Stoltenberg has thus far had little more to offer than simple appeals, as Austria recently experienced firsthand. The country is not a member of NATO, but it works together with other countries that are part of the alliance. Austria, for example, is one of the biggest suppliers of troop suppliers to NATO's KFOR mission in Kosovo. Five-hundred Austrian soldiers are stationed there.

But as one of the first European governments to call for EU accession talks with Turkey to be cut off in the wake of human rights violations following the putsch attempt, the Austrians are now feeling Erdogan's wrath through NATO. For months, the Turks have been successfully blocking a decision on whether the alliance should continue working with Austria in the Balkans. "If the alliance must choose between Austria and Turkey," one Austrian diplomat says, "it will clearly decide in favor of Turkey."

He's familiar with Stoltenberg's doctrine that "Turkey is a key country for the security of Europe." In other words, Erdogan would likely have to openly question NATO's own statutes before the alliance demanded that he fall back in line.

Some European politicians had hoped that the Turkish president would adopt a more moderate political course following the April 16 constitutional referendum, but he has instead been even more imperious. His government ordered the arrest of a German translator and announced it would break off EU accession talks if Brussels doesn't adhere to the agreed-to roadmap.

Does Erdogan View Europe as Enemy Power?

Early on in his tenure, Erdogan pushed for reconciliation with Europe largely for tactical reasons. He hoped the Europeans could help him in his power struggle with the Turkish military.

These days, though, he views the EU more as an enemy. He's insulted by the criticism coming out of Berlin, Paris and Brussels over his authoritarian governing style. And he considers Germany's decision to grant asylum to Turkish soldiers as proof that Europe secretly supported the coup attempt against him. People close to Erdogan have drawn parallels to Egypt, where the West kept is silence when the military toppled President Mohammed Mursi in 2013. Erdogan fears he could suffer the same fate. And he believes his best interests are served when he takes a hard line against Europe.

Thus far, Chancellor Merkel has reacted to Ankara's muscle-flexing in the same way she has dealt with macho politicians in the past -- with demonstrative equanimity. She still thinks dialogue may be enough to get Erdogan to compromise. But what if he isn't interested in compromise?

For Erdogan, the dispute with the West is a demonstration of power more than anything else. He's convinced the Europeans are reliant on Turkey and would never risk a permanent rupture. That may in part explain why opposition politicians in Turkey are increasingly pushing for the Europeans to take a firmer stance. They argue that Erdogan is only likely to back off when he sees that his behavior has consequences, says Sezgin Tanrikulu, a Turkish-German member of the Bundestag with the center-left Social Democratic Party. If, for example, Europeans stop investing in Turkey. "That's the only language Erdogan understands."

In Germany, too, pressure is growing for the government to deal more firmly with the Turkish leader. After Turkey rejected her trip, Bundestag Vice President Roth, said she expects the German government to stop "zigzagging" and to provide "a clear response." The Green Party's defense spokesperson in parliament, Agnieszka Brugger, added that "after all the provocations" by Turkey, the German government has allowed itself to become a laughing stock.

Members of Merkel's party have defended the decision not to take rash action. "A decision hasn't been made on Incrilik," says senior CDU politician Henning Otte. "The federal government is still trying to find a viable solution." The party line, apparently handed down from the Chancellery, is to avoid escalation on the issue. But that won't be easy given that virtually every other political party in Germany is pushing for a tougher stance.

Still, a breach in relations between Turkey and Germany remains unlikely. As such, officials in Berlin and Ankara are preparing for relations that aren't unlike a troubled marriage in which both partners decide to go their own ways but avoid taking the step of divorce. Officials inside the Germany Foreign Ministry have even adopted a term to describe this state of affairs: "The ice age."

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