Erdogan uses NATO rifts to buy time

In terms of Turkey’s relations with NATO, what the London summit meant can be summarised as all contentious issues taken to the table by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the forces of shadow coalition in power in Ankara have been swept under the carpet.

“At a minimum, the meeting underscored the malaise in transatlantic relations and has hopefully prompted real thinking about how to ensure that turmoil in the political side of NATO doesn’t undermine the military one,” wrote Jim Townsend and Andrea Kendall-Taylor in Foreign Policy.

This may be true but nothing will hide the reality that the political crisis developing may easily and unexpectedly turn into a military one. The NATO summit avoided handling the tensions between Turkey and Greece and Cyprus.

Erdogan’s threats to block the defence plan for the Baltics and Poland unless all NATO allies designate Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as terrorist were averted and Ankara, at least on the surface, seems content with the wording in the summit statement: “Terrorism in all its forms and manifestations remains a persistent threat to us all.”

The purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems and recent tests of the systems on Turkish soil using F-35 fighter jets seem to be left on the back burner.

That postponement finds both NATO and Erdogan on the common ground of winning time. For the former, all allies — except France — need it.

US President Donald Trump is subjected to impeachment. Great Britain is in Brexit turmoil. Germany is, as it prepares for its post-Merkel era, heading towards possible political instability. Under such uncertainty, the others — especially along the southern flank of the alliance, under intense pressure of the refugee crisis — all but had to agree to “wait and see” a bit longer.

For Erdogan, all the foreign policy issues are based on winning time as part of his tactical game. Aware of the weaknesses the global disarray reflects on Turkey’s Western allies, his constantly threatening approach keeps him afloat at home, with his popularity intact, as it corners his opponents in a state of paralysis.

“Picking public quarrels with Western powers is now the staple of Turkish foreign policy,” wrote Dimitar Bechev in an analysis for Ahval News. “Erdogan believes he can have his cake and eat it, benefiting from the alliance’s collective defence guarantee while cosying up to Putin. Who can blame him?  He is certainly getting away with it so far.”

In Trump, Erdogan continues to find his best defender. French President Emmanuel Macron can only go as far as using an iron hand in a velvet glove by mentioning Ankara’s murky relationships with jihadists; yet he knows Russia is a power to be handled with utmost care.

Erdogan couldn’t care less about Turkey’s membership with NATO. It will remain a love-hate relationship, which Moscow will support and enjoy watching. NATO can neither expel Turkey from the alliance nor penalise it — the first is not possible and the second would be met by a Turkish veto.

Now, the realisation is becoming expressed more openly and publicly that, in the words of retired US Army General Joseph Votel, former commander of CENTCOM: “The issue is Turkey… a reliable ally anymore?”

Since Erdogan will insist on his acrimonious approach to exert his own will on NATO, challenging its values obstinately, what one could expect is alienation, if not a freeze of Turkey from key sensitive meetings within NATO. Turkey will be treated as a black sheep, unless it makes a U-turn from its military cooperation with Russia, stops threatening Greece, abides by the coalition rules set on fighting the Islamic State in the Middle East and ceases with its demands on having the YPG designated internationally as a terrorist group.

These rifts are exactly what Erdogan needs to keep alive. The London summit offered Erdogan exactly what he expected — more time.

Yet, what is his endgame by gaining time?

As he calculates to remain in power at home, Erdogan knows that crises and conflicts invented and fine-tuned by him serve him well to cement the legitimacy, by way of making the major powers dependent on his iron rule.

Tension is his lifeline.

He is afraid of resolved challenges and therefore does his utmost to turn the components of the crisis into a bundle, bringing various international actors against each other. In a second dimension, he unleashes new chapters, widening the crisis, as the recent protocol with Libya shows.

What next?

In the course of one year, two major developments will shape Erdogan’s pattern of behaviour. Erdogan is certainly awaiting the outcome of the British elections. Without a doubt, a no-deal Brexit would offer him an opportunity to expand economic relations with London. Second, Erdogan arguably will go out of his way to see Trump win a second term.

If those scenarios happen, there will certainly be a new era in which Erdogan, emboldened even further, will see his future secured for a very long time. This is the core of his calculation.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.