Why NATO has a ticking time bomb on its hands.
Originally published by the Jerusalem Post.
On Wednesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg insisted that the purge of thousands in the Turkish military – including a third of the serving generals – did not weaken the military.
Stoltenberg told Reuters, “Turkey has a large armed force, professional armed forces and... I am certain they will continue as a committed and strong NATO ally.”
It would be interesting to know whether the 1,500 US soldiers who have been locked down at Incirlik Air Base along with several hundred soldiers from other NATO countries since the failed coup Friday night would agree with him.
Following the failed coup, the Erdogan regime cut off the base’s external electricity supply and temporarily suspended all flights from the base.
The base commander Gen. Bekir Ercan Van and 11 other service members from the base and a police officer were placed under arrest.
Incirlik is the center of NATO air operations against Islamic State in Syria. It also reportedly houses 50 nuclear warheads. The atomic bombs belong to the US. They deployed to Turkey – under US control – as a relic of the Cold War.
It took US President Barack Obama two years of pleading to convince Turkish President Recep Erdogan to allow NATO forces to use the base at Incirlik. It was only after the Kurdish political party secured unprecedented gains in Turkey’s parliamentary elections last year, and Tayyip Erdogan decided to expand his operations against the Kurds of Iraq and Syria to dampen domestic support for the Kurds, that he agreed to allow NATO forces to use the base.
His condition was that the US support his war against the Kurds – the most effective ground force in the war against Islamic State.
Stoltenberg’s statement of support for Turkey is particularly troubling because Erdogan’s post-coup behavior makes it impossible to continue to sweep his hostility under the rug.
For nearly 14 years, since his AK Party first won the national elections in late 2002, Erdogan and his followers have made clear that they are ideologically – and therefore permanently – hostile to the West. And for nearly 14 years, Western leaders have pretended this reality under the rug.
Just weeks after AKP’s first electoral triumph, the Turkish parliament shocked Washington when it voted to reject the US’s request to deploy Iraq invasion forces along the Turkish border with Iraq. Turkey’s refusal to permit US operations from its territory are a big reason the Sunni insurgency in Iraq was able to organize.
It took the US some two months to take over northern Iraq. By that time, the Ba’athists had organized the paramilitary militias that later morphed into al-Qaida in Iraq and then, following the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, Islamic State.
Ever since then, Erdogan has paid lip service, and even assisted NATO and the EU from time to time, when it served his momentary interests to do so. But the consistent trend of his behavior has been negative.
Since taking power, Erdogan has galvanized the organs of state propaganda – from the media to the entertainment industry to the book world – to indoctrinate the citizens of Turkey to hate Jews and Americans and to view terrorists supportively.
This induced hatred has been expressed as well in his foreign policy. Erdogan was the first major leader to embrace Hamas after its electoral victory in the 2006 Palestinian Authority elections. He treated Hamas terror chief Ismail Haniyeh like a visiting monarch when he hosted him shortly after those elections.
During Hezbollah’s 2006 war against Israel, Turkey was caught red-handed as it allowed Iran to move weapons systems to Hezbollah through Turkish territory.
Erdogan has turned a blind eye to al-Qaida. And he has permitted ISIS to use Turkey as its logistical base, economic headquarters and recruitment center. Earlier this year the State Department claimed that all of the 25,000 foreign recruits to ISIS have entered Syria through Turkey.
As for Iran, until Obama engineered the lifting of UN sanctions against Iran through his nuclear deal with the ayatollahs, Turkey was Iran’s conduit to the international market. Turkey was Iran’s partner in evading sanctions and so ensuring the economic viability of the regime. According to a series of investigative reports by Turkish and foreign reporters, Erdogan’s family was directly involved in this illicit trade.
Then there is Europe. For ISIS, Turkey has been a two-way street. Fighters have entered Syria through Turkey, and returned to Europe through Turkey. Turkey is behind the massive inflow of Syrian refugees to Europe.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to cut a deal with Erdogan that would stem the flow. Erdogan pocketed her economic concessions and did nothing to stop the hemorrhage of refugees to Europe.
As for the US, the years of anti-American incitement and indoctrination of Turkish society are now coming into full flower in the aftermath of the coup. Even before the dust had settled, Erdogan was pointing an accusatory finger at Washington.
Insisting that the failed coup was the brainchild of exiled Islamic cleric – and erstwhile ally of Erdogan – Fetullah Gulen, who took up residence in Pennsylvania’s Poconos Mountains 16 years ago – Erdogan demanded that the US immediately put Gulen on an airplane with a one-stop ticket to Turkey.
In the days that followed, the Erdogan regime’s accusations against the US became more and more unhinged. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that failure to comply with Erdogan’s extradition demand would be viewed as a hostile act by the US.
And Turkish Labor Minister Suleyman Soylu flat out said that “America is behind the coup,” in a media interview.
In other words, after arresting the base commander and other forces at Incirlik, and while effectively holding US-led NATO forces and 50 nuclear warheads prisoner for the past six days, Turkey is accusing the US of engineering the coup attempt.
But apparently, NATO has decided to try to again sweep reality under the rug, once more. Hence, Stoltenberg’s soothing insistence that there is no cause for worry. Turkey remains a trusted member of the alliance.
This isn’t merely irresponsible. It is dangerous, for several reasons.
First of all, Stoltenberg’s claim that the Turkish military is as strong as ever is simply ridiculous.
A third of the serving generals are behind bars along with thousands of commanders and soldiers, educators, police officers, jurists and judges.
Who exactly can be willing to take the initiative in this climate? Amid at best mixed messages from the regime regarding the war against ISIS, and with the generals who coordinated the campaign with NATO now behind bars, who will maintain the alliance with NATO ? No one will.
The implications of this passivity will be felt on the ground in Turkey as well as in Syria and Iraq.
Thanks to Erdogan’s passive support, ISIS has operatives seeded throughout Turkey. Who can guarantee that they will leave the nuclear weapons at Incirlik alone? Is the US really planning to leave those bombs in Turkey when its own forces are effective prisoners of the regime? And what are the implications of removing them? How can such a necessary move be made at the same time that NATO pretends that all is well with Turkey? Then there is the problem of chemical weapons.
In recent months, ISIS has used chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq. In February, James Clapper, the director of US national intelligence, warned that ISIS is developing a chemical arsenal and intends to use chemical weapons against the US and Europe.
In May it was reported that ISIS is conducting experiments with chemical weapons on dogs and prisoners in labs located in residential neighborhoods in Mosul.
Turkey is a NATO member with open borders to Europe, and the only thing that has prevented ISIS terrorists from bringing chemical weapons to Europe has been the Turkish military and police force. They are now being purged.
Moreover, as Soner Cagaptay reported in The Wall Street Journal this week, Erdogan used out and out jihadists to put down the coup on Friday night and Saturday. He has continued to embrace them in the days that have passed since then.
In so doing, Erdogan signaled that he may well use the post-coup state of emergency to dismantle what is left of Turkey’s secular state apparatus and transform the NATO member into an Islamist state, along the lines of the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, which Erdogan enthusiastically supported.
In this climate, it is difficult, if not as a practical matter impossible, to imagine that the military and police will work particularly hard to prevent ISIS terrorists from transporting weapons of mass destruction from Syria to Europe through Turkey.
The Obama administration is partly responsible for the current crisis. Secretary of State John Kerry just agreed to subordinate the US-led anti-ISIS campaign to Russia. In so doing, he made clear that the US will not protect Turkey from Russia. This gives Erdogan little choice other than to strike out a new, far more radical course.
To Erdogan’s own Islamist convictions and US incompetence must be added a third reason to assume the situation in Turkey will only get worse.
As David Goldman has reported in the Asia Times, Turkey is on the brink of economic collapse. Its currency has been devalued by 7 percent just since the failed coup. “With about $300 billion in foreign currency liabilities, Turkish corporations’ debt service costs rise as the currency falls. Stocks have lost more than half their value in dollar terms since 2013,” Goldman warned.
In the current climate, it is hard to imagine Erdogan instituting austerity measures to pay down the debt. So he needs a scapegoat for his failure. The chosen scapegoat is clearly the US.
To make a long story short then, the Turkish military is no longer capable of cooperating in any meaningful way with the US or NATO . Erdogan, never a reliable ally, is now openly hostile.
He is in the midst of committing aggression against NATO forces at Incirlik. And he is embracing Turkish jihadists who are ideologically indistinguishable from ISIS.
The US surrender to Russia means that America cannot protect Turkey from Russia. And Erdogan has chosen to blame American for Turkey’s fast approaching economic doomsday.
Under the circumstances, if NATO takes its job of protecting the free world seriously, it has no choice but to quit with the business as usual routine and kick Turkey out of the alliance, withdraw its personnel and either remove or disable the nuclear weapons it fields in the country.
As for anti-ISIS operations, the US will have to move its bases to Iraqi Kurdistan and embrace the Kurds as the strategic allies they have clearly become.
In the aftermath of the failed coup, Turkey is a time bomb. It cannot be defused. It will go off. The only way to protect the free world from the aftershocks is by closing the border and battening down the hatches.