After the 2016 attempted coup, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has simultaneously tightened his control over the country while moving it away from its NATO allies. Turkey has blamed the United States for supporting or even orchestrating the coup after US Central Command’s General Votel stated his concern over Erdogan’s silencing of dissidents, while others have claimed that Erdogan may have staged the coup himself in order to justify his attempts at obtaining more power. Since the coup attempt, Turkey has entered a state of emergency that was originally supposed to last 3 months but has been extended repeatedly and continues today. The Turkish government has also suspended thousands of educators, shut down over six hundred educational institutions, shut down dozens of media outlets, and begun to crack down on dissenting speech.
Many of these oppressive actions have been targeted towards the Kurds. The conflict between Turkey and the Kurds began after the end of the First World War. While the Treaty of Sevres called for the creation of a potential Kurdish state, the treaty of Treaty of Lausanne, signed three years later after a conflict regarding the boundaries of modern Turkey, contained no such provision. Since then, the Kurds have faced oppression in Turkey, leading in part to the development of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in 1984, which has been designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the US, and the EU. The group has carried out multiple attacks within Turkey, and the conflict between Turkey and the PKK has left approximately 40,000 people dead.
The conflict between Turkey and the PKK has led it to be critical of other Kurdish militant groups, notably the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the armed portions of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish political party established in 2003. The YPG and the YPJ emerged after the outbreak of civil war in Syria and the growth of ISIS. In 2015, the YPG/PYD joined forces with the Syrian Arab Coalition to form the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), assisted by US air support and arms. While Turkey views the PYD as a terrorist organization, the SDF has been the most effective partner of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State, exemplified by the fact that the SDF, with the backing of the US, seized the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. American soldiers have even been so impressed with their Kurdish allies they sewed YPG and YPJ patches onto their own uniforms in a show of solidarity, a move that enraged Turkey. Turkey accuses the YPG of being nothing more than the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, something the YPG denies, while other countries acknowledge connections between them but do not believe them to be the exact same organization.
Partially due to ties between the US and the YPG, exemplified by a statement of the US’s intention to create a border force between Turkey and Syria manned by SDF members, Turkey invaded the Syrian city of Afrin with the stated intention of pushing back the YPG. Turkey has stated that it plans to push east up to the border with Iraq in what has been named “Operation Olive Branch”. One of the named cities along that path was Manbij, with President Erdogan stating “Tomorrow, or the day after, or within a short period, we will get rid of terror nests one by one in Syria, starting with Afrin and Manbij,” But, in contrast to Afrin, the city is occupied by American Special Forces as well as the SDF. US CENTCOM commander General Votel has stated that at the current time, the United States has no intention of leaving Manbij, which Turkey responded to by stating that anyone near or fighting with YPG forces would be fair targets for the Turkish army, bringing two NATO allies close to a potential clash.
While NATO was designed, under the overarching shadow of the emerging Cold War in 1949, to, according to its first Secretary General “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”, the Turkish military has been moving closer to the same country they once stood firmly against. A former Turkish military officer commented on this fact. Despite the fact that he was stationed with NATO in Belgium at the time of the coup and could not participate, he was purged along with 124,000 other Turkish soldiers, with 89,000 having been detained and 43,000 arrested. He stated “personally, I do not know why I was sacked.… I have extensive education in US, I probably did not fit well in the new Eurasianist clique, dominating the Turkish Armed Forces.” The “Eurasianist clique” refers to members of the Turkish military who see Russia as a preferable alternative to the US and NATO, while “Atlanticists” refers to those who continue to believe Turkey’s future lies with NATO and the United States. According to the Turkish officer and other analysts, the Atlanticists have been slowly losing sway among the Turkish General Staff, with the Eurasianists continuing to gain influence. This trend away from NATO countries has been compounded by Turkey’s move towards authoritarianism. In April of 2007, Erdogan held a referendum that gave him sweeping powers and allowed him to further his crackdown on perceived opponents. As of February 5th, 2018, 151,967 state officials, teachers, bureaucrats, and academics have been dismissed, 32,668 Turkish citizens have been detained and 64,358 have been arrested. Over 3,000 school dormitories have been shut down, 5,822 academics have lost their jobs, 4,463 prosecutors and judges have been dismissed, 189 media outlets have been shut down, and 319 journalists have been arrested. Five hundred and seventy three people have been detained for their opposition to the invasion of Afrin. As of the 2018 Freedom House report, Turkey is the only NATO member to be ranked as Not Free, a downgrade from the 2017 report where it was considered Partially Free. The NATO Membership Action Plan mandates that NATO member states “demonstrate commitment to the rule of law and human rights,” a mandate violated by Turkey’s mass imprisonment of citizens, arbitrary expansion of presidential power, and attacks on civilians in Afrin. Turkey’s invasion only further demonstrates how far it has drifted away from NATO and how much it has betrayed the founding principles of the organization.
NATO’s Article V is the heart of the defense treaty. It stipulates that any attack against one of the members will be considered an attack against all, thus enshrining the principle of collective defense for all member states. One would thus assume that it would prohibit member states knowingly attacking the forces or civilians of fellow member states. Erdogan, however, seems to not believe so. A senior aide to the Turkish president first threatened US forces in May of 2017, stating “[should the Americans] go too far, our forces would not care if American armor is there, whether armored carriers are there.” This threat was backed up by a bombing not long after of YPG forces close to the US Special Forces stationed in the area, a bombing of which the Americans were given less than an hour’s notice. Tensions flared again late January of this year with the invasion of Afrin. Not only does the invasion, with the added threat against Manbij and US forces stationed there, go against the principle of allies operating as a united force, it undermines the global coalition against ISIS by destabilizing secure and safe areas and allowing extremist groups to resurge. This strikes a blow against an extensive campaign led by the US and including nearly all NATO members (ostensibly including Turkey) against the Islamic State, marking another one of Turkey’s betrayals of its allies.
Furthermore, Turkey betrays NATO and its values by going against the Kurds, one of the more democratic forces currently operating within Syria. The Syrian Kurds, protected by the YPG, are one of the few forces within the war-torn country not only interested in democracy, but actively participating it and working to build democratic institutions in their current enclaves. Documents establishing the structure of governance for Kurdish-controlled regions ensures gender equality, protections for minorities, free and fair elections, basic rights and freedoms for all citizens, and even the beginnings of a welfare state through government provisions of certain goods. By working to destroy and undermine one of the true legitimate democratic entities in Syria, and one that (especially when contrasted with the Assad regime, al-Nusra, ISIS, or other groups operating within Syria) works to protect civilian and human rights, Turkey not only undermines the stability of Syria and the safety of Syrians, but goes against the fundamental principles and values of NATO.
Turkey’s slow slide into authoritarianism sparked the beginning of its crisis with NATO. By not only slipping into authoritarianism but sliding and then diving into it, allying with the Russians and Iranians against the US and at times the EU, and unnecessarily attacking the Kurds, thus undermining the fight against ISIS and harming the growth of democracy in Syria, Erdogan’s Turkey has shown its contempt for NATO and its values. The only question is, will NATO see that Turkey is more of a burden than a blessing in its current form and make it pay the price for its actions, or will it look the other way as its allies and friends are slaughtered?