NATO Faces a Fresh Quandary as Turkey Tips Toward Russia

by Editorial Team

The Wall Street Journal- Turkey’s president has warned that he would evict U.S. forces from two military bases in his country if Washington imposes new sanctions on his government—creating a quandary for the NATO alliance as it seeks to cope with Ankara’s deepening ties to Russia.

In a television interview this month, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said if the U.S. punishes Turkey for its purchase of a Russian air-defense system, then, “if necessary, we may close Incirlik and Kureci,” installations where the U.S. keeps nuclear weapons and operates critical radar.

The declaration elicited an anxious reaction from U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who said it raised questions about Turkey’s dedication to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“They have that inherent right to house or to not house NATO bases or foreign troops,” Mr. Esper said. “But again, I think this becomes an alliance matter, your commitment to the alliance, if indeed they are serious about what they are saying.”

Turkey, which has NATO’s biggest standing army after the U.S., has taken steps that have put it at odds with Washington and the rest of the alliance—including sending its army into northern Syria to fight a U.S.-allied militia and purchasing the Russian S-400 missile system.

“It feels like watching a car crash in slow motion,” a Western diplomat in Turkey said.

The Trump administration has sought to cajole Mr. Erdogan in a bid to prevent Ankara from knitting closer ties with Moscow amid concerns that treating him like a pariah would push Turkey further into Russia’s orbit, U.S. officials said.

But President Trump has had to contend with angry U.S. lawmakers, who have voted through a string of bills aimed at punishing Turkey.

Mr. Trump in mid-November hosted his Turkish counterpart at the White House, calling him a “very good friend.” This month, however, he signed a defense bill that included sanctions against Turkey, notably blocking delivery of U.S. fighter jets ordered by Turkey.

The Trump administration has yet to spell out the scope of sanctions against Turkey, but U.S. and European officials say time is running out to try to repair Turkey-U.S. relations and appease tensions within NATO.

“We don’t want the sanctions [on Turkey], but they will happen,” a senior U.S. official said. “It will hurt Turkey.”

Alliance leaders had been basking in the success of a meeting in London this month, where they celebrated the alliance’s 70th anniversary by patching up rifts and reaching agreements on strategic issues and defense initiatives. Mr. Trump, who has heavily criticized NATO and questioned its value, praised allies for increasing spending.

The run-up to the meeting had been rocky, after Turkey invaded northern Syria to attack Kurdish fighters that the U.S. and European militaries had been helping fight the Islamic State. The invasion, which came after a telephone call between Messrs. Erdogan and Trump, prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to say NATO was experiencing “brain death” because decisions were being taken outside the alliance.

Still, at the meeting, there was little public criticism of Turkey, which said it would endorse a new defense plan for Poland and the Baltic countries that it had threatened to block, demanding recognition of Kurdish armed groups as terrorists in return.

But the dispute quickly resurfaced.

The main bone of contention is Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 system, which the Pentagon views as a security threat to NATO. The U.S. has suspended deliveries of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Turkey and excluded Turkish aerospace companies from a contract to supply fuselage and other parts, saying Russia could use the system’s radar to spy on and assess the stealthy aircraft’s capabilities.

Turkish officials have proposed setting up an expert committee with the U.S., or under NATO supervision, to look into the S-400 issue and propose remedies. But U.S. officials say Washington would rather pay substantial compensation than deliver a single F-35 to Turkey and jeopardize the integrity of the multibillion-dollar program.

Highlighting the impasse, Turkey carried out a test of the S-400 system, deployed at an airbase near Ankara, against U.S.-made F-16 jets in late November, and it said it might order Russian combat aircraft if the F-35 delivery ban wasn’t lifted.

“Turkish national-security interests must be regarded as one of the primary issues for the U.S. and NATO,” said Ahmet Berat Conkar, a Turkish lawmaker affiliated with Mr. Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, and the deputy head of Turkey’s delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. “If this cannot be openly guaranteed and maintained by concrete action for Turkey, new cracks may open inside the NATO alliance.”

Some European allies bristle that NATO uses language similar to Turkey’s, which says that its invasion of northern Syria is for national security interests, and voice concerns that the West’s alliance gave Turkey too much leeway to expand its military partnership with Russia.

Turkey, which is already coordinating with Russia in northern Syria, is now also seeking to cooperate with Russia in war-torn Libya.

“Turkey is playing a showdown and it is winning,” a senior European diplomat at NATO said.

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