Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Erdoğan’s CrossroadsTurkey’s Role in the Future of Eurasia and NATO

By George SarbinowskiPublished December 24, 2020

Ortaköy Mosque on the shores of the Bosphorus Strait, the border between Europe and Asia.
As Erdoğan reconciles Turkey's leadership role in the future of the Middle East and Europe, he cannot continue to waiver between his commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and his ties with Russia, Iran, and China.

Following the failed 2016 coup by a rogue element of the Turkish military, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan swiftly reconsolidated authority. He arrested the perpetrators of the coup and solidified his claim to power in a 2017 referendum, where he was declared president of Turkey, rather than prime minister. Throughout his political career Erdoğan has been a champion of Turkish Islamism. He currently leads the Justice and Development Party, a part of the People’s Alliance coalition which successfully carried out the referendum; however, Erdoğan has found himself in the hot seat in recent months, with decreased support from younger voters and urban areas, conflicts on every border, and a crashing Turkish Lira. Through these troubles, Erdoğan has doubled down on his ideals, expanding Turkish influence, reestablishing the iconic Hagia Sophia as a mosque, and supporting Azerbaijan in their war with Armenia on the Turkish border in the East. Erdoğanism, dubbed by many academics as “Neo-Ottomanism,” rejects 100 years of the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the former president and revolutionary who Westernized Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This resurgence of Ottomanism should not be confused with Turkish nationalism, which follows the ideology of Atatürk. Erdoğan stands at the helm of Turkey with two paths before him: A path with the West, in which Turkey remains a stalwart member of NATO and drops ties with Russia and China, or a path that breaks away from the West, in which Turkey strengthens its ties with Russia and China. Either way, Erdoğan plans to take a greater leadership role in the Middle East and North Africa, echoing Turkey’s Ottoman roots. There is little room in between to ride the line between Russia and NATO, and Erdoğan cannot continue to waiver in his commitment to Turkey’s alliances.

Historically, Turkey is an integral member of NATO—being a global military powerhouse at the literal bridge between Europe and Asia. Recently, however, its commitment to the alliance has wavered under Erdogan’s leadership. Despite its membership in NATO and hosting US military bases, Turkey has bought Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. These systems are infamous for being able to shoot down US made stealth fighters and the sale resulted in Turkey’s removal from the US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. It is worth noting that the US stores at least 50 nuclear warheads in İncirlik, a joint air base between the countries near the Syrian border. Under Erdoğan, Turkey has also seen increased tensions with neighbor and fellow NATO ally, Greece. The most recent flare up in October 2020 is the result of the fallout of housing refugees from the Syrian Civil War and maritime border disputes in the Eastern Mediterranian. Perhaps both countries being members of NATO has kept them from engaging in military skirmishes, but the dispute still represents Turkey’s shift away from conventions of the alliance. 

Erdoğan’s involvement in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is troublesome as well, especially as Turkey had been in a position to broker peace between the two countries. As Turkey chose to involve itself by supplying arms to the Azerbaijani government without consulting its chief alliance, NATO was placed at risk of direct involvement in the war. Turkey serving as a mediator for a fair ceasefire was unlikely from the start, considering Turkey’s belligerent history with Armenia and Erdoğan’s endorsement of hostilities by destroying the Statue of Humanity—a representation of peace between Turkey and Armenia. In addition, many Turks see themselves and Azerbaijani Turks as one nation under two states. France had tried to intervene between Armenia and Azerbaijan on behalf of NATO in place of Turkey with no success, partly because of France's support for Armenia. Meanwhile, with Russia supplying arms to every country militarily involved in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, Vladimir Putin is laughing his way to the bank, while taking political credit for arranging the ceasefire. The fault in Turkey’s failure to take a leadership role lies in Erdoğan’s lack of action, as he refuses to interfere with Moscow's control over the Caucasus to strive for peace in the region.

So what exactly is Erdoğan’s endgame? Obviously he doesn’t want to leave the strongest defensive alliance in history. And surely Erdoğan understands that small occupations of territory in Syria, Armenia, and Libya that echo the Ottoman Empire’s image is a pipe dream. Regardless, Erdoğan is faced with the future of Turkey’s balance of alliances, begging the question: should Erdoğan further break from the West, and if he does, what role should the US play in handling this shift? Primarily, the goal of the US Department of State should be to uphold positive relations with Turkey, respect their interests, and recognize that Erdoğan and his party do not represent the sentiments of the entire Turkish population. Further engagement with the US and Europe can relieve tensions from alleged US involvement in the 2016 attempted coup, help the Turkish economy recover, reenforce military relationships in NATO, and keep Turkey away from the influences of Russia and Iran as well as the economic power of China. Until the Turkish government is ready to choose its path, the US should remove their nukes from İncirlik to US Air Force bases in Italy. It is prudent to ensure they do not fall into the wrong hands, even if the risk is low. Also, in terms of military action, the United States should once again offer Turkey to buy Patriot missile defense systems in place of Russian S-400s. This can be a turning point to ending Turkey's military arms relationship with Russia, and strenghtening its relationship with NATO. Part of Erdoğan’s goal is to replace Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Muslim world and the Middle East. Should Erdoğan bring Turkey back towards the West, securing a safer future for the country, his leadership amongst the Muslim world and the Middle East could prove to be an excellent bridge for NATO. This opportunity is especially relevant as the Saudi regime has found itself amongst corruption and scandals. Erdoğan has the option to emerge in history as the watershed leader who stepped up to promote peace in the Middle East and foster better relationships with the West. He can only accomplish this if he realizes that spurning NATO in favor of building Ottoman era rhetoric and relationships with the NATO adversaries will push him and his country towards the point of no return in the eyes of US foreign policy and the rest of the alliance.