Turkey is a leading NATO member. It’s time this commitment was recognised, not criticised
This week is the 70th anniversary of NATO, and it will be marked by a gathering of the Alliance’s leaders in London. The anniversary follows both President Emmanuel Macron’s recent comments about the Alliance suffering from a “brain death” and the legacy of last year’s summit, during which tensions were high and questions swirled about NATO’s longevity and utility.
This time around, Turkey is a topic of discussion in the lead-up, with some pointing to actions we’ve taken to protect our national security – like our recent operation in northern Syria – as evidence of our rejection of the Alliance. This analysis, however, is wrong-headed and a misinterpretation of the facts of our situation.
Turkey continues to exhibit its commitment to NATO in the most meaningful ways a country can. As one of its earliest members, we have the second largest armed forces in the Alliance, and with roughly 1.9% of our GDP going to NATO, we are one of its top contributors and have committed to raising this to the target 2% by 2024. Our troops have participated in NATO missions, operations and exercises around the world – from the Korean War to the Balkans to Afghanistan - and play pivotal roles in humanitarian missions.
We observe a world around us with new challenges and shared security threats, and in that world, Turkey firmly believes that NATO is tremendously relevant and should be bolstered, ensuring it can function effectively and in a spirit of genuine alliance.
Our particular geography – surrounded by Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Russia – has for decades placed us at the forefront of the Alliance, first during the Cold War and now as the only wall stopping terror groups along our borders from traveling to Europe. This geography – and all the realities it portends – has made us acutely aware of the risks that exist in our world. There always will be threats – state and non-state – and while the form and tactics will change over years and decades, we will never be done with the job of securing ourselves. We can choose to be vulnerable, or we can choose to be well-protected. The fact is that we have been and will be safer when like-minded nations are allied, that NATO has made us all safer.
Crucially, we believe NATO will be decisive in the world’s ability to destroy terrorism in all its manifestations; united militaries and security apparatuses with a collective commitment to its defeat. This commitment, however, must be thorough or risks the entire project being thrown into question. And while our NATO allies have fought terrorists with determination in many parts of the globe, in one case, they have shirked their duty.
For years, Turkey called on its allies to help clear a corridor run by a terrorist group along our border that posed a serious threat to our national security and regional stability. The activities of this group, the YPG - the Syrian wing of the PKK, an internationally-designated terror group that has killed 40,000 of our citizens - included ushering ISIS prisoners toward Turkey and digging tunnels into Turkish soil to smuggle explosives to commit their heinous acts of terror. We repeatedly proposed establishing a safe zone with our NATO partners and we agreed on plans together with the US that weren’t followed through on. Action was needed and although we sought a collective approach, ultimately, we were left going it alone.
Most of our allies refused to help us identify and pursue a solution to the very real security crisis we faced with the YPG, leaving us on our own to put up a defense and then condemned us for doing just that.
This reaction is all the more galling because it follows Turkey’s track record of approaching security and counter terrorism with the utmost seriousness and professionalism – and a high level of coordination with our NATO allies. For years now in Syria, Turkey has led the Coalition military effort against ISIS by air and ground, with our army as the only NATO military to have fought hand-to-hand combat with ISIS in northern Syria.
We also provide resources, including Incirlik Air Base, a critical staging ground for Coalition counter terrorism operations in the region. Our NATO community knows us; they’ve planned with us, been on-the-ground with us on combat missions the world over, and we share intelligence and coordinate counter terrorism efforts every day. This alliance, in its best form, would be working with us, finding ways to solve Turkey’s serious security concerns together, and standing with us.
On our own, Turkey has taken every precaution to prevent civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure, including historic and cultural sites. We are avoiding impacting on the fragile humanitarian situation in Syria. Turkey, after all, has shouldered more burden than any other outside nation for the ongoing war and human suffering in Syria. We have hosted 4 million Syrian refugees – equal to the population of Los Angeles – hundreds of thousands of whom, incidentally, are Kurds who fled the tyranny of YGP terror group. Turkey has spent $40 billion (€36 billion) on refugees’ education, healthcare and housing. We – more than most – understand the consequences of more destruction and have cause to pursue a peaceful, stable future for our neighbour.
Since launching the operation, we have twice reached agreements to pause hostilities, only to see them quickly violated by YPG terrorists. Meanwhile, we are working in northern Syria to restore basic services for the local population; repairing and equipping hospitals, water networks and the power grid. Turkey’s fight is not against the Kurds, our previous actions have exhibited this without equivocation.
Anyone paying attention knows that our fight is against terrorists on our borders and in our region, and that we seek a secure, democratic Syria on our doorstep. This is well in line with NATO’s priorities and international law.
Alas, Turkey will not throw the baby out with bathwater, so to speak. So, we continue our full-throated commitment to NATO, and we continue to back up that commitment financially and with the efforts of our brave troops. We also expect in the years ahead that the Alliance will adapt into an even stronger, healthier union – one that serves true to its mission and principles, ensuring the safety and security of each ally.
NATO is a resilient and agile organisation that has shown it can evolve to changing times and the demands they bring. In the meantime, we are here, we are allied.
Dr Hulusi Akar is Turkey’s Minister of National Defence.