Er­do­gan’s ac­tions mean Tur­key’s des­tiny lies to­wards the East – and not with Nato

The National - News - - OPINION - CON COUGH­LIN Con Cough­lin is the Tele­graph’s de­fence and for­eign af­fairs ed­i­tor

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump might be­lieve that the deep­en­ing con­flict be­tween Tur­key and the Syr­ian Kurds is lit­tle more than a re­gional dis­pute that does not af­fect Amer­ica. But Tur­key’s in­sis­tence on main­tain­ing its mil­i­tary of­fen­sive in north­ern Syria could have pro­found im­pli­ca­tions for its fu­ture re­la­tion­ship with the Nato al­liance.

More than a week af­ter tak­ing his ex­tra­or­di­nary de­ci­sion to give Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan the green light to launch his in­va­sion of north­ern Syria, the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent re­mains com­pletely un­re­pen­tant about his ac­tions.

Far from hav­ing sec­ond thoughts about the wis­dom of so openly be­tray­ing an erst­while Amer­i­can ally in the form of the Kur­dish-led Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF), Mr Trump ap­pears even more con­vinced about the wis­dom of his ac­tion, de­scrib­ing it as “strate­gi­cally bril­liant”.

De­spite the SDF’s heroic per­for­mance in helping to de­stroy ISIS and its self-pro­claimed caliphate, Mr Trump now says that the Kurds are “not an­gels”, and that it might be nec­es­sary for Syria and Tur­key to “fight it out” over who ul­ti­mately con­trols the Kur­dish-oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory in north­ern Syria.

The main pri­or­ity, as far as Mr Trump is con­cerned, is that he has ful­filled his pledge, made in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the de­feat of ISIS (achieved, in no small mea­sure, with the help of the SDF), to bring home US troops.

“Our sol­diers are not in harm’s way – as they shouldn’t be, as two coun­tries fight over land that has noth­ing to do with us.” That, in essence, sums up Mr Trump’s at­ti­tude to­wards Wash­ing­ton’s long and con­tro­ver­sial in­volve­ment in over­seas mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tions in re­cent decades, con­flicts that the pres­i­dent claims have cost the Amer­i­can tax­payer an in­cred­i­ble $8 tril­lion, money he be­lieves could have been bet­ter spent on re­build­ing Amer­ica’s de­cay­ing in­fra­struc­ture.

But while Mr Trump makes no apolo­gies for his “Amer­ica First” ap­proach, one that he hopes will win him re-elec­tion in next year’s pres­i­den­tial con­test, there are many oth­ers in Wash­ing­ton who re­main deeply con­cerned about the im­pli­ca­tions of his ac­tions, not least the fact that he is re­spon­si­ble for al­low­ing hos­til­i­ties to break out be­tween a key Nato ally in the form of Tur­key and the regime of Syr­ian dic­ta­tor Bashar Al As­sad, who is closely al­lied with Rus­sia.

From Nato’s per­spec­tive, Rus­sia re­mains the most po­tent threat to the se­cu­rity of the western al­liance. Con­se­quently, re­cent Nato sum­mits have fo­cused on strength­en­ing their abil­ity to re­sist hos­tile Rus­sian acts.

A num­ber of key Nato mem­ber states, such as Bri­tain, France and Ger­many, also con­trib­uted to the US-led mil­i­tary coali­tion against ISIS.

The fact, there­fore, that an im­por­tant mem­ber of the Nato al­liance now finds it­self fac­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of a di­rect mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion against a Rus­sian-backed ally is an is­sue of enor­mous con­cern for Nato lead­ers, not least be­cause Ar­ti­cle Five of the Nato treaty stip­u­lates that any at­tack against one Nato mem­ber state con­sti­tutes an at­tack against the en­tire al­liance.

Ar­ti­cle Five has been im­ple­mented only once in the al­liance’s 70year his­tory, in re­sponse to the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks in 2001 which re­sulted in the US-led in­va­sion of Afghanista­n.

Thus, if Tur­key were to find it­self in a di­rect mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion with the As­sad regime and its Rus­sian back­ers, Ankara would have ev­ery right to call on Nato to come to its de­fence – just as Wash­ing­ton did af­ter Septem­ber 11 – and the West could find it­self be­ing drawn into a war with Moscow.

And, with Syr­ian forces al­ready re­ported to have en­tered the strate­gi­cally im­por­tant bor­der city of Kobane, the pos­si­bil­ity of di­rect con­flict be­tween Tur­key and Syria can­not be ruled out.

Tur­key and Syria have al­ready come close to all-out war once be­fore, over the dis­puted Kur­dish en­clave in north­ern Syria, when in 2006, Mr Er­do­gan threat­ened to in­vade the ter­ri­tory to root out what he called Kur­dish ter­ror­ist groups.

Now, thanks to Mr Trump, the Turk­ish leader has got his way and is well aware of Nato’s com­mit­ment to help his coun­try if the con­flict con­tin­ues to es­ca­late.

In his ad­dress to his rul­ing Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party this week, Mr Er­do­gan said that he did not just ex­pect the US and the rest of the Nato al­liance to be neu­tral – he ex­pected them to join in.

The like­li­hood, how­ever, of any Nato na­tion re­spond­ing favourably to Ankara’s sug­ges­tion is neg­li­gi­ble, not least be­cause of the barbed crit­i­cism Mr Er­do­gan has made about what he con­tends is western sup­port for ter­ror­ist groups in Syria.

Not only has Mr Er­do­gan ac­cused the West of spon­sor­ing Is­lamic and Kur­dish ter­ror­ists, he has even ac­cused France of pro­vid­ing the ce­ment that was used to build a num­ber of Kur­dish tun­nels un­der the Turk­ish bor­der.

There are other rea­sons, too, why, rather than ral­ly­ing to sup­port Tur­key, many Nato mem­bers states are ac­tively re­view­ing whether Ankara should still en­joy mem­ber­ship of the al­liance.

Ever since Tur­key joined in Nato in 1952, it was re­garded as a vi­tal strate­gic as­set against what was then the Soviet Union.

Whether that re­mains the case to­day is an open ques­tion, par­tic­u­larly fol­low­ing Mr Er­do­gan’s re­cent de­ci­sion to press ahead with pur­chas­ing Rus­sia’s S-400 anti-air­craft mis­sile sys­tem, which was specif­i­cally de­signed to shoot down Nato war­planes.

De­spite the es­ca­la­tion of ten­sions in Syria, Mr Er­do­gan has man­aged to main­tain good ties with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, to the ex­tent that he has been in­vited to a sum­mit in Moscow to meet the Rus­sian leader.

By con­trast, Mr Er­do­gan has been luke­warm in his re­cep­tion of US Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Spence and Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo, who have flown to Tur­key as part of Mr Trump’s be­lated ef­fort to defuse the ten­sions caused by al­low­ing Tur­key to at­tack the Syr­ian Kurds.

Yet so far as Tur­key is con­cerned, this ini­tia­tive may prove to be too lit­tle, too late, as, with his lat­est Syr­ian ad­ven­ture, Mr Er­do­gan has shown that he be­lieves Tur­key’s ul­ti­mate des­tiny lies to­wards the East, and not with its tra­di­tional al­lies in Nato.

The Turk­ish pres­i­dent’s in­sis­tence on main­tain­ing the Syria of­fen­sive has im­pli­ca­tions for re­la­tions with the al­liance

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