Turkey joined NATO in 1952 and has been a member ever since. The treaty specifies that whenever a member is attacked, it is seen as an attack on all nations in the treaty. It is due to NATO that after 9/11 a multitude of countries supported the attack on Afghanistan. However, what happens if a rogue member will abuse this safety to provoke its neighbors? Does the rest of Europe and North-America really want to support Erdogan if for example Iran would attack Turkey? Why is Turkey still in NATO? Let us take a moment to review why Turkey was a useful contribution to NATO in the first place.
The Start of NATO
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, was founded in 1949. It currently has 29 members, from the USA and Canada to the majority of European nations, and Turkey. Turkey is the only member that has the majority of its landmass in Asia. Turkey joined, together with Greece, in 1952. The Cold War had only just started and the Korean War was still going on. It was a time where the Soviet Union had taken control of half of Europe after the end of the Second World War and controlled the ‘stans’ in Central Asia.
The Soviet Union was seen as a threat. There was a fear that the Soviets would try to push further into Europe and add the weakened countries to its sphere of influence one by one. In order to prevent such aggression, the countries of Western Europe, supported by the military might of the USA, bonded together to from a defensive alliance. NATO was born.
Russia’s Struggle with Ports
Russia may possess huge landmass, they do not have access to a lot of good ports. Their northern border is frozen for long periods a year, plus it requires their navy to sail around Scandinavia, through the GIUK-gap. The GIUK-gap is a naval chokepoint between Greenland (member of NATO due to being a territory of Denmark), Iceland (NATO member despite not having an army) and the United Kingdom. By allowing Iceland to join NATO, the allies are able to cut off this naval route fairly easily.
The ports on the eastern coast, near Vladivostok, are too far away to have a meaningful influence on a conflict in Europe. The ports of St. Petersburg and Kalinigrad allow Russia access into the Baltic, yet to break into the Atlantic they would pass through the straits between Denmark and Sweden. Although Sweden is not a NATO-member, Denmark and Norway are – enough to cut off access on this route. Although Russia has dreamed of having a port in the Indian Ocean, its invasion of Afghanistan failed and this dream was never obtained.
Hence, we reach the last option Russia has: the port of Sevastopol in the Black Sea. The port, located on the Crimean peninsula, could have given the Soviets access to the Mediterranean. Nonetheless, before the Soviets would be able to reach the Mediterranean, they would have to go through the Bosphorus; the narrow strait separating the European and Asian landmasses.
The Turkish city of Istanbul, previously known as Constantinople, is situated around both shores of the Bosphorus. Turkey currently allows shipping through the strait, but could theoretically decide to close it off in times of war. For this reason, having Turkey, Denmark, Iceland, and the United Kingdom as members of the alliance, they could cut off all sea routes the Soviets could take to reach the Atlantic.
It is no surprise that Greece joined simultaneously with Turkey in 1952. Greece lies next to Turkey and controls the sea and mass of islands beyond the Bosphorus. They can aid with closing off access to the Mediterranean during war. Moreover, having Greece as a member of NATO would prevent it becoming an ally to the Soviets. If Greece would becoming an ally of Moscow, they could force access through the Bosphorus by attacking from both sides. This does not mean they would be successful, but having both Greece and Turkey on the side of NATO provided greater security.
The First Conflict
We are worried about Turkey becoming a ‘rogue’ member now, but many have forgotten a conflict from the previous century, long before Erdogan came to power. In 1974 Turkey invaded the island of Cyprus and conquered the northern half of it. The southern half of the island remains as the nation of Cyprus. Since Cyprus was not a member of NATO, the attack did not trigger any military response.
However, Greece, having close ties to Cyprus, decided to leave NATO, only rejoining six years later in 1980. The occupation is considered illegal and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is recognized only by Turkey. The invasion was called ‘Operation Atilla’, a reference to the Hunnic warlord invading Europe around 400 AD.
Turkey under Erdogan
Erdogan was prime-minster from 2003 to 2014, after which he became the president of Turkey. Although initially Turkey was moving closer towards membership of the European Union, certain events under Erdogan’s reign seem to have moved this further away. Journalists are arrested. Free speech lands you in jail. It moves away from secularism, towards Islamic schools. It supports Hamas. Furthermore, it is believed Turkey has aided the Islamic State in the war in Syria, not merely by allowing the Jihadis to cross the border with Turkey to enter and exit Syria.
In 2015 Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet involved in the Syrian conflict. Russia was active in Syria to support President Assad and and defeat Jihadi forces. Turkey claimed the jet had been warned and was flying over Turkish territory, although the Russians deny these allegations. One might wonder if Turkey would have gotten off so easily if it was not a member of NATO. Note that Russia has access to the Syrian ports for its fleet in the Mediterranean, a critical reason to support Assad. This way, Russia does not need to move through the Bosphorus.
The world of 1952 is very different from the world today. Most European nations that used to be a part of the Warsaw pact have now joined NATO and the European Union. The Cold War with communist Russia has ended and the Iron Curtain has been lifted from the continent. NATO in the 21st century appears more likely to suffer from Islamic aggression, as we have seen in Afghanistan 16 years ago.
Does it make sense to have Turkey as a member? Should we expect them to be useful in case of a conflict with Russia, or are they more likely to become a liability in a conflict with the Islamic world, where its allegiance may change? Is the rest of NATO actually willing to support Erdogan in case of war?
Perhaps the reason Turkey is still a part of NATO, is simply because there is no precedence for removing members. It does raise the question of what exactly would require a country to be removed from the alliance.