July 26, 2019

IntelBrief: The Growing Rift Between Turkey and NATO

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting of the NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue, in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, May 6, 2019. Erdogan says Turkey's decision to purchase Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems does not mean that it is seeking "alternatives" in its relations with the West.(Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)
  • By purchasing Russian S-400 missiles, Turkey has complicated an already strained relationship with NATO and the West.
  • The U.S. has ejected Turkey from the F-35 program, while insisting that Turkey remains a trusted NATO partner.
  • The past several years has seen Ankara moving further away from Washington and toward a closer relationship with Moscow.
  • Throughout Erdogan’s tenure, successive American administrations have miscalculated the Turkish leader’s intentions and seem unable to discern the contours of Turkish foreign policy.


.The issue of Turkey’s value and commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) remains an open question following Ankara’s recent purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system. For several years, President Erdogan has resisted cooperation with NATO members, especially the United States, and sought to forge a stronger relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The relationship has grown particularly strained since the July 2016 attempted coup in Turkey. Since then, Ankara has lashed out at the U.S. publicly on a number of issues and has rarely hesitated to break rank with NATO, as evidenced by the latest purchase of the Russian missile system. 

Turkish allegations that Washington played a role in the coup attempt impacts nearly all facets of the relationship between the two countries, serving as a powerful wedge that has caused a serious fissure in a once predictable alliance. Many of these differences have manifested in the two countries’ respective approaches to Syria, including U.S. support for Kurdish militias that Turkey considers terrorist groups. Ankara has provided shelter for massive numbers of Syrian refugees, placing significant strain on Turkey’s economy and infrastructure. Ankara has also been the leading foreign direct supporter of anti-Assad rebels, some of which have linkages to hardened jihadist groups. But differences over policy have led to an even larger, more serious strategic gap between longstanding NATO allies, providing an opening for authoritarian states like Russia to fill the growing void.

Once Turkey took delivery of the S-400 in early July, the U.S. formally ejected Turkey from the F-35 program. On July 23, U.S. defense firm Lockheed Martin Corp. announced that it would establish alternative supply sources for the F-35 fighter, now that Turkey had been formally removed from the program. Prior to its removal, Turkey was a significant partner in the F-35 program, scheduled to purchase 100 of the advanced fighters while also serving as a critical node in the F-35 logistical supply chain. For months, the U.S. urged Turkey not to finalize the S-400 deal. And for months, Turkey told the U.S. the deal was a fait accompli, with Erdogan publicly flaunting his autonomy. The S-400 is designed to shoot down NATO aircraft, and the U.S. and other NATO members have consistently pointed out that purchasing certain advanced technology from non-NATO members, especially Moscow, was a non-starter and would have serious consequences. 

Turkey has assumed a more confrontational posture toward the U.S. and Europe recently, and the purchase of the S-400 is more than just a symbolic gesture of the deteriorating relationship. Despite this, President Erdogan is optimistic that, even after Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 program, his country will avoid major sanctions from the U.S. He is counting on support from U.S. President Trump, who has shown an affinity for the autocratic Turkish ruler as he has for other such leaders. On Tuesday, Trump hinted at the need for ‘flexibility’ in dealing with Erdogan, suggesting some leeway on whether the President must push for sanctions. It remains unclear what will happen next, but one thing is certain—the U.S. must tread carefully, mindful of its waning influence with Turkey, an increasingly important global player, NATO member, and a country at the center of geopolitics in the Middle East. 


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