Erdogan’s purge may give Nato no choice but to expel Turkey from the alliance
Ever since Turkey joined Nato in 1952, its membership has been viewed as a vital bulwark in the defence of Europe against threats emanating from Russia and the Arab world.
During the Cold War, the fact that American bombers could be flying over the former Soviet Union within an hour of take-off from their Turkish bases meant the other alliance members were unswerving in the commitment to keep Turkey in Nato.
More recently the country’s proximity to the bitter conflicts raging in Iraq and Syria has again emphasised the importance of keeping Turkey within the Nato fold, especially in view of the new terror threat caused by the creation of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
Turkey’s pivotal geographical location is also the reason the US airbase at Incirlik in southern Turkey remains home to Nato’s largest nuclear weapons facility. Built by the US Army Corps of Engineers at the height of the Cold War, the facility still holds 50 B61 hydrogen bombs – each one capable of generating an explosive force 100 times greater than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
So the fact that Washington now talks openly about the possibility of suspending Turkey’s Nato membership shows just how badly relations between Ankara and its Western allies have deteriorated since last week’s ill-fated military coup.
Questions about Turkey’s continued Nato membership have been raised following the nationwide crackdown implemented by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Last week’s coup by a group of disgruntled military officers may have ended in abject failure, but another coup, one undertaken by Erdogan loyalists, is now in full swing against those deemed to be opponents of the president’s increasingly authoritarian style of government.
Yesterday it was the turn of the country’s education establishment to suffer the nationwide purge that has already seen thousands of military personnel, police and lawyers either jailed or sacked. More than 15,000 university staff were suspended over claims they backed Fethullah Gulen, a US-based cleric accused of plotting Friday’s uprising, while 1,500 university dons have been ordered to tender their resignations.
The Americans have also had their own taste of what it is like to be on the receiving end of one of Mr Erdogan’s vengeful tantrums. First they were accused of supporting the plotters, then Washington faced a major security alert after the Turks cut the electricity supply to the Incirlik base, a potentially disastrous development given the sensitivity of the munitions that are stored there.
This prompted John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, to warn that Turkey faced suspension from Nato if it persisted with its ruthless purge. Membership of Nato requires countries to uphold certain democratic principles, and Mr Kerry said the US “will measure very carefully what is happening” in Turkey. “The level of vigilance and scrutiny is obviously going to be significant in the days ahead.”
Mr Erdogan’s undoubted enthusiasm for crushing the last vestiges of dissent against his totalitarian style has even prompted suggestions that the president was already planning the purge prior to the coup, which would explain why lists of those to be detained were so readily available once the coup failed.
The question now is whether, if Mr Erdogan continues to overplay his hand, Nato is really serious about ditching its difficult, but valuable, ally. This is by no means the first time political instability in Ankara has caused other alliance members to reassess their relations with Turkey. One of the biggest rifts occurred in 1960 when, despite appeals for clemency from the Queen, the Pope and the US President, generals hanged the prime minister, Adnan Menderes, following their successful coup d’etat.
But on this and the other occasions that Turkey has had repressive governments, fears that expulsion from Nato might drive it into the arms of Russia or Arab dictatorships in the Middle East meant the alliance tended to turn a blind eye to its political inadequacies.
So it is a measure of Mr Erdogan’s unpopularity among other Nato members that Turkey now faces the very real prospect of suspension from the alliance. Many European leaders are still seething over the Turkish leader’s role in helping to create last summer’s migration crisis, when he failed to take firm measures to curb the activities of people-smuggling gangs. Concerns also persist about his commitment to the Islamist cause, and especially his regime’s links to al-Qaeda-related groups in Syria.
In an ideal world, it would be in everyone’s interests for Mr Erdogan to cease his efforts to turn Turkey into an Iranian-style Islamic republic, thereby allowing Turkey to retain its place at Nato’s top table. But if he really is determined to pursue his radical Islamist agenda, then Nato will have no option but to rid itself of its troublesome Turkish ally.