What about the air base though? “Incirlik [the base the U.S. Air Force uses in southern Turkey] is an albatross,” said one former senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But there are people in [the U.S. government] for whom Turkey is sacrosanct and all of its problems—busting U.S. sanctions, holding Americans hostage, threatening other NATO allies like Greece, supporting jihadists, buying Russian weapons, not to mention internal oppression and ongoing purges —are our fault. Truth is, we can’t do much at Incirlik. We need Turkey’s permission to blow our nose there.”
On the Turkish side, too, the marriage has been one of serial disappointments and misunderstandings. A February article in the pro-government Daily Sabah ran through a litany of issues with the alliance: Turkey, wrote the paper’s politics editor, Seyma Nazli Gürbüz, is the second-largest military in the alliance, is a key partner in Afghanistan and elsewhere, hosts NATO initiatives around its own territory, and contributed more than $100 million in 2018. (This is short of the 2 percent of its defense budget that Trump has insisted all NATO members pony up.)
But “NATO disappointed Turkey more than once over the years”—when the U.S. refused to side with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, when Germany accused Turkey of killing civilians in its battle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in its own country in the 1990s, and through America’s ongoing refusal to hand over Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based leader of a Turkish political movement that Erdoğan blames for orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt. “Over time, siding with terrorists rather than Turkey became a pattern for many NATO member countries, particularly the U.S.,” Gürbüz wrote.
Read: Trump’s gift to ISIS
Two U.S. presidential administrations running have now sided with Kurdish fighters in Syria tied to the PKK over Turkey’s strenuous objections. Since Sunday, however, the dynamic seems to have shifted, and Trump—who has been sharply critical of the NATO alliance himself, and who has touted his administration’s achievements against ISIS—opted to take a NATO partner’s side over the Kurdish forces who did so much to help defeat the Islamic State. The shift was so sudden, it left officials at the State Department and the Pentagon scrambling to explain it and contain the fallout. In a phone call with the Turkish defense minister yesterday, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said “the incursion risks serious consequences for Turkey,” according to the Pentagon’s readout.
Once again, as Erdoğan sees it, some of his allies are siding with the terrorists. “Hey, European Union, pull yourself together,” he said in a speech yesterday. “If you try to label this operation as an occupation … we will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way.”
Separately, at the United Nations Security Council, the NATO allies France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Poland introduced a statement condemning Turkey’s incursion into Syria. Turkey did have an ally on its side there. Ironically, given the alliance’s Cold War roots, America joined with Russia and declined to endorse it.
Yara Bayoumy contributed reporting.