Turkey's dream of joining the European Union (EU) has never seriously crossed the Bosporus. Following an abortive coup in July 2016, President Erdogan's colossal task to force an exit of armed forces from politics is quivering Turkey. The last blow came on an already faltering economy, when President Trump doubled the tariff on all metal imports from Turkey. The Turkish lira immediately lost 20 percent value against the US dollar. With a backbreaking agenda, President Erdogan is increasingly turning authoritarian adding the country's distance from the EU and NATO.
With the resurgence of the rightist forces in Europe, Turkey's legitimacy as a European nation is facing stiff resistance. Her cultural diversity is a focal point on the near impossible bargaining table of the EU. If admitted, she will be the largest EU country that will hugely diversify European culture. There is also concern that Turkey may become a bridgehead for the rush of immigrants and terrorists under liberal EU law.
Turkey now is a redundant fortress of the NATO. Putin's Russia doesn't warrant global mobilisation. President Trump's incoherent policies have come into conflict with Turkey. A plethora of complaints between US and Turkey suggest that the marriage is under strain. Turkey has the second largest armed force in NATO after US. American military hardware is no longer reaching Turkey. She is not immediately threatened but needs strategic moorings to stabilise defence. Many in Turkey feel the NATO membership may become a “Trojan Horse” someday. The next decade is therefore crucial.
With no worthwhile challenger in sight in the immediate vicinity, Turkey, once a strong ally, is seen as a suspicious mole now. It could be the ideal time for Israel to search and destroy potential enemies. Some would like to see proactive Iran and Turkey be tamed to the level of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Turkey has a longstanding quarrel with Kurds. Destabilisation of Iraq has opened up an opportunity for Kurds to enjoy a de facto sovereign status in northern Iraq. Bolstered by gains in fragile Iraq and Syria, Kurds are ever more determined to carve out a homeland comprising parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.
If the Kurdish armed struggle picks up wind, both Turkey and Iran will be forced into bloody internecine warfare. Turkey is already drawn in conflict with Kurds in Syria and within Turkey. President Trump has assured President Erdogan not to supply arms to Syrian Kurds. How much it will hold under fluid policies of President Trump needs careful observation.
President Erdogan is in a titanic struggle trying to tame the role of armed forces in politics tailored by Kemal Ataturk. With serious economic constraints, reorganisation of the armed forces, reorientation of century-old pro-west policies, civil war in neighbouring Syria, and a rejuvenated Kurdish independent struggle, Turkey is facing the most trying of times since the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Out of exasperation, the then PM, now President Erdogan, told Russian President Putin in 2013, “Get us out of this suffering. We are willing to finalise a free trade agreement with Eurasian countries.” Turkey for now is drifting.
The SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) is fast expanding in tune with emerging China. But the fragmented culture of the SCO members cannot easily cement anything beyond trade and culture. Both Pakistan and India along with China and Russia, central Asian republics with divergent interests, are members of the SCO. Suspicion within the SCO is no alternative to NATO. The embryonic alliance of convenience among Russia, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, India and China has an unpredictable future. It is challenging for Turkey to retain NATO membership while becoming a member of the SCO.
Even if Turkey becomes disposable, it will be a strategic blunder on the part of the west to throw Turkey out of the NATO. Pakistan and Iran, already unreliable to the west, are cajoling Turkey to revive the old ethos. If Turkey is gone, the entire northeastern frontier of the Middle East will suffer from psychological vacuum.
India in all probability can't meet the security vacuum of the Middle East. With the EU busy with Brexit and the US looking inward, global strategy is focusing more on regional boundaries these days. Is this a preamble to a change of guard for the 21st century?
The security vacuum in the turbulent Middle East needs addressing. Turkey is deliberately moving east in search of a new identity. That fits well in the game plan of Putin's Russia and cautious China. She is getting some sophisticated antiaircraft missile system from Russia and China to the chagrin of the NATO. Turkey is also taking cautious interest in the Muslim belt. It will not be surprising if Turkey opts for nuclear capability to realign herself in the security vacuum.
Brig Gen (Retd) Jahangir Kabir, ndc, psc is the founder DG of the Special Security Force.