For decades Turkey has been one of our most crucial allies. First, we had a common enemy in the Soviet Union. Secondly, Turkey is also strategically located, first as a crossroads between Europe and the Middle East from which the US operates out of Incirlik Air Base. Turkey also possesses one of Europe’s most strategically significant choke points, the Turkish Straits, which is the only waterway that allows ships, most notably, but certainly not limited to the Soviet and later Russian Black Sea Fleet, to enter the Mediterranean via the Black Sea or vice versa. During the Cold War it provided a significant counterweight to the Soviet Union, preventing it from turning the Black Sea into its own private lake and securing NATO’s southern flank. Turkey also has a relatively large military that is currently NATO’s second largest. Very rarely do American allies posses all three of these characteristics, but now Turkey is for all intents and purposes an ally in name only.
For years Turkey under Tayyip Erdogan has been drifting further and further away from the United States. Turkey, which was once seen as proof that you could in fact separate mosque and state, has seen Erdogan become increasingly authoritarian. The most vivid example was when his goons beat up protesters on American soil last year in both Washington and New York. Other sources of high tension include his fighting of US-backed Kurds in Syria. But now, with Turkey’s economy on the brink, relations between Washington and Ankara are worse than ever.
The value of the lira has dropped significantly relative to the dollar. Erdogan, following the tactics of authoritarians everywhere, has blamed everyone else accusing the West of waging “economic war” and has been rallying Turkish public opinion against the West. Against the backdrop of impending economic doom, the latest feud between Washington and Ankara has been over Andrew Brunson. Brunson is a pastor from North Carolina being held in Turkey, after he was arrested on phony espionage charges in the aftermath of the failed 2016 coup. The Administration has now put measures in place aimed at securing Brunson’s release. The Treasury Department has placed sanctions on the Turkish ministers of justice and interior and Trump has also doubled steel and aluminum tariffs.
Turkey has offered multiple deals for Brunson, both of which were rightly rejected. The first would have been to trade an innocent pastor for Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s boogeyman who he accuses being behind the 2016 coup attempt, something Gulen denies. The second was that the US drop an investigation into Halkbank, a large state-owned Turkish bank that faces massive fines for allegedly violating American sanctions on Iran.
Erdogan has also taken actions that hurt the security of the US and NATO. Despite all the talk and concern about Trump’s relationship with Russia and “bromance” with Vladimir Putin, it is Erdogan that should worry those who are concerned about Russian expansion and fear for the future of NATO. He has purchased the S-400 anti-aircraft weapon system from Russia which would be bad enough, but he also intends to purchase F-35s. Having an American/NATO fighter, but a Russian anti-aircraft missile system could allow Moscow to have easy access to information on the jet’s secrets and performance.
Turkey has been drifting away from democracy towards authoritarianism and away from the West and towards Russia for some time now. For all the problems with Trump’s rhetoric towards Putin, it is Erdogan that poses the greatest internal threat to NATO and his policies that will negatively impact NATO most. America’s relationship with our European allies is strong enough to survive Trump, but whether the US and our European allies can survive Erdogan is another question.