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Paper tiger politics: US Congress hotheads want to kick Turkey out of NATO

Mikhail Khodarenok
Mikhail Khodarenok,
military commentator for RT.com. He is a retired colonel. He served as an officer at the main operational directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces.
Paper tiger politics: US Congress hotheads want to kick Turkey out of NATO
Members of the US Congress have threatened to kick Turkey out of NATO if it sent troops into northern Syria against Washington’s Kurdish allies. What would be the consequences of such a step?

If Ankara launches a military operation against the Kurds in Syria, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) said he would submit a bill that would suspend Turkey’s NATO membership. 

Similar statements have been made in the US before – in January 2018, for example, when Turkish forces were engaged in fighting near Afrin, and Fox News aired an opinion that Turkey should be pushed out of NATO. The channel is known to have the ear of US President Donald Trump. The call was repeated in July 2019, during another escalation over Cyprus. 

It is not yet clear what procedures will be invoked to execute the ruling. The NATO treaty does not provide for a clear procedure of expulsion. There is Article 13, which reads as follows:

“After the Treaty has been in force for twenty years, any Party may cease to be a Party one year after its notice of denunciation has been given to the Government of the United States of America, which will inform the Governments of the other Parties of the deposit of each notice of denunciation.”

No word of expulsion, only ceasing to be a member at one’s own initiative. To date, the only example of this was France’s voluntary suspension of any engagement in the bloc’s military structures, under Charles de Gaulle. It appears Brussels (or Washington) would first have to draft the expulsion procedure, get it approved by all the NATO members, and then use the legally binding act to somehow push Turkey out. So far, it is unclear how US threats versus Ankara could materialize.

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Back in 1949, NATO’s founding fathers forgot to come up with a procedure in case some member would have to be removed for improper behavior. Suspending Turkey’s membership may become not the best precedent for the alliance. 

However, Washington seems to overlook the fact that the situation in the East Mediterranean and in the Middle East has significantly, if not drastically, changed. NATO membership is not a must-have option for Turkey today as it used to be during the Cold War, for example.

Back then, Ankara was indeed NATO’s frontline on the south-eastern flank and was designed to be an insurmountable barrier to Communist ideology, according to Western strategists.

However, modern-day Russia is not a threat to Turkey. Ankara’s closest neighbors, once powerful regional players, are either defeated and fragmented like Iraq and Syria, or encumbered by sanctions, barred from access to cutting-edge technology and Western loans, and significantly behind in terms of a contemporary and high tech military force – e.g. Iran.

The fact that Turkey is the top player in the region is no exaggeration, and Ankara’s present-day agenda has other pressing issues on it rather than deterring Communist ideology or the so-called Russian threat. Turkey might only need NATO membership to deter a nuclear Iran, but it is a distant future that may well not materialize.  

In other words, if we speak of Turkey’s strategy, it is likely to consist in amassing military potential for the purposes of acting in certain, clearly defined areas of interest. As for the choice of weapons for each task, this is more of a tactical issue.

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The areas of interest for Turkey have been quite clear; these are Greece, Israel and Cyprus. The oil issue in the East Mediterranean is contributing to this agenda, highlighting the Greece-Israel cooperation as a hotspot both in terms of location of oil fields and the delivery routes.

Clearly, this map has areas of tensions marked on it. Of course, to play the game, one has to assess the risks and rewards, but military power will play a role in any scenario ranging from the pessimistic to the optimistic one. Military power gives leverage, and leverage can create a platform for a dialogue.  

This is why Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not scared by anyone’s threats to kick Turkey out of NATO. He knows they are empty. Nothing will stop Ankara from pursuing its policies, not even NATO.

The alliance, on the other hand, will have something to lose in case this type of punishment is indeed applied to Turkey, and these political, military and reputational losses can be disastrous. 

First of all, this will leave a serious gap in the ranks of the alliance, which will not be easy to repair. Secondly, a move like this will inevitably trigger a discussion about NATO’s very existence. In other words, Turkey might play the role of that key piece in a tower puzzle that, once pulled out, sends the whole structure collapsing.

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Meanwhile, Trump’s threat to “obliterate” Turkey’s economy (which must be interpreted as “obliterating” Turkey as a state), clashes seriously with the interests of the European Union both in terms of economy, but even more so in geopolitical terms. The demise of Turkey could mean the fall of the last wall standing between Europe and floods of migrants from the Middle East.

Having allies is crucial to a military and political campaign of any kind, but it seems unlikely that Trump’s stance on Turkey will secure him any in Europe. This kind of rhetoric coming from the White House can have no other effect than giving the green light to full-scale armaments cooperation between Moscow and Ankara. This eventually might lead to a whole new balance on the geopolitical map of the region.

It looks like Trump has already made one serious mistake by suspending the F-35 deal with Turkey, and now he is on track to aggravate the situation and lose one of the key US partners in the region. 

Very soon, we may hear completely different rhetoric and a change of tone from Washington when it comes to Turkey. Otherwise, the US might end up having to deal with two ‘Irans’ in the region.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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