Nato holds its peace as relations with Turkey degrade


Kjell Brygfjeld, a 67-year-old commercial lawyer in Stavanger, the oil capital of Norway, never expected the aftershocks from last July’s failed military coup in Turkey to reach his door.

But after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hit back hard, purging more than 100,000 alleged plotters and opponents from Turkey’s armed forces and other public bodies, that was exactly what happened.

Last November, four Turkish officers attached to a Nato base near the city asked Mr Brygfjeld to oversee their application to Oslo for political asylum. Since 1982, he has worked for asylum-seekers, in recent years mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis. He took the case.

One of the officers had been dismissed from Turkey’s military. The other three had been ordered home from Nato postings at Stavanger. Instead of returning “they decided to defect”, Mr Brygfjeld says. “They considered they could be arrested at the airport and brought to jail, with no possibility to get in touch with lawyers.”

After months of uncertainty, Oslo granted Mr Brygfjeld’s clients and their families political asylum in March this year. “They have continued to live as normally as they could, living from savings, selling cars and assets,” he says. “They are being taken care of by the relevant authorities.”

But Turkey’s foreign ministry was not pleased. It summoned the Norwegian ambassador, saying it was “regrettable and unacceptable” that a Nato ally had supported the officers over the Turkish state.

The drama in Stavanger is part of a pattern emerging elsewhere in Europe. In May, Germany granted asylum to hundreds of Turkish officers and diplomats targeted by the purge. More than 100 soldiers have applied for asylum in Belgium, where Nato has its political headquarters in Brussels, and its European military command near Mons.

Riot police intervene to stop a protest against the purges in Ankara last month © AFP

The crackdown on dissent went far beyond the military, to include more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors — and many thousands of police, civil servants, academics and journalists.

In April, Mr Erdogan narrowly won public approval for a constitutional overhaul that takes the country further towards autocratic, one-man rule.

Such authoritarian moves have increased the tensions between Turkey and its Nato allies, who have begun to raise concerns about the erosion of democracy, the rule of law and individual liberty that the country pledged to uphold when it joined the transatlantic alliance in 1952. They have also compounded the breakdown of Turkey’s long-stalled EU membership bid, increasing pressure for talks with Brussels to be formally suspended.

The stakes are high. Turkey is a crucial strategic ally for the west but its international relations are in disarray, complicating efforts to tackle some of the most pressing problems that western powers face. The tensions have spilled into the international campaign against the jihadi group Isis and into Europe’s deal with Ankara to assert control over the Mediterranean migration crisis.

Burning bridges

At a time of gnawing doubt over US president Donald Trump’s commitment to the organisation, Nato leaders are especially concerned to keep the strains with Ankara “away from the alliance”, says one senior diplomat.

The EU (22 of whose 29 member states are in Nato) also wants to contain the tension. The bloc’s attitude towards Mr Erdogan has hardened, but its overwhelming priority is to preserve a deal made with Turkey in 2016 that has sharply curtailed the number of refugees and migrants entering Europe.

As a result, the Nato allies are ready to “accommodate the degradation in the rule of law” in Turkey for strategic reasons, says Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at think-tank Carnegie Europe and a former EU ambassador to Turkey. This is despite the fact that political trust with Ankara has been badly dented. “The problem is not [the breakdown of trust]. The problem is in operational terms,” Mr Pierini says.

Political tensions have led to practical problems: the international mission to banish Isis from Syria and Iraq has become entangled in quarrels between Turkey and two of its most important allies, the US and Germany.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Erdogan arrive to observe a fly-past of NATO jetfighters © Getty

First, Mr Erdogan and Mr Trump are at odds over the US-backed push to recapture the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of Isis’ self-proclaimed caliphate. Second, a row between Mr Erdogan and Angela Merkel, German chancellor, prompted moves by Berlin to withdraw German forces from an air base in southern Turkey that is central to the anti-Isis campaign.

The Raqqa offensive is being led by the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella force battling Isis in Syria that is supported by Washington. The backbone faction of the SDF is a Kurdish militia known as the People’s Defence Units (YPG), which does most of the fighting — even after thousands of Arab fighters from local groups were brought into the force to assist them.

The Trump administration’s decision last month to equip the YPG with heavy weaponry to help it recapture Raqqa angered Ankara, which is apprehensive about the YPG’s links to the Kurdish PKK militant group. The PKK (or Kurdistan Workers’ party) has, since 2015, restarted a 40-year insurgency against the Turkish government and is designated a terrorist group by both the US and the EU.

Ankara wants the Kurds to relinquish their weapons once Isis is removed from Raqqa. Binali Yildirim, Turkey’s prime minister, has warned that his country would “give the required response” if the SDF offensive were to become a security threat to his country. Mr Yildirim did not specify what action might be taken, but he has previously suggested that arming the YPG could end up hurting the US.

Footage shows members of Mr Erdogan’s security detail attacking protesters during the Turkish president’s trip to Washington © AP

This has not been Turkey’s only point of tension with the US, traditionally its staunchest ally. Last month’s Washington summit between Mr Erdogan and Mr Trump turned sour when members of Mr Erdogan’s security detail were caught on camera beating up Kurdish and US demonstrators as Mr Erdogan watched.

Diplomatic complaints followed. A dozen Turkish security guards now face criminal charges in the US over the incident, a move that Mr Erdogan has condemned.

The Turkish leader is also unhappy with Washington’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the exiled Islamic cleric whom Mr Erdogan accuses of masterminding last summer’s coup attempt.

The dispute with Germany, over the presence of German troops at the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, has its roots in a Bundestag vote in 2016 to recognise Turkey’s 1915 massacre of Armenians as a “genocide.”

Making matters worse were bitter public clashes this spring between Mr Erdogan and the German and Dutch governments. The president said both governments had behaved like Nazis by refusing to allow Turkish ministers to address rallies in support of the constitutional amendments.

Ankara’s refusal to allow German MPs to visit Incirlik, where Berlin has some 260 troops operating reconnaissance and refuelling flights for the anti-Isis campaign, is also perceived as a retaliation for Germany’s decision to grant asylum to purged Turks.

A German Tornado jet at the air base in Incirlik, southern Turkey © AFP

“What you see is that the personal alchemy — if there ever was any between Merkel and Erdogan — has been broken,” says Mr Pierini. “A bridge has been burned. That seems to be quite clear.”

Officers in exile

The military ramifications of the purge for Turkey’s army and its Nato presence are serious. Analysts reckon Mr Erdogan’s government has sacked 40 per cent of the generals and admirals in the armed forces, with some 400 military personnel removed from their Nato posts.

“There is real concern that basically they have emptied the Turkish military of its upper commanding level, so you have a military that is very weakened,” says Fabrice Pothier, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think-tank based in Washington DC and a former head of policy planning at Nato.

In a quiet corner of a café on the outskirts of Brussels, two more Turkish officers caught up in the purge speak of being thrust unexpectedly into a state of anxiety and dread. Neither wants to be named.

“My parents don’t know yet,” says an air force officer, who has a young family. “I actually did not tell them that I’m purged because I didn’t want them to be worried about what I’m going to do in a foreign land. I told them I have one more year of extension [to the Nato posting]. Around this summer I’m going to tell them [the truth].”

The second officer, who served in the army, says he and his wife are taking French lessons to improve their job prospects if and when they receive asylum. “We’re still eating up the money we saved,” he says. “In the beginning, we were really hopeful this was not going to last too long. We thought it was not sustainable, but it looks like it could go on [for] some time. We need to make plans for the long term.”

The two men, and a third officer who also spoke anonymously, say they have no links with Mr Gulen’s movement.

In December, they took heart when the US general Curtis Scaparrotti, Nato’s top commander in Europe, said he did not believe that any Turkish soldiers who had been removed from Nato headquarters might be involved in the coup plot.

But an official in Turkey’s defence ministry insists that all purged Nato officers are “affiliated” with Feto — or Fethullah Terrorist Organisation, a government acronym applied to supporters of Mr Gulen.

“We deplore the acceptance by a number of EU countries of asylum applications of former military officers who are affiliated with Feto,” the official wrote in an email to the Financial Times. “Accepting these applications is against the spirit of alliance.”

A delicate balance

Despite all the tensions, Turkey remains an indispensable frontline ally for Nato, and, in particular, for the US.

One European diplomat, who did not want to be named, cited an American colleague as saying “there is no end to the amount of patience and energy that we, the US, are willing put into the business of managing the Turkey relationship.”

“What happens internally in member countries formally has no impact in terms of Nato operations,” says Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former US ambassador to Nato under Barack Obama. “A move towards authoritarianism or dictatorship is not something new in Nato: there is the example of the Greek colonels; the Portuguese under dictatorship.”

President Trump and President Erdogan make statements in Washington last month

But, Mr Daalder adds, since 1990, when the Cold War drew to its close, “the issue of liberal democracy has become far more important for the alliance because it became a key requirement for members to join”.

Turkey’s strategic position is pivotal: the Black Sea is to its north, flanking the Russian and Ukrainian coasts. Syria, Iraq and Iran are to the south.

“It’s a bridge between the west and the Middle East and central Asia. It has the second-largest army within Nato. So I would argue, from a security point of view, that we need Turkey as much as Turkey needs us,” says Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister who was Nato secretary-general between 2009 and 2014.

Mr Rasmussen argues that because Turkey’s trade and investment activities are western oriented, “no organisation in the world would provide the same security for Turkey as Nato. Turkey doesn’t have any alternative.”

Conversely, if western countries cut ties with Turkey, he says, the country would be “forced towards the east and that wouldn’t be in our strategic interest.”

For all that, ongoing quarrels with Mr Erdogan might yet prompt his allies to rethink their commitments to Ankara, says Mr Daalder. “Looking ahead, we see an increasingly authoritarian Turkey under Erdogan, but it will still be a full and complete member [of Nato] because it can’t be kicked out.”

“That said, the willingness of individual Nato members to continue to ensure the security of Turkey is likely to vary from one member to the next — especially if Turkey continues to engage in behaviour unbecoming of an ally.”

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