Turkey has withdrawn from a NATO exercise after the country’s President was named as an “enemy” for the military drill – an indication of a rift between the western alliance and Turkey as leader Tayyip Erdogan faces increasing censure for violations of human rights and the rule of law.
Mr. Erdogan announced on Friday he was pulling Turkish troops from a North Atlantic Treaty Organization exercise in Norway after his name and that of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, were included in what he called an “enemy chart” poster displayed for all to see.
A list of hypothetical enemies is generally posted during military exercises.
This comes as Turkey also finalizes a major purchase of Russian military hardware despite protests from the NATO alliance, and faces censure from Western countries over what critics call a slide into authoritarianism.
Top NATO brass taking part in the Halifax International Security Forum on Friday apologized for the “enemy chart incident” and played down the matter.
It nevertheless shines a spotlight on increasing tensions between Turkey and other member countries of NATO, a defence pact set up after the Second World War that has also been considered a league of democracies.
NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance’s top civilian leader, said the alliance has taken action against the person who made the poster that put Mr. Erdogan on the list of enemies.
“That was wrong,” he said. “The person that was responsible for this was removed immediately.”
The poster incident might hold less significance were it not for Ankara’s recent conduct. This past summer, acting against the advice of NATO allies, Turkey announced it was spending $2.5-billion to buy a missile defence system from Russia rather than any of the other 28 countries in the military alliance.
The development was widely interpreted as a sign Mr. Erdogan’s government is drifting away from the NATO pact it joined more than 65 years ago.
Petr Pavel, the Czech general now chair of NATO’s military committee, speaking in Halifax on Friday, was unable to name any other alliance member that has made a major purchase of Russian military hardware since 2014. That is when Moscow invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and began supporting pro-Russian rebels who have waged a war against Kiev in eastern Ukraine since – a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people.
The Erdogan government is also facing censure and penalties from western nations over some of its other actions. Last month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that European Union leaders had agreed to cut financial aid that had been aimed at helping Ankara prepare for possible membership in the economic bloc. She cited the “absolutely unsatisfying human rights situation” in Turkey.
Turkey presents NATO leaders with a major dilemma because the country plays a useful role in the fight against terrorism.
Asked whether they believed Turkey will still be a member of NATO in five years, Mr. Stoltenberg and Gen. Pavel both played down Ankara’s conduct.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but we see some democratic deficits in many countries that are members of NATO,” Gen. Pavel said. “No country is perfect. Turkey is an important ally.”
Mr. Stoltenberg said Turkey is important not least because of its strategic geographic location, with Europe on one side and bordering Iraq and Syria on the other, which puts it in a good position to frustrate or stop the movement of jihadists and their adherents attempting to transit to other countries.
“The progress we have been able to make in the fight against [Islamic State] is very much supported by Turkey,” the NATO secretary-general said.
Asked about the allegations of human rights and rule-of-law violations levelled against Ankara, Mr. Stoltenberg said Turkey has suffered more from terrorist attacks than any other NATO ally. “Turkey has the right to defend itself from terrorist attacks,” he said, adding that it also has the right to prosecute those behind the attacks. “This has to be done in accordance with the rule of law, and I have expressed that in my meetings in Ankara,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.
Western governments and human rights advocates have for years called attention to what some describe as Turkey’s descent into dictatorship.
A failed coup in 2016 prompted the Erdogan government to jail thousands of soldiers and fire or suspend 100,000 public officials and police officers. These include 28,000 teachers accused by Ankara of being supporters of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, an influential foe of Mr. Erdogan.
Human Rights Watch, a rights advocacy group, says the weakening of safeguards against abuse in detention under the state of emergency declared by Mr. Erdogan “was accompanied by increased reports of torture and ill-treatment in police detention, such as beating and stripping detainees, use of prolonged stress positions, and threats of rape, as well as threats to lawyers and interference with medical examinations.”
Turkey has prosecuted and jailed journalists, taken over media companies including the daily Zaman newspaper, shut down media outlets and carried out physical attacks and threats against journalists. Turkey has made the highest number of requests to Twitter of any country to censor individual accounts, Human Rights Watch said.
– With a report from Reuters