President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to cause a headache for the NATO alliance. Questions have long hung over whether Ankara remains a reliable security partner and whether Turkey is capable of playing a responsible role in the international community. Where European governments once had questions, there can now be no doubt: Turkey is on a collision course with the West.
Deep tensions between the EU and Turkey have arisen in the Mediterranean after Turkey signed an agreement with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) which hands over some of Libya’s maritime Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to Turkey.
Some of the waters demarked in the agreement actually fall within Greece’s own EEZ, which has led to anger and indignation in Athens. Having done this, Erdogan has asserted that Greece shares no maritime border with Egypt and that the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a state unrecognised by any country other than Turkey, has its own EEZ.
France, already concerned that Turkey’s deployment of jihadist militias in Libya will interfere in its own counterterrorism campaign in the Sahel, in Northwest Africa, has stood in solidarity with its fellow EU members. French military jets and ships have been deployed to the eastern Mediterranean as a show of force against any further maritime shenanigans.
This is a blow to optimists who harboured hopes that Turkey might be talked down or deterred from the course it appears to be charting. They will have been disabused of such notions following Erdogan’s latest declaration yesterday. In an assertive speech on the anniversary of the historic Turkish victory at the Battle of Manzikert, the President unequivocally denounced calls made by Greece and Cyprus for the EU to impose sanctions for what these countries allege to be Turkey’s illegal drilling for natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean.
Erdogan announced: “Turkey will get the rights it deserves in the Mediterranean, Aegean and the Black Sea. As we have no eye on someone else’s soils, sovereignty, and interest, we will not concede on what is ours. We are determined to do whatever necessary politically, economically and militarily to this end.”
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The stage is set for a showdown.
Until now, Turkey has been a key NATO security partner, leading the charge against Islamic State and agreeing to host over 3.6 million Syrian refugees, all while providing shelter to those fleeing Bashar al Assad, a brutal dictator who has butchered his own people.
This support has proven invaluable, but the fruits of friendship are turning sour. Turkey has not only acted as a destabilising force in the Mediterranean – it is also increasingly sponsoring dangerous religious extremism across the Middle East.
It was recently revealed that the Turkish strongman has granted senior Hamas figures Turkish citizenship. This is only the latest action in a pattern of disturbing behaviour by a NATO member that has stopped even paying lip service to the international rules-based order it is supposed to defend.
Under Erdogan’s rule, Turkey is embracing a strategy of weaponised jihad as a tool of foreign policy. In so doing, it increasingly resembles a Sunni version of Shia Iran, whose funding of terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah across the region is well-documented.
The country has become a thriving hub of terror funding. As recently as December 2019, the global terror financing watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) said of Turkey: “serious shortcomings remain, including the need to improve measures for freezing assets linked to terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction”.
It even threatened to return Turkey to its “grey list” of countries, where it would be in such illustrious company as Iran and North Korea.
The examples of Turkey’s soft touch on Sunni extremism multiply: in September 2017, when Islamic State’s finance Emir for Mosul, Salim Mustafa Muhammad al-Mansur, was designated as a terrorist, US officials reported that he had found a safe haven in Turkey.
Two years later, in September 2019, the children of two people murdered in a 2015 terror attack in Israel filed charges against Kuveyt Bank, the largest shareholders of which are the Turkish Government. The charges allege that the Bank was supporting Hamas, by “knowingly providing it substantial assistance via financial services”.
The degree to which the Turkish state is directly involved in such activity, as opposed to merely failing to stop it, or otherwise turning a blind eye, remains a topic of debate. It is, however, difficult to believe that Turkey is “on board” with the international effort to stop terror financing. The evidence to the contrary is fairly stark, especially given that Turkey has announced it will seek to prevent the FATF from blacklisting Pakistan, one of the most notorious state sponsors of terrorism in the world.
Turkey is arming, funding, and exporting militancy to its near abroad. Erdogan has assembled a foreign legion, a dark homage to its French counterpart, which is enticing fighters from groups such as Jaish al-Islam (“the army of Islam”) to wage war on his behalf. Jaish al-Islam has been documented using human shields, torture, and summary execution of prisoners in the Syrian Civil War.
Having shed blood for Ankara, these jihadist legionnaires will be rewarded with Turkish citizenship, where they will be free to dine with their Hamas comrades in Istanbul. This foreign legion is currently deployed in Libya defending the GNA, which is itself heavily infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Once the concept is proven, however, these radicalised units could potentially fight anywhere in the world. Importing violent zealots into Libya is yet another entry in the litany of outrages that should trouble NATO. Turkey is also operating a “jihadist highway” into Syria, has bombed a refugee camp in Iraq; helped Iran to dodge international sanctions, and attacked the NATO-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Turkey cannot keep killing one group of jihadists while naturalising others as honoured citizens. Meanwhile, its threats to flood Europe with refugees, so as to pressure the EU into joining Turkey’s campaign against the NATO-aligned Syrian forces, is nothing short of geopolitical blackmail.
All of this, of course, is underpinned by a profound ideological shift and religious revival. Perhaps the most visible evidence of Turkey’s grim metamorphosis is the conversion of the Hagia Sophia, built originally as a Byzantine Orthodox cathedral, into a mosque. The move signals the dismantling of a proud legacy of secularism, which goes back to the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Such actions chime with Erdogan’s imperialist ambitions – the Hagia Sophia served as a mosque in the days of the Ottoman Empire. Here, Erdogan’s is seeking to sift the ashes of the Ottoman past and restore it. He hopes to present himself as a modern-day Sultan, a juggernaut astride the gateway between Europe and Asia, dominating the Mediterranean and projecting political, cultural, religious, and military power outwards from the centre.
Gripped by this vision, Ankara is even planning to mount a challenge to the world financial system by creating an alternative financial system based on Islamic principles.
At this moment, NATO stands with one foot on each of two geopolitical tectonic plates. On one plate is Turkey, increasingly aligned with Iran, Qatar, and Hamas. On the other plate sits NATO-aligned Israel and its newly-minted ally, the United Arab Emirates, soon to be followed by other states in the Islamic world seeking to normalise ties, including Bahrain and Oman. On this plate also sit the majority of other NATO members, including France and Greece.
One side is proactively seeking to sow chaos and discord, the other stability and cooperation. Between these drifting plates lies a growing fissure which is widening at an accelerating pace. NATO can decide to back Turkey, or it can decide to back the rest.
Otherwise it can decide to do nothing, consigning itself to the dustbin of history. There is a choice to be made. As the Leader of the Free World, only the United States is in a position to mobilise this choice. Procrastination will only hasten the demise of the NATO security alliance.
Simon Schofield is a Senior Fellow at the Human Security Centre.