Turkish Breakup with the U.S. and NATO: The Illogical Logics

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 5, May 2019 

During the ceremony, Brig. Gen. Clarke assumed command of the 82nd from Maj. Gen. John W. Nicholson who is slated to take command of Allied Land Command, NATO, Izmir, Turkey. Source: U.S. Army via Flickr.

Dr. Jahara Matisek
U.S. Air Force Academy

Dr. Buddhika Jayamaha
U.S. Air Force Academy

Abstract: With decades of debate about Turkey leaving NATO, the Turkish purchase (and delivery) of a Russian air defense system may be crossing the Rubicon. The Syrian Civil War, combined with how the U.S. and NATO decided to back Kurdish proxies in the fight against the Islamic State, has fed into the domestic logic of survival for Turkish political elites. With President Erdoğan and his revisionist political party ruling over Turkey the last decade, they appear to have finally refashioned the Turkish state by purging secularists from the government and military since the coup hoax of 2016. This new consolidation of political power has created a Turkish state with values incompatible with the West and strategies irreconcilable with NATO. However, these efforts by Erdoğan are undermining the long-term economic viability of the Turkish state, as established norms concerning the rule of law and property rights deteriorate, risking Turkey’s status as a reliable and stable ally in the region. We make these judgements on Turkey provoking its own expulsion from NATO based on interviews and fieldwork in Kurdistan and Turkey.


Turkey today finds itself increasingly isolated in the Middle East region, facing international opprobrium, as the ruling party has taken a decidedly authoritarian turn. Worse, Turkey’s relations with NATO and the U.S. are the worse than ever in the history of the alliance.[1] Turkey’s ruling party and its president find themselves in an international, regional and domestic stranglehold. This has been a long time coming, as the current Turkish ruling party, Justice and Development Party (AKP), and its founder Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, came to power in 2002, altering the course of Turkey.

When the Islamic State (ISIS) emerged in 2014, Turkey, the U.S., and NATO began working at cross-purposes due to the Kurdish question. How sustainable is this relationship, with ISIS effectively defeated and Turkey deploying troops into Syria to fight Western allied Kurds?[2] Also, what are the odds of Turkey remaining in NATO in the near future given Turkish President Erdoğan signaling a Turkexit?[3] The future looks increasingly bleak for Turkey as these open-ended questions are juxtaposed with a recent increase in Turkish inflation and instability.

Turkexit: A Political Tool?

When ISIS finally posed a significant threat to Baghdad, NATO and the U.S. were forced to make pragmatic alliances with groups like the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) due to the ineptitude of the Iraqi security forces and the need for a reliable partner on the ground. Matters were made worse due to Turkish complicity in allowing ISIS fighters to use border towns as a rear base. Turkey engaged in such a cynical bargain in hopes that ISIS would be useful in eliminating the Assad regime, and that a more amenable Sunni dominated regime would replace it.

American necessity led to an alliance with the YPG, which unlike Turkey, the West does not consider to be a terrorist organization. Turkey was duly offended. For all practical purposes, the YPG is a sister organization of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is formally branded a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S., and most NATO countries.[4] With the chaos caused by ISIS, the YPG now controls a large swath of territory on Turkey’s southern border.[5] Turkey claims that this territorial control by the YPG provides the PKK with strategic depth to launch attacks against Turkey.[6] However, YPG fighters interviewed by us indicate that they have no desire to allow the PKK to operate in their areas of control, risking future Western economic and military backing. YPG leadership knows that the “dirty ground work” of fighting ISIS generated goodwill in Western capitals.[7] Regardless, a Turkexit from NATO serves as important rhetoric for the AKP to threaten the U.S. and Europe, who hope to keep NATO whole.

Since its founding, the Turkish national myth has excluded Kurds, referring to them as “Mountain Turks.” However, this approach strengthened the identity of the Kurds. Since the Kurds and PKK began fighting for autonomy in 1984, the PKK-led rebellion being the latest iteration of numerous Kurdish rebellions and uprisings (over several centuries), the Turks consistently view them as enemies.[8] Consequently, their decision to send troops into Syria was not based on fighting a millenarian jihadist group. Turkey wanted their own version of a ‘safe-zone’ where they could create, train and operate their own version of Islamist proxy militias, some of which are former ISIS and Jabat al Nusra fighters but in new fatigues.[9] This is not the typical ‘safe-zone’ one might find in other conflicts.

Turkey now occupies a sliver of land all the way to the city of Idlib, with the consent of Moscow and Damascus, and also controls the formerly Kurdish canton of Afrin in northwest Syria.[10] It is less a safe zone, and more a road block stopping the Kurds in the Afrin canton from joining themselves with the Kurds from the Qamishli canton. Such a contiguous area under Kurdish YPG control on Turkey’s southern border would make Turkey a necessary protagonist in any future Syrian peace agreement. Turkey is pursuing a back-handed strategy against the U.S. and NATO. Consequently, Idlib is now under Turkish protection, where the most hardened of Jihadists are holding onto territory. They do not appear to follow Turkish orders, and now that Erdoğan has staked his position on Idlib, its fall would be an affront to Erdoğan. Meanwhile, Russian and pro-Assad Syrian forces are slowly encircling the city.

A Turkish pivot away from the U.S. and NATO

Since the defeat of ISIS in October 2017, Turkey is signaling, both through speech and action, that it no longer wants a part in NATO’s collective defense. Turkey finalized the purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system (ADS) in November of 2017.[11] This is problematic given that the S-400 was specifically designed for anti-NATO purposes. If this ADS is delivered to Turkey, it can compromise the security of the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), which is expected to be delivered to Turkey in June of 2019. This has major implications for NATO and the U.S. because it provides a venue for the Russian military (and their intelligence specialists) to electronically capture the unique radar cross section (RCS) signatures of the F-35 and other stealth aircraft, such as the F-22.[12] This will permit Russian intelligence officers and their technicians to develop algorithms in their ADS software to detect stealthy RCS and other U.S.-NATO counter-measures designed to defeat the S-400.[13] Moreover, the premise of interoperability and counter-measures in place to protect security breaches, will be effectively neutralized once the Russian ADS is integrated into the Turkish ADS architecture. This is precisely why several U.S. Senators recently penned an op-ed in The New York Times clearly telling the Turks that they must choose either “A U.S. Fighter Jet or a Russian Missile System. Not Both. If Turkey accepts delivery of a Russian S-400 missile system, sanctions will be required by American law.”[14]

The Turkish government insists this purchase was not a political message. As one Turkish Member of Parliament elaborated: “[we] picked S-400 over other options because the missile system possesses more advanced technical features than its rivals, with a better price and shorter delivery time.”[15] While this may be the official Turkish narrative, it is preposterous reasoning on three fronts. First, Turkey had no problem shooting down a Russian fighter jet that strayed into its territory in 2015. Second, Turkey does not face any current air threats from neighboring countries (or from the Kurds). Finally, the costs associated with most Turkish arms procurement and military training from the U.S. and NATO is almost always subsidized.[16] What is Turkey’s logic and reasoning for working at cross-cutting purposes, essentially making itself the strange bedfellow in this once staunch Cold War alliance with the U.S. and NATO?

While the debate about Turkey leaving NATO has been raging for over a decade, we contend that the internal political logic of the AKP in Turkey has come to a breaking point. Playing political brinkmanship means Erdoğan is in a bind of his own making. His political survival, especially at a time when even many supporters in the electorate are turning away from AKP, means Erdoğan will double-down on his short-term strategy of authoritarianism, which undermines civil society and institutions in pursuit of mobilizing staunch AKP supporters. This suggests that Erdoğan will likely acquire the Russian ADS, which will break U.S.-NATO relations, thereby causing the Lira currency to collapse. Hence, Erdoğan’s rhetoric has painted his party into a corner, and threatens his own domestic political survival and the stability of Turkey. This critical juncture means that keeping the AKP base mobilized, will require a break with NATO, to acquire the S-400. Similarly, if Erdoğan manages to get out of the S-400 deal, it will be seen as an AKP defeat, reducing their political power, but retaining Western ties that would benefit Turkey’s economy, stability, and security in the long-term.

The Formation of a New Axis on Multiple Fronts?

The normative logic and international security rationale that drove the U.S. to redeploy its forces to the Iraqi region in the fight against ISIS was a tactical decision. However, tactical American alliances made with various militia groups in the region, including the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People’s Protection Units (YPG), run counter to Turkey’s domestic and regional security logic. Such American actions have crossed the inviolable line of the ruling party and its domestic political logic. This brings us to new intersections of interest and power in the region that have not existed since the turn of the 19th century. There is an odd axis between the U.S. and the powers representing Baghdad and the Kurds. The American-Kurdish alliance has created the externality of an improbable Turkish-Russian-Iranian axis. It has the potential to upset the balance of power in a region that is appearing to be increasingly unstable with Saudi Arabia and Iran escalating their proxy wars in tandem.[17] This has been followed by the U.S. walking away from the nuclear deal with Iran, and labeling one of their specific military branches, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as a terrorist organization.

Background to the impending rupture of Turkish-NATO Relations

The U.S. was always ambivalent on the prospects of an actual Syrian regime change despite former American President Barack Obama saying in public that “Assad must go.”[18] Erdoğan and his ministers misinterpreted Obama’s ambiguity to mean certitude and doubled down on his position that Assad must go. The Turkish position dovetailed with Erdoğan’s version of neo-Ottoman-esque muscle flexing that he does (mostly) with a domestic audience in mind. The U.S. policy of strategic dithering under the Obama administration went to great lengths to avoid intervening, while maintaining an elaborate pretense that it is intervening, partly on behalf of ‘freedom’. This led to the American half-baked idea of using resources to create rebel forces that could not really hold ground in the Syrian battlespace.[19]

Executive ambiguity by the Obama administration turned into a paradoxical crossing of the Rubicon: a ‘non-policy’ policy of ‘non-intervention’ intervention. The U.S. chose to pursue an absurdist logic of strategic disengagement from the Middle East while engaging tactically. Such vague American foreign policy double speak and double negatives left Erdoğan abandoned, isolated, and exposed all at the same time. The Obama administration was not fond of the plan – but wanted to “do something” – and created the first fissure between Turkey and the U.S on the issue of Syria.[20] This “do something” attitude facilitated the cascading variations of Jihadist fighters (sub-variations of al-Qaeda and the ISIS fighters fall into this broader Jihadist category) with some finding explicit and implicit support from Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) countries (e.g. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, etc.). It essentially turned Syria into a hodgepodge of proxy battles between GCC backed Sunni militias and Iranian backed Assad regime allied militias. Further complicating this was increasing Iranian influence within the Iraqi military as Iranian backed Shia militias found formal recognition from the central authorities in Baghdad and integration within the national army of Iraq.[21] This further muddled the exponentially complicating relationship between the Iraqi national army and the American military, where the U.S. was assisting in anti-ISIS military operations in a limited role of advising and supporting airstrikes.

The initial collapse of the Iraqi state in 2014-2015 against an ISIS invasion permitted the Iranians to righteously claim to be the guardians of the abused minorities in Iraq, as the Iraqi armed forces disintegrated against ISIS assaults.[22] Furthermore, Iran was the only thing standing between a genocide of Shia and minorities in Syria, which are allies to the Iranians and their Hezbollah partners. Kurds in Syria, led and represented by YPG, faced a peculiar quagmire during the ISIS uprising. The long-persecuted Syrian Kurds were typically disenfranchised and made to feel their identity to be a liability. They are the one group in Syria with a long history of both overt and covert forms of “organized” resistance to Syria’s dictatorship.

Resistance has been a common feature of the political landscape in Syria for decades, but very few groups had managed to maintain forms of organized resistance under the authoritarian, and personalized Syrian dictatorship. There was the Syrian brotherhood revolt in 1976 that lasted until 1982, when Syrian President Hafez al-Assad ordered the massacre of 20,000 residents in Hama.[23] Then there were the Kurds that organized around Qamishli in an uprising in 2004, which would later serve as a Kurdish base during the Syrian Civil War that erupted in 2011.[24] Kurdish Qamishli organization was as much covert as overt. The specific ethnic and linguistic dimensions made it easier for the YPG to maintain a strong organizational presence, and keep growing it despite the watchful eye of the regime that was increasingly only maintaining nominal control of the Kurdish areas while YPG was instilling subversive control. When the resistance began in 2011, YPG control of its territory became overt, but they still refused to militarily engage the Syrian regime. This was one of the critical junctures in the Syrian Civil War.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime almost fell in the Syrian Civil War. Damascus lost Aleppo (2012) and Homs (2011) early in the uprising. Homs was far more critical since it was symbolically the ‘capital’ of the anti-Assad revolution, and it laid at the junction of the port-city Latakia and the supply routes to both Aleppo and Damascus. With Homs gone, Damascus would have starved itself to defeat. The Assad regime reached out to the Kurds to save themselves and the Kurds would support-by-not-supporting, the broader fight between the regime and the anti-Assad Syrians. With the Kurds out of the anti-Assad equation, Damascus gambled correctly in knowing that most Kurdish militias would gain more from fighting anti-Assad rebel groups (Jihadists that were a direct threat to the Kurds) than the Syrian regime.

Kurds in eastern Syria earned de facto control of their territories while Damascus still had nominal control of Qamishli. Throughout the war, the Syrian flag fluttered at the Syrian army base in the Kurdish capital of autonomous Rojava. Unbeknownst to many, Damascus still pays the salaries of regime affiliated bureaucrats in Kurdish controlled areas. With the possible Kurdish threat to the regime averted, Assad turned to the critical city that would make or break the regime: Homs. To solve this problem, Assad had to leverage various relationships with Hezbollah, IRGC, and Russia. Hezbollah fighters, and some Shia militias from Iraq (to include even Afghan Shias), assaulted the rebel held city of Homs under IRGC training and guidance. The rebels of Homs, despite their conviction and ability to repel Assad’s conventional military forces, stood no chance when the regime came after them with proxies willing (and able) to fight dirtier. At this juncture, Turkey supported many of the Islamist rebel groups fighting the Assad regime as a means of maintaining pressure. Enter ISIS, the second critical juncture, and the U.S. entered the fray again in Iraq, to prevent the collapse of the government as ISIS fighters got within 25 kilometers of Baghdad International Airport.[25]

The rise of ISIS and its Syrian connection are not without sentimental moments of irony. Though ISIS made the Syrian city of Raqqa its capital, the critical mass of ISIS leaders were all Iraqi, many with experience in Saddam Hussein’s army. ISIS was fundamentally an Iraqi phenomenon.[26] These Iraqis benefited from underground logistics networks that the Syrian regime (i.e. Syrian intelligence agencies) under IRGC support created to help the Jihadists fight against the Americans during the American intervention in Iraq (2003-2011). Specifically, during the American presence in Iraq, there was a single prominent Jihadist ‘pipeline’ that allowed for all Jihadists, real and aspiring, to come and fight the Americans in Iraq. One such ‘pipeline’ involved travel through Damascus, Der Ez Zour, and Al Bukamal into Iraq, and another went from Damascus, through Raqqa, and into Rabia crossing into Iraq. Both Jihadist logistics routes were under scrutiny and monitored by the Syrian intelligence operators. Jihadists could use Syria as a lily-pad but only if they did not engage in Jihadist activity inside Syria. At the same time, the U.S. covertly tried to go after these Syrian Jihadist networks with Task Force Orange, to uncover and defeat these smuggling systems.[27]

The beginning of the American-Kurdish alliance of convenience was when NATO decided to intervene on behalf of the Kurdish side in its battle against ISIS in Kobani, contrary to the wishes of Turkey.[28] Erdoğan explicitly equated the Kurds in Syria with ISIS, playing to a domestic audience with an impending election in mind, and knowing how to play to his societal cleavages in harnessing the vote.[29] Such maneuvering by Erdoğan facilitated his pursuit of the nationalist vote in both the Turkish Left and the Right that looks askance at the Kurds far more than each other. The American wager on YPG was based on tactical assessments that they were exceptional light-infantry units that can take the fight to the enemy as long as the U.S. can provide top-cover (e.g., airstrikes, artillery, and airborne surveillance). This relatively cheap U.S. investment paid great dividends in helping rout ISIS without deploying tens of thousands of American troops.

On the other hand, the Russians and Iranians have permitted (so far) the American soldiers in Syria as unwelcome guests since they are providing a necessary public good of security. The Syrian Kurds in turn also go to great lengths to not alienate the Syrian regime, Iranians or the Russians, since sooner or later they will need them. It is just a matter of time before the U.S. government pulls its support and military from the area. Every actor in the region perceives the Americans as having the least political willpower to see this conflict through to the end. This precarious situation puts the U.S in a very peculiar position of having gone from ‘no dog in the Syrian fight’ to getting de facto control of one third of Syrian territory, while simultaneously managing to draw substantial ire from Turkey. Regardless, American security pursuits in Iraq-Syria have played into AKP rhetoric, making a future Turkish-NATO split more likely than ever.

Redefining a New Turkish State without the West?

Over time Erdoğan has become the authoritarian president of Turkey, remaining politically and ideologically consistent. By tightly controlling the political process, and overturning elections unfavorable to the AKP, Erdoğan’s rule no longer has democratic pretentions. The AKP have always said what they said they would do and they have always done what they said they set out to do. There was also always a hope in the West that Erdoğan’s behavior running the AKP was done primarily for domestic consumption and purely as a means of staying in power; not to run roughshod over all the institutions of Turkey. Now that Erdoğan has proven his critics right, it is easier to explain the domestic logic driving him and his political party.

Erdoğan and AKP are unabashed religious revisionists. They are engaged in a broader political project of redefining the Turkish state and society domestically and regionally. Such efforts are fundamentally at odds with what Turkey’s founder Ataturk set out to do. AKP and Erdoğan are as nationalist as Ataturk, but with one fundamental difference. They want Turkish society returned to a pre-Ataturk world where Ottoman power was great exactly because Islam played such a definitive role in daily life. Current Turkish legislation of religious edicts to instill laws that closely resemble Islamic values are all part of the revisionist repackaging of neo-Ottomon-esque nationalist ideology.

The redefinition of the state constitutes the changes in the political arrangement, in stages. A political party captures the institutions, then changes the constitution, then the presidency, and finally, electoral institutions are brought under the power and authority of the executive. Such AKP incrementalism has created democratic-despotism, leading to new hierarchies of citizenship, with Islamist-Nationalist Turks at the top of the citizenship hierarchy. Societal redefinition is driven by communities, such as Islamists imposing virtue, to building new mosques in the heart of white-Turk neighborhoods and playing the call to prayer in high decibels, leaving no doubts as to the implicit coercive tone. Such activities informally display control and power over these once secular neighborhoods.

No one considers Turkey a model democracy in the Muslim world since it has now become a de facto Islamist Republic, turning its back on the founding ideational position of a secular republic set by Ataturk.[30] It is no accident that the EU, NATO, and America play a critical rhetorical and conceptual role in this redefinition process. It makes U.S. and Turkish strategic positions rather intractable, by Turkish design, orchestrated by Erdoğan’s manipulation of the AKP and domestic audience.

Regionally, the AKP has fundamentally altered its relations with the Middle East, with a mixture of soft-power and hard-power by making a deliberate turn towards its neighbors, deliberately shut-off from Turkey since its founding. The EU, NATO and U.S. are also simultaneously weaved into this newly imagined domestic AKP-designed narrative of Ottoman glamor, improper western influence, and historical aberrations of western decadence espoused by the white-Turks of the Ataturk variety. Such new discourses in the Turkish political landscape all seek to discredit the Turkish state as everyone has known it since its founding by Ataturk. The AKP appears close to having fully discredited the Ataturk system, lending weight to their arguments to redesign that state in the traditional Ottoman image. However, that the opposition gained nearly fifty percent of the mayoralties in Turkish elections, to include former AKP bastions of Ankara, and despite Istanbul’s political and commercial power, suggest that there just might be some pushback against Erdoğan’s democratic-despotism.

Even in the recent election campaigns, the AKP and Erdoğan doubled down on the narrative of Muslims being under siege, superimposing it over Ottoman nostalgia not just rhetorically but also with impeccable political and military logic. That is, AKP and Erdoğan strive to keep their reimagined Ottoman narrative alive, by illustrating how the Turkish AKP is constantly under siege from the western powers that oppose them and their Islamic values, and by extension, against all the black Turks. To maintain the narrative, AKP has to make certain that it is not ignored and that it gets noticed and reactions from the EU, NATO and the U.S., which reifies the domestic narrative. For example, Turkish state media purposefully broadcasted the locations of 10 secret U.S. military bases/units operating in Syria, which resulted in an American military Colonel remarking that Turkey’s decision to publish “this type of information [is] professionally irresponsible and…[could] put Coalition lives in jeopardy.”[31] Evoking a Western response, plays into the political script of Erdoğan. He uses any criticism of Turkey to reify the image of his country as a power player in the region, rather than a pawn of the West.

Any time officials from the EU admonish Turkish behavior, the AKP and Erdoğan highlight these comments to their domestic audience, to illustrate self-fulfilling prophecies that the West seeks to dominate the Turkish state and internal affairs. When the EU threatens further reprimands on Turkish behavior and the prospect of ostensible EU accession talks, Turkey and Erdoğan rely on sectarian xenophobia to further demonstrate their power. In effect, the AKP and Erdoğan purposefully try to get kicked out of the farcical EU accession talks. Moving from one-crisis to another and constantly being a tragic hero of one’s own constructed crises, plays to the AKP and their political logic in dominating internal politics.

Simultaneously, Turkey also knows that it could easily destabilize Europe, and that within 48 hours it knows it can receive an EU payoff of billions of Euros to prevent it. Turkey can easily open the refugee faucet into Europe, and create another refugee crisis the way it did previously, by first politicizing and then weaponizing a refugee crisis. Refugees who have transited through Turkey are already having lasting ramifications on Europe, such as empowering fringe extremist political parties.

Some of these rankled relations between the U.S. and Turkey are also a product of the 2003 American-led war in Iraq. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Turkey allowed the U.S. to use its bases, such as Incirlik Air Base, to conduct military operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, tensions arose as the AKP saw a political payoff in preventing the U.S. military from using Turkish bases to open up a northern front in the 2003 Iraq War, warning the Americans that an invasion would be a costly and strategic mistake. This allowed the AKP to create the illusion of defending fellow Muslims in the region, as the Turkish Parliament effectively voted to neuter American power and influence in the region. They would only allow the base to be used for non-combat operations (i.e. transporting goods and supplies, but no troops, ammo, or any other war materiel) in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2003.

From the beginning, the American strategic objective of defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria, was always at odds with Turkish regional objectives. Half-hearted attempts by the U.S. to change regimes in Syria, or create a “No-Fly-Zone”, were always a non-sequitur, whereas AKP could engage in neo-Ottoman muscle flexing and support its own proxies in Syria to fight the regime while fighting the Kurds. Yet, the YPG was the only credible and capable fighting force on the ground that willingly sought cooperation with U.S. soldiers and fought effectively against ISIS. Such ground realities made them ideal tactical allies for an American public and politicians who did not want to see large deployments of U.S. troops to Iraq.

What now in a post-ISIS world?

With President Trump proclaiming that ISIS was eliminated in March of 2018, those not killed or caught, are now in Idlib, under Turkish protection. Many ISIS family members are trying to return to their respective homelands (assuming they did not burn their passport).[32] American tactical objectives in Iraq have been obtained, as were Kurdish objectives. Kurdistan has expanded with strengthened areas of control, and the YPG has created a confederal arrangement with multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian configuration amongst the many groups that constitute the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkish fears are finally being realized with Syrian Kurds creating a form of autonomous governance in a sizable territory that could one day, though they have not yet, be used in the broader Kurdish fight against the Turkish state.

Since the 2016 coup hoax,[33] Turkey has purged many of its troops on circumstantial evidence of being “too secular.” AKP rhetoric about the U.S. and CIA backing the coup was meant for mobilization purposes. From this legitimizing narrative, Turkey has ceased participation in numerous NATO programs, such as the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program, despite 35 years of involvement. Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 ADS fundamentally compromises the rationale and logic for NATO membership. Moreover, the arbitrary jailing of Westerners in Turkey to be used as political bargaining chips, should make NATO policymakers wary of the idea of continuing an alliance with Turkey.[34]

If and when Turkey receives the S-400 in July of 2019, with Russian personal coming along to train and advise, it will compromise NATO’s operations and weapons systems. Any Western reprimand would perfectly rhyme with AKP rhetoric that the West is against their efforts to reimagine the Turkish state. However, the Russian ADS also compromises NATO operations and intelligence. The AKP desires conflict with the EU, U.S. and NATO so it can be a tragic heroine. The drama translates into domestic political points for the AKP as it rallies the base.

Turkey’s removal from NATO would be of their own making, but such a moment would dovetail perfectly with the AKP political logic of permanent crises and tragic heroism. The removal of secular military personnel from the Turkish Armed Forces since the coup attempt and larding it with troops loyal to AKP ideological goals, indicate that the secular army of years past is no more.[35] This should make many wonder what good Turkey is to NATO, after the purge “sapped morale, undermined competence and left the military without enough pilots to fly its F16 jets.”[36] Turkish military officers interviewed by us seem to indicate that the Turkish military has effectively been hollowed out by such purges, which likely indicates that they will struggle against Kurdish rebel groups. This ‘new’ Turkish military might even explain why Turkey allegedly used chemical weapons in Afrin.[37]

With the U.S. announcing stoppage of F-35 part deliveries to Tukey due to the S-400 deal, NATO needs to decide what to make of Turkey and its value to the West, especially with Erdoğan’s veiled “Ottoman slap” threat against U.S. troops in Syria.[38] One could suppose the official death knell of Turkish membership in NATO will come when President Erdoğan accepts delivery of Russian S-400s and turns them “on.” Subsequently, the U.S. government would have to seriously consider removing all American B-61 nuclear bombs stored at Incirlik Air Base. If that moment comes to pass, the ideologically-driven strategic pivot of Turkey will be complete. The U.S. and NATO will have to reevaluate their strategic assumptions of Turkey’s place in the region against the backdrop of Russia rolling back Cold War era alliances and geopolitical power positions.

Dr. Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek, an officer and pilot in the US Air Force, holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Northwestern University. He currently serves as an Assistant Professor and Chief of Faculty Development in the Department of Military and Strategic Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy and is a Non-Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, U.S. Military Academy. In 2019, he will be deploying to Afghanistan as an E-11 BACN Pilot. Dr. Buddhika Jayamaha, a former Airborne Infantryman and NCO Veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division, U.S. Army, with numerous deployments to Iraq, holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Northwestern University. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Military and Strategic Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He studies conflict in Africa and the Middle East, and co-authored Nightcap at Dawn: American Soldiers’ Counterinsurgency in Iraq. Disclaimer: The views presented in this article are those of each author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of the Air Force, U.S. Air Force Academy, U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Department of Defense, or U.S. Government. JPR Status: Essay.

[1] Selim Sazak, “The U.S.-Turkey Relationship Is Worse Off Than You Think,” Foreign Policy, September 11, 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/09/11/the-u-s-turkey-relationship-is-worse-off-than-you-think/

[2] Arshad Mohammed and Yara Bayoumy, “Defeat of Islamic State in Raqqa may herald wider struggle for U.S.,” Reuters, October 17, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-raqqa-usa-analys/defeat-of-islamic-state-in-raqqa-may-herald-wider-struggle-for-u-s-idUSKBN1CM39L; “Turkey targets Kurdish forces in Afrin: The short, medium and long story,” BBC, January 22, 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-42704542

[3] Mariya Ilyas, “Why NATO cannot afford a “Turkexit”,” Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy, June 14, 2017, http://jmepp.hkspublications.org/2017/06/14/nato-turkey-relationship/

[4] Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Trump to Arm Syrian Kurds, Even as Turkey Strongly Objects,” The New York Times, May 9, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/09/us/politics/trump-kurds-syria-army.html

[5] North and southeast, from the Euphrates River all the way to Iraq.

[6] Robert Ford, “The Fatal Flaw in Trump’s ISIS Plan,” The Atlantic, May 11, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/05/trump-turkey-erdogan-kurds-isis-syria-raqqa/525963/

[7] Interviews with Kurdish fighters, December 2018.

[8] Denise Natali, The Kurds and the state: Evolving national identity in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005).

[9] Fieldwork, Kurdistan, December 2018; Aria Bendix, “Safe Zones in Syria,” The Atlantic, May 4, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2017/05/russia-iran-and-turkey-agree-on-safe-zones-in-syria/525486/

[10] Amberin Zaman, “Turkey faces growing Kurdish insurgency in Syria’s Afrin,” Al-Monitor, March 4, 2019, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/03/afrin-human-rights-turkey-fsa-war-crimes.html

[11] “Turkey says purchase of S-400 from Russia ‘completed’,” Hürriyet Daily News, November 12, 2017, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-says-purchase-of-s-400-from-russia-completed-122310

[12] Tom Rogan, “If Turkey buys the Russian S-400 missile system, it can’t be allowed to buy the F-35 fighter jet,” The Washington Examiner, November 17, 2017, http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/if-turkey-buys-the-russian-s-400-missile-system-it-cant-be-allowed-to-buy-the-f-35-fighter-jet/article/2641027

[13] Jahara Matisek, “As US Bombs ISIS, Be Wary of Moscow’s Spies,” Defense One, December 2, 2015, http://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2015/12/us-bombs-isis-be-wary-moscows-spies/124135/

[14] Jim Inhofe, Jack Reed, Jim Risch, and Bob Menendez, “A U.S. Fighter Jet or a Russian Missile System. Not Both,” The New York Times, April 9, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/09/opinion/turkey-united-states-f35conflict.html

[15] Umut Uras, “Turkey’s S-400 purchase not a message to NATO: official,” Al Jazeera, November 12, 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/11/turkey-400-purchase-message-nato-official-171112122033735.html

[16] Tim Arango, “Growing Mistrust Between U.S. and Turkey Is Played Out in Public,” The New York Times, December 23, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/24/world/europe/growing-mistrust-between-us-and-turkey-is-played-out-in-public.html

[17] Reuters, “Why Saudi Arabia Opened Another Proxy War Against Iran – in Lebanon,” Haaretz, November 9, 2017, https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/1.821574

[18] Steve Mufson, “‘Assad must go’: These 3 little words are huge obstacle for Obama on Syria,” The Washington Post, October 19, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/assad-must-go-these-three-little-words-present-a-huge-obstacle-for-obama-on-syria/2015/10/19/6a76baba-71ec-11e5-9cbb-790369643cf9_story.html?utm_term=.51e2ec690f23

[19] Kareem Shaheen, “US-trained Syrian rebels killed and leaders captured by al-Qaida affiliate,” The Guardian, July 31, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/31/us-trained-rebels-killed-captured-syrian-al-qaida-affiliate-nusra

[20] Stephen M. Walt, “Obama was not a realist President,” April 7, 2016, Foreign Policy, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/04/07/obama-was-not-a-realist-president-jeffrey-goldberg-atlantic-obama-doctrine/

[21] Jack Watling, “The Shia Militias of Iraq,” The Atlantic, December 22, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/12/shia-militias-iraq-isis/510938/

[22] David Ignatius, “The collapse of the Iraqi army in Ramadi is a replay of the Mosul debacle,” Business Insider, May 21, 2015, http://www.businessinsider.com/the-collapse-of-the-iraqi-army-in-ramadi-is-a-a-replay-of-the-mosul-debacle-2015-5

[23] Joseph Holliday, Syria’s Maturing Insurgency (Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of War, 2012); Leon Goldsmith, “Alawites for Assad,” Foreign Affairs, April 16, 2012, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2012-04-16/alawites-assad

[24]Michael M. Gunter, Out of nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in peace and war (London: Hurst & Co, 2014), 93-95; Adam Baczko, Gilles Dorronsoro, and Arthur Quesnay, Civil War in Syria: Mobilization and Competing Social Orders (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 175-177.

[25] Mary Grace Lucas, “ISIS nearly made it to Baghdad airport, top U.S. military leader says,” CNN, October 13, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/12/politics/isis-baghdad-martin-dempsey/index.html

[26] Mark Thompson, “How Disbanding the Iraqi Army Fueled ISIS,” TIME, May 29, 2015,

[27] Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, ISIS: Inside the army of terror (updated edition) (New York: Regan Arts, 2016), 103-108.

[28] Admittedly this alliance does have roots dating back to the First Persian Gulf War in 1991 and its aftermath where the U.S. committed military resources to the northern region of Iraq with a “No-Fly Zone” known as Northern Watch (1991-2003) to protect Kurds from Iraqi fixed-wing military aircraft. Unfortunately, this protection did not permit the shooting down of Iraqi military helicopters, which continued to attack Kurdish towns in the north after 1991.

[29] Laurie Mylroie, “Erdogan concerned more about Kurds than Islamic State,” Kurdistan 24, July 5, 2016, http://www.kurdistan24.net/en/Analysis/9c08c011-b41b-4380-b786-f3d62487989b; Sarah Almukhtar and Tim Wallace, “Why Turkey Is Fighting the Kurds Who Are Fighting ISIS,” The New York Times, August 12, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/08/12/world/middleeast/turkey-kurds-isis.html

[30] Kemal Kirişci, “The Rise and Fall of Turkey as a Model for the Arab World,” Brookings, August 15, 2013, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/the-rise-and-fall-of-turkey-as-a-model-for-the-arab-world/

[31] Jack Moore, “American Military Positions in Northern Syria leaked by Turkey over Kurdish Support,” Newsweek, July 19, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/american-military-positions-northern-syria-leaked-turkey-over-kurdish-support-638860

[32] Daniel Jativa, “Trump: ISIS in Syria will be wiped out ‘by tonight’,” Washington Examiner, March 20, 2019, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/trump-isis-in-syria-will-be-wiped-out-by-tonight

[33] Personal communications with three Turkish military officers, all communicated with independently, October 31, 2017. Also see Selcuk Gultasli and Andrew Rettman, “Leaked document sheds light on Turkey’s ‘controlled coup’”, EU Observer, March 11, 2019, https://euobserver.com/foreign/144366

[34] Carlotta Gall, “Americans Jailed After Failed Coup in Turkey Are Hostages to Politics,” The New York Times, October 7, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/07/world/europe/turkey-american-detainees.html

[35] Francesco F. Milan, “Turkey: What hides behind a failed coup attempt,” The RUSI Journal 161, no. 4 (2016): 28-32.

[36] Robin Emmott, “Pleading innocence, wanted general says Turkey’s purge ruining military,” Reuters, November 23, 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-security-nato/pleading-innocence-wanted-general-says-turkeys-purge-ruining-military-idUSKBN13I1VV

[37] The Associated Press, “Kurdish doctors report suspected Turkish gas attack in Syria,” ABC News, February 17, 2018, http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/kurdish-doctors-report-suspected-turkish-gas-attack-syria-53160095

[38] Bethan McKernan, “Turkish President Erdogan offers US ‘Ottoman slap’ ahead of Rex Tillerson’s visit to Turkey,” The Independent, February 16, 2018, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/turkey-us-president-erdogan-rex-tillerson-ottoman-slap-visit-secretary-state-a8212731.html; Mosheh Gains, Abigail Williams, and Alexander Smith, “U.S. blocks Turkey’s F-35 equipment over S-400 deal with Russia,” NBC News, April 2, 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/u-s-blocks-turkey-s-f-35-equipment-over-s-n989896