With Friends Like Turkey, Who Needs Enemies?

After its reluctance to confront IS, Ankara is proving to be a very unreliable Nato ally, says Con Coughlin

Published: 24th October 2014 06:11 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th October 2014 06:11 AM   |  A+A-

For a country that is supposed to be a pivotal Nato ally, Turkey sure has a strange way of showing loyalty to its friends in their hour of need.

Ankara’s support in the battle to defeat the fanatics of the Islamic State (IS), who are busily establishing their fiefdom across the border in Syria and Iraq, is vital if the West is to stand any chance of success.

And yet, rather than helping its western allies, the Turks seem to be doing everything in their power to frustrate the international effort to eradicate the IS threat — a campaign that politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have warned could last for many years to come.

Perhaps the most graphic illustration of Turkey’s ambivalent approach has been the image of tanks from Nato’s second largest army standing idly by as militants raised IS’s black flag over the Syrian town of Kobane just a few hundred metres away across the Turkish border. With Kobane’s Kurdish defenders facing a desperate battle for survival, even modest support from the Turks would have helped them to stem IS’s relentless advancing tide. But rather than lend a helping hand, the Turks refused to ease border restrictions to allow vital supplies and reinforcements into Kobane.

The same obstructive attitude can be seen in Ankara’s less than enthusiastic response to Washington’s repeated requests for permission to mount air strikes against IS positions from Turkish bases. As a result US fighters are inconveniently operating from aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean, which severely impedes their ability to respond quickly to the constantly changing battle landscape.

The Turks’ reluctance to get behind the military effort against IS is based on two concerns, both of which put Ankara fundamentally at odds with the objectives of its Nato partners. The first is Turkey’s aim in Syria’s brutal civil war to see Assad overthrown and replaced by an Islamic government with a similar outlook to that of its own President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Until last year this was not a problem, as Britain and America and Ankara shared a common goal regarding Assad. But the West’s priorities have changed dramatically since the heady days of late August 2013 when President Obama and David Cameron made their ill-fated attempt to garner support for air strikes against Damascus.

These days, the West’s priority is to defeat the Islamist militants who oppose the Assad regime. Claims that the Turks are actively supporting IS fighters with arms and training indicates that there now exists a sharp divergence between Turkey’s priorities in the conflict and those of the western powers.

The plight of the Kurds is the other bone of contention between Turkey and Nato. Denying Kurdish aspirations for full independence is hard-wired into the DNA of Ankara’s political establishment, to the extent that the Turks, as shown in Kobane, would prefer to see a town overrun by IS rather than have the Kurds prevail.

Nor is this the first time that Ankara’s selfish pursuit of its own agenda placed it at odds with the rest of Nato. The initial planning for the US-led coalition’s ground invasion of Iraq in 2003 was predicated on the assumption that the main thrust of the attack could be launched from Kurdish-controlled territory in the north, within easy striking distance of Saddam Hussein’s stronghold in Baghdad. But at the last minute the Turks, fearing that Kurdish involvement in the campaign might strengthen their independence claims, pulled out, forcing the attack to be mounted from southern Iraq.

Turkey’s disinclination to back its Nato allies might be easier to stomach were it not for the fact that, when the boot is on the other foot, the Turks are not reticent about asking Nato for help. Nato Patriot anti-missile batteries were deployed to Turkey after one of their reconnaissance jets was shot down over Syria in the summer of 2012, and they were also provided with improved anti-aircraft defence measures during the build up to both Gulf Wars in 1991 and 2003.

Perhaps someone should remind the Turks that membership of an alliance such as Nato is a two-way street: it is all very well expecting help when the chips are down, but a little reciprocity would not go amiss, especially when it comes to a complex issue such as IS.

For as long as Ankara continues to ignore the appeals by Britain and its allies for support, the West has good reason to question whether Turkey’s membership of Nato is worth maintaining.

In the past its membership of the alliance, which dates back to the early stages of the Cold War in 1952, was regarded as a vital bulwark against further Soviet expansion. In the wake of President Putin’s activities along the Black Sea littoral in Crimea earlier this year, there remain compelling arguments for keeping the Turks on side. But the value of any alliance can only be measured by the willingness of its members to act for the common good. The Turks’ recent conduct certainly raises the question: who needs enemies when your friends behave like this?

© The Daily Telegraph

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