Soli Ozel on Turkey’s Foreign Policy in 2022: Russia, NATO, Sweden and Finland’s Accession, the PKK and PYD, and S-400s.
Soli Ozel is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Kadir Has University and Senior Fellow at l’Institut Montaigne. In this first episode of Turkey Uncut, he sits down with Jared Conrad-Bradshaw to discuss the motivations behind Turkey’s foreign policy, from buying the Russian-made S-400 missiles to holding up Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership.
What does Turkey want from NATO in 2022?
Or more broadly, how does Turkey see itself in the changing post-Cold War security context?
NATO is now the principal organization in which Turkey has equal relations with everyone. It is the organization that is the mainstay of Turkey’s strategic Westernness.
Of course, Turkey sometimes has problematic relations with NATO, partially because, when the Cold War ended, just like NATO lost its enemy [the Soviet Union], its different members now have actually very different interests. Certainly, Turkey and the United States have different interests, particularly in the regions where Turkey wanted to become a much more active and possibly strategically autonomous.
What were those regions? Can you talk a little bit about Turkey’s autonomous ambitions?
Of course the Caucasus is one. For Central Asia, of course, Turkey received the support of its allies because it was close to the region and did have some historical and cultural relations with the region and was enthusiastic about improving those relations. And the Middle East as well.
There were two events which Turkey did not feel particularly happy about. One was the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Within Turkey, the government of the time, led by [President Turgut] Özal, wanted to support the war against Iraq to get it out of Kuwait, but many others in the Turkish security establishment were afraid that this would create a situation where Turkey might meet some new challenges, particularly in the north of Iraq if there was an autonomous or independent Kurdistan.
And, much more importantly the War against Iraq in 2003, which exposed very clearly how Turkish and American interests were not convergent at all but in fact the Iraq War was what actually broke, if you will, the unity of the Western alliance, though it did take a long time. And it took Russia (starting in 2014) for the Western allies to really feel reunited. And the final drop in the bucket was the Invasion of Ukraine. NATO found a post-Cold War purpose. Russia has been designated as the main enemy and the security is really defined as if it were the original Cold War.
Is Turkey’s desire for strategic autonomy mostly tied up with Kurdish issues in Syria and Iraq or does it extend further than that?
The desire for autonomy is: “Okay, we are part of the Western alliance, but we do have interests which are separate, and we would like to pursue them, so don’t really try to block us.” Or course, events in Iraq and Syria as well do play an important role in defining Turkish security apprehensions.
In Iraq, things are far more stable today, as far as Turkey is concerned, in that Turkey is present physically in the north of Iraq. It has shed its concerns of an autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. It has good relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government — at least with the Barzani side of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Turkey cooperates with it order to fight the PKK, Turkey’s nemesis.
But in Syria, Turkey fears, things may get out of hand and then of course it complains that its allies — most notably the United States — are actually supporting and supplying the Syrrian extension of the PKK, the PYD, which is not recognized as terrorist organization (by other NATO members), unlike the PKK. The position of the allies is that the PYD is the one who actually fought against ISIS. There Turks and its allies don’t really see eye-to-eye.
As recently as a few years ago, it seemed like Turkey’s desire for autonomy was going to lead it to conflict within the NATO structure. I’m thinking specifically about the S-400 missile system that Turkey got from Russia. I want to be clear that I didn’t think buying the S-400s was a good idea, but one should also be cognizant of the context within which Turkey made that decision. What I think Turkey’s allies still don’t wish to admit is that on the 15th of July, 2016, when there was a coup attempt in Turkey, Turkey’s allies acted miserably. Instead of showing unconditional solidarity with a NATO ally, they all equivocated. (US Secretary of State) John Kerry said they were “watching developments”. It was 2:30 in the afternoon in Washington when the coup began and nobody bothered to pick up the phone and make a call to the — whether you like them or not — legitimately elected President and Prime Minister of Turkey. That really left a sour taste in the mouth of those who believed that the United States in particular was out to get them.
Whereas [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, according to some reports, got wind of what was coming and had already warned the government. Putin definitely showed support, along with the Iranian government. That led to a rapprochement between Russia and Turkey, who had almost come to loggerheads just a few months earlier. They had only barely made up before July 15th. When (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan visited Russia, he got the green-light to finally have an incursion into northern Syria, i.e. the Russians did not close the airspace to the Turkish military. In return, the Turkish government decided to buy the S-400s.
Turkey was given enough warning about the S-400’s and its incompatibility — in fact, unacceptability — by the NATO alliance because of concerns that technology could be stolen and all that.
One thing I’ve never understood was why was having a missile defense system so important to Turkey. Was this related to domestic concerns about Turkey’s own military being used against the government, or were there broader concerns?
The thing is, all of Turkey’s neighbors were developing missile capabilities in the 1990’s, most notably Iran. Although we don’t have the kind of hysterical sentiments as a Saudi Arabia or an Israel about Iran’s military capability, obviously, these are two old empires that have been in competition and cooperation with one another for centuries. Iraq and Syria were also developing missile capabilities.
Although Turkey’s military defense doctrine relies heavily on its air force, from 1991 onwards it was seen as imperative that Turkey has a decent missile system to protect itself from dangerous neighbors. The story then gets complicated. Turkey couldn’t get Patriots. It wanted to get the missiles from China, but it turned out China wouldn’t transfer the technology. Technology transfer has always been more of a handicap than the price of whatever missile system Turkey was going to get. The story of the latest round of negotiations between Turkey and the US over Patriots is, depending on who you listen to, either the Americans did not want to sell them or the Turks could not accept that technology transfers would not take place. I think a third way could be found: there’s a French-Italian system that could be produced jointly with Turkey.
The S-400 were more of a warning shot, if you will, to the allies that we will go this way if won’t really give us what we really need, than it was anything else.
Mind you, these missiles have been unpacked but they were never deployed (laughs), although they were tested. It’s been now three years at least, I think, since Turkey received the S-400s. Occasionally, people talk about the “second package”. This second package never materialized, and it looks unlikely the existing package will be deployed soon, either.
Speaking of warning shots, what happened at NATO Madrid Summit that took place this week?
Turkey initially gave the message that it would welcome Swedish and Finnish admission to NATO. Then, after one Friday Prayer, about five weeks ago, the President came out and said he really wasn’t looking so favorably on the admission of Sweden and Finland. Then, Turkey’s position hardened and by and large said unless these guys stop their arms embargo against Turkey, and unless they extradite what Turkey considers to be terrorists who are in Sweden, and unless they stop supporting the PKK and its offshoots, Turkey was going to veto their admission. Until the very last moment, it looked like Turkey was not going to give an inch.
I also thought there were two other important considerations in Turkey’s position. One was to show very publicly to an increasingly anti-Western public that Turkey was playing hardball. Secondly, Turkey was also trying to send a message to the US, and to the Biden Administration in particular, that it needs to actually speak to Turkey rather than giving it a cold shoulder.
Ultimately, President Biden called President Erdoğan. Whatever they talked about, I think there was a conditional promise that if President Erodoğan lifted his veto, then President Biden would agree to a meeting for an hour with President Erdoğan. Indeed, lo and behold, the memorandum [in which Finnish and Swedish agreed to Turkey’s conditions] was signed, Turkey lifted its veto, and at the summit the Biden–Erdoğan meeting also took place.
Do you think ultimately Turkey is ostracizing itself further from Western allies, or is it ultimately playing a clever game of influence?
There is a very serious debate inside the country. Many people don’t question that Turkey’s concerns are real — particularly when it came to Sweden, not necessarily to Finland — but the best way to handle those matters would be behind closed doors rather than doing it so publicly and with such harsh language. It almost harmed Turkey’s legitimate concerns. The government chose to pursue that road rather than pursuing the diplomatic road to get what it wanted.
Do you think that was primarily driven by domestic concerns?
I think so. Now the government can turn around say, “You see, I did it my way and I got what I wanted.” Whether or not they got exactly what they wanted is debatable. I think this memorandum was a masterpiece of constructive ambiguity (laughs). All three parties can go to their own publics and say, “Hey, we didn’t yield — we got what we wanted.”
I think Turkey did get one thing that was concrete and that was Finland and Sweden not only lift their weapons embargoes against Turkey, but they agree not to impose another one. Whatever else is going to happen — what they’ll consider the PYD to be, whether they will do anything, whether or not Turkey will actually get all the people from the extradition list they submitted to Sweden — those things are all out on a limb. I think part of the reason why such a public stance was taken was to get the attention of the Americans. I think, for the moment, this memorandum is what they’ll get. Remember, though, there will be about nine months before all the procedures will be taken care of and the Turkish parliament will also have to approve the admission of Sweden and Finland into NATO. We’ll see how all three side are going to be managing the articles of that memorandum.
And if something else happens we’ll have to have you back on. Thank you so much for being so generous with your time.
Thanks for having me.
The video contains the full interview, uncut.