Report

Turkey’s Caucasus Adventure Risks Another Crisis in NATO

NATO allies have been at odds with Turkey for years. But Ankara’s role in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict is bringing matters to a head.

NATO leaders meet at a NATO summit in London in 2019.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump, next to Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during the NATO summit in Watford, England, on Dec. 4, 2019. Christian Hartmann//Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh has fueled a fresh fight within NATO, with alliance members pushing Turkey to dial back its aggressive foreign policy and support a cease-fire in the Caucasus.

As the conflict over the disputed territory has escalated over the past week, leaving over 200 people dead and hundreds more injured, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on Turkey to defuse the situation, given its decades of support for Azerbaijan. “We are deeply concerned by the escalation of hostilities. All sides should immediately cease fighting,” Stoltenberg said during a visit to Ankara, the Turkish capital, on Monday. “I expect Turkey to use its considerable influence to calm tensions.”

But Turkey has dug in its heels, defying a joint call from the United States, France, and Russia for an immediate cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh. “We look at the calls coming from around the world, and it’s ‘immediate cease-fire.’ What then? There was a cease-fire until now, but what happened?” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Tuesday during a visit to Azerbaijan. 

In crisis after crisis in recent years, Turkey’s relations with many of its NATO allies have frayed, but they’ve never fully collapsed. Turkey has purchased Russian air defense systems and angered Washington. Turkey has squared off with Greece and France in the Eastern Mediterranean, invaded northeastern Syria, and waded into the civil war in Libya. All that came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian turn in the wake of a 2016 coup attempt.

Now, many are wondering where the breaking point is—and how close it might be, especially with a potential U.S. administration under presidential candidate Joe Biden signaling a much tougher line on Turkey than the Trump administration’s coddling. 

Turkey’s lurch into the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, including the use of Syrian mercenaries that serve as its proxy army, has put some powerful NATO members in the odd position of coordinating its message with Moscow, which has long sided with Armenia. (Many alliance members are on the other side of Turkey in ongoing conflicts in Syria and Libya.) Analysts fear that the conflict could spiral into wider regional confrontations; both Turkey and Israel have a close security relationship with Azerbaijan, Russia has a defense pact with Armenia, and neighboring Iran is trying to play a role in mediating the conflict. 

The latest conflict is already reverberating inside NATO. Canada this week announced it was halting some weapons sales to Turkey after allegations its equipment was used by Azerbaijani forces. Turkey’s foreign ministry quickly shot back, accusing Canada of “double standards” by continuing to export arms to countries involved in the war in Yemen.

Conventional arm-twisting might not work. Experts say Turkey is honing a style of mercenary-led combat—backed by drones for close air support—that lends itself to flashy propaganda coups, if not guaranteed battlefield successes. Turkish military propaganda could leave a lasting—if outsized—impression of Ankara’s might on the battlefield, as it did during a battle in the contested Syrian province of Idlib earlier this year.

“All you see is the strikes. It’s very powerful imagery,” said Aaron Stein, the director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “In Idlib everyone forgets that Turkey lost. All people remember is Turkey kicking Russian ass.”

“It’s lowered the barrier to entry, it’s made combat less risky to them, and it’s highly effective propaganda,” he added.

If bilateral tensions spill over into NATO deliberations, it could hamstring the alliance’s ability to make decisions on other areas of importance, related to Russia, the Middle East, or other threats facing the trans-Atlantic alliance. NATO operates with consensus decision-making, meaning nothing is decided until all 30 members agree.

“We still run a huge risk of bilateral disputes being imported into NATO and … blocking NATO’s ability to do business,” said Lauren Speranza, the director of trans-Atlantic defense and security at the Center for European Policy Analysis. “That’s nothing new, but the combination of Turkey’s latest actions has pushed those discussions to the next level. There are now debates about how to make Turkey recognize the consequences.”

Turkey has remained in NATO for almost 70 years largely because it anchors NATO’s southern flank, guards the gateway to the Black Sea, and acts as a corridor to the Middle East. That geopolitical leverage gives it a lot of room to maneuver.

“Turkey in recent years has undertaken a much bolder foreign policy,” said Rachel Rizzo, an expert on trans-Atlantic security with the Truman National Security Project. “The United States and Europe both know that Turkey is better as an ally, but that doesn’t mean Turkey isn’t a thorn in everyone’s side.”

Turkey has certainly caused some pain. Whether its purchase of advanced Russian weapons or its incursion into Syria, threatening the lives of Kurdish forces who fought alongside U.S. troops to battle the Islamic State, Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy has riled NATO allies for years. But Ankara has always been able to play up its pivotal geographical position—and the fact that it has one of the biggest armies in the alliance.

“It’s always been within our interest to keep Turkey anchored in the West, but because of that, Turkey has been able to rebuke the West out of one side of its mouth and then have direct access to the U.S. and allies with the other,” Speranza said.

Turkey’s missteps have angered Congress, if not the Trump administration. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers are pressuring the administration to do more to crack down on Turkey.

“There is very deep worry and concern about where Turkey is going, and more particularly where Erdogan is taking Turkey in all of this,” said a Republican congressional aide. “There’s an effort to try to get the administration to be more forceful with them.” The aide said that the administration was using sanctions authorities to confront Turkey, but “nowhere near to the level that Congress wants to see or is demanding.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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