NATO missile defense and Ankara's diplomatic balancing act

Sinan Ulgen

By Sinan Ulgen

Chairman, EDAM think tank, Istanbul and Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Europe

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Turkey is one of the critical pillars of NATO’s ballistic missile defense (BMD). Following years of negotiations the Turkish Government signaled its approval to the installation of an early warning radar system on its territory in November 2010. The final conditions for the early warning radar system were agreed upon in September 2011 and installation was completed by January 2012. The AN/TPY-2 type radar has been stationed in the southeastern town of Kürecik, Malatya which is about 700 km from the Iranian border.

Turkey’s decision to host the early warning radar system was hailed as one the biggest strategic decisions between the United States and Turkey in the past 15 or 20 years. But the decision for the Turkish government to host the said system was far from easy. Initially when the Bush administration launched the idea of missile defense, Ankara gave a negative reaction. Turkey opposed the initial plan for missile defense on the grounds that it was not under the aegis of NATO and therefore it violated the principle of the indivisibility of the Allies’ security. Ankara’s opposition was overcome when the US decided to bring the system under the NATO umbrella. But this decision gave rise to new complications given Ankara’s sensitivities to the potential reaction of Turkey’s neighbors like Russia and Iran.

In the past decade, Turkey’s relationship with Russia improved considerably. The good personal relationship established between Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Russian President Putin has provided a unique framework for the burgeoning of this relationship. Today the economic collaboration between the two countries is quite substantial, as illustrated by the concession granted to Rosatom to build Turkey’s first ever nuclear power plant, and the green light given to the South Stream pipeline project, which will transport Russian natural gas to Europe through Turkish territorial waters. Also, the number of Russian tourists who visited Turkey in 2011 reached 3.5 million, while Turkish companies have acquired a major share in construction projects in the Russian Federation. Further, the two countries have removed visa requirements contributing to increases in Turkish investments in Russia.

Intent on safeguarding its mutually beneficial relationship with its Russian neighbor, therefore Ankara felt obliged to be responsive to Moscow’s concerns on the NATO BMD system. Initial Russian reactions toward Turkey were cautious. Moscow has adopted a policy of raising the issue and allowing opposition to the radar to be aired and published in official media outlets. In direct talks with the Turkish foreign ministry Russian diplomats confide that they do not see the Kürecik radar as a threat to Russia but are rather concerned about the third and fourth phase of the BMD program. Moscow raises the issue of the early warning radar system in Kürecik from time to time but is primarily concerned about the missile sites in Romania and Poland, which are scheduled to become active in the later phases of the project. Russia primarily fears it could erode the deterrent potential of its nuclear forces and make them vulnerable to a NATO ‘first strike’.

Some Turkish diplomats sympathize with that view and underline that Turkey has always argued for maintaining a strategic balance between the US and Russia. They underline that since the 2002 Prague Summit Turkey’s official position has been to urge the US to maintain the balance achieved since the Cold War era. Turkey understands if Russia cannot be assured that it will have a second strike capacity it will perceive BMD as a threat to its deterrence capability. That said, the issue is seen as primarily one between Washington and Moscow and Turkish decision-makers are content with the current position of their Russian counterparts. Despite expectations that the BMD issue would sour Turkish-Russian relations the two sides have handled the issue relatively well.

Another set of relationships that Ankara strived to manage throughout the NATO BMD debate were Turkey’s relations with its neighbors. Differences began to emerge within NATO in 2010 over whether or not to include Iran and Syria as the reason for the system’s deployment. Unlike its allies in Paris and Washington, Turkey adamantly rejected the push to name Iran and Syria as specific threats to the Alliance. Ankara’s resistance was motivated by the possible reaction of Iran and Syria to being labeled as overt threats to the Alliance. In the event, the Allies decided to heed Ankara’s reservations and the Lisbon Summit Statement ended up framing the BMD initiative without specific references to these two countries.

The advent of the Arab spring led to a radical change in Ankara’s relations with Damascus and Tehran. The new proactive and revisionist Ankara adopted a more aggressive attitude towards Assad and his regime. The Turkish leadership that lashed out against intervention in Libya just a year earlier, started to publicly raise the issue of outside intervention to Syria. But Ankara’s new foreign policy approach is creating substantial difficulties for policy in Turkey’s own neighborhood. The challenge for Turkish policy makers will be to pursue the country’s more revisionist approach, despite being surrounded by status quo regimes. So far, Ankara has failed to demonstrate the diplomatic dexterity to successfully manage the complexities of such a fundamental repositioning of its foreign policy in the face of marked tension and instability.

Due to Ankara’s harsh criticism of Assad, and its overt support to the armed opposition in Syria, the relationship with Damascus has turned hostile. While Turkey aims to precipitate regime change in Syria, the Syrian regime has begun supporting Kurdish militants engaged in terrorist activities inside Turkey. The relationship with Tehran has also become more difficult, as the two regional powers find themselves at the opposite ends regarding the future of Syria. Iranian authorities are now regularly criticizing Turkey’s behavior.

The deteriorating regional security situation has alerted Turkish authorities about the implications of a potential conflict with neighbors with WMD capabilities. As a result, security concerns started once more to dominate Turkey’s foreign policy agenda. A consequence of this shift has been the growing reliance on NATO as the transatlantic security provider. It is no coincidence that Turkey decided to request the assistance of its NATO partners for the installation of Patriot batteries to protect Turkish provinces against a possible Syrian aggression. The re-emergence of regional security concerns now ties Turkey even more strongly to the future of NATO ballistic missile defense.