NATO Holds its Peace as Relations with Turkey Degrade

Kjell Brygfjeld, a 67-year-old commercial lawyer in Stavanger, the oil capital of Norway, never expected the aftershocks from last July’s failed military coup in Turkey to reach his door.

But after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hit back hard, purging more than 100,000 alleged plotters and opponents from Turkey’s armed forces and other public bodies, that was exactly what happened.

Last November, four Turkish officers attached to a Nato base near the city asked Mr Brygfjeld to oversee their application to Oslo for political asylum. Since 1982, he has worked for asylum-seekers, in recent years mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis. He took the case.

One of the officers had been dismissed from Turkey’s military. The other three had been ordered home from Nato postings at Stavanger. Instead of returning “they decided to defect”, Mr Brygfjeld says. “They considered they could be arrested at the airport and brought to jail, with no possibility to get in touch with lawyers.”

After months of uncertainty, Oslo granted Mr Brygfjeld’s clients and their families political asylum in March this year. “They have continued to live as normally as they could, living from savings, selling cars and assets,” he says. “They are being taken care of by the relevant authorities.”

But Turkey’s foreign ministry was not pleased. It summoned the Norwegian ambassador, saying it was “regrettable and unacceptable” that a Nato ally had supported the officers over the Turkish state.

The drama in Stavanger is part of a pattern emerging elsewhere in Europe. In May, Germany granted asylum to hundreds of Turkish officers and diplomats targeted by the purge. More than 100 soldiers have applied for asylum in Belgium, where Nato has its political headquarters in Brussels, and its European military command near Mons.

The crackdown on dissent went far beyond the military, to include more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors — and many thousands of police, civil servants, academics and journalists.

In April, Mr Erdogan narrowly won public approval for a constitutional overhaul that takes the country further towards autocratic, one-man rule.

Such authoritarian moves have increased the tensions between Turkey and its Nato allies, who have begun to raise concerns about the erosion of democracy, the rule of law and individual liberty that the country pledged to uphold when it joined the transatlantic alliance in 1952. They have also compounded the breakdown of Turkey’s long-stalled EU membership bid, increasing pressure for talks with Brussels to be formally suspended….

The military ramifications of the purge for Turkey’s army and its Nato presence are serious. Analysts reckon Mr Erdogan’s government has sacked 40 per cent of the generals and admirals in the armed forces, with some 400 military personnel removed from their Nato posts.

“There is real concern that basically they have emptied the Turkish military of its upper commanding level, so you have a military that is very weakened,” says Fabrice Pothier, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think-tank based in Washington DC and a former head of policy planning at Nato….

[A]n official in Turkey’s defence ministry insists that all purged Nato officers are “affiliated” with Feto — or Fethullah Terrorist Organisation, a government acronym applied to supporters of Mr Gulen.

“We deplore the acceptance by a number of EU countries of asylum applications of former military officers who are affiliated with Feto,” the official wrote in an email to the Financial Times. “Accepting these applications is against the spirit of alliance.”

Image: Turkish soldier in Afghanistan, Dec. 8, 2008 (photo: Petty Officer Aramis Ramirez/US Navy/ISAF)