Turkey’s Purges Weaken NATO

Civilians protesting coup attempt in Istanbul, July 19, 2016On Thursday, Turkish police arrested another 45 air force pilots, just the latest salvo in a purge whose scope is unprecedented in NATO history. As many as 10,000 service members have been fired or arrested over the past three months, arrests which have hit the air force particularly hard given that several top air force generals took part in the coup attempt. Overall, at least 149 generals and admirals have been fired or arrested, half of Turkey’s total roster. The ouster has cut so deep that Ankara is scouring for engineering students and even secular officers forcibly retired after a 2010 coup attempt to stanch the brain drain.

The military purge is both pushing Turkey to play a more adventurous role in the region, by giving troops a fight outside Turkey, and making those irredentist visions that much harder to achieve. What’s more, Turkey’s military housecleaning threatens to seriously weaken NATO’s southern flank just as Russian adventurism in the neighborhood has ratcheted up, with a renewed Russian military operation in support of Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria and a heavy Russian naval deployment to the Mediterranean….

Turkey’s purge also threatens to undermine NATO, of which it has been a crucial part since 1952; Turkey has the second-largest military in the alliance, after the United States. The culling has hit liaison officers with NATO and other allies particularly hard, which makes it more difficult for countries like the United States to coordinate on military operations. Many of the dismissed officers trained or studied in the United States, and their departure creates a vacuum within the upper ranks of the armed forces, where seasoned officers with relationships built over the course of years with NATO officers and diplomats are critical.

Since July, dozens of officers posted to NATO assignments have received orders to come home, where many have been arrested, and others simply given their walking papers. A total of 149 of Ankara’s military representatives at NATO facilities in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom have returned to Turkey. Of the 50 Turkish officers serving at NATO headquarters in Brussels, only nine remain.

Jorge Benitez, a NATO expert at the Atlantic Council, says Turkish officials have told him that about 400 of Turkey’s military envoys across the world have also been fired or called back.

The magnitude of Erdogan’s purges — which also include tens of thousands of judges, police officers, teachers, journalists, and academics — further “fuel instability in a major NATO ally that is already under strain from terrorist attacks, a huge population of refugees, and a war next door in Syria that is becoming even more violent,” Benitez said.

And that is disturbing news not just for the ongoing fight against the Islamic State, but as part of NATO’s effort to hold the line against an increasingly aggressive Russia, which has bolstered its defenses in the Black Sea and whose military expedition in Syria is the country’s largest overseas deployment in years.

“There’s no question it’s going to make it less easy to operate together” as an alliance, former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Eric Edelman observed to FP.

Related Experts: Jorge Benitez

Image: Civilians protesting coup attempt in Istanbul, July 19, 2016 (photo: Maurice Flesier)