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Turkey and NATO: 60 Years On | Menekşe Tokyay | SES Türkiye

As Turkey marks its 60th anniversary as a member of NATO on February 18th, the importance of the Alliance is as clear as ever, given international and regional security challenges.

Since Turkey joined NATO on February 18th 1952, it has remained the lynchpin of its security policy, protecting the country from internal and external threats while constituting the cornerstone of Euro-Atlantic integration and co-operation.

After contributing nearly 5,000 young men to UN operations during the Korean War -- suffering over 700 casualties and earning the trust and respect of allied armies -- Turkey joined NATO, setting off the modernisation of its military along Western lines.
Throughout the Cold War, Turkey played a crucial role in containing the Soviet Union, and its NATO membership acted as an anchor solidifying Turkey's Western orientation.
"NATO membership gave Turkey a Westernised identity and provided her with a say on European security. In return, Turkey assumed the defence of the southeastern part of NATO against the soft underbelly of the Soviets," says Retired Lieutenant General Şadi Erguvenc, who served as a Turkish military representative to NATO.

Although the relationship was not without hiccups -- most notably over Cyprus -- it nonetheless fostered peace and stability. In the post-Cold War world, the role of NATO and Turkey's position within it has changed as both parties have had to adapt to new security challenges and keep the Alliance relevant and efficient.

In addition to traditional security threats, uncertainty and non-traditional threats -- including terrorism, organised crime, drug-trafficking, weapons proliferation, migration and piracy – have changed the security environment and the nature of the Alliance.
With its active participation in a number of NATO missions, ranging from Afghanistan to Libya and the Balkans, Turkey has demonstrated that it is committed to playing a responsible leadership role within its strategic region and beyond.

As Turkish Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz points out inTurkish Policy Quarterly, "both security and insecurity cross the borders of states easily" and "no nation or organisation is able to face the new threats alone."

From Turkey's perspective, the enlargement of NATO, whether through the entrance of new member states or the establishment of partnerships in the Mediterranean, Gulf states, and the states of the former Soviet Union, all contribute to the consolidation of stability and security within the Euro-Atlantic community and beyond.

"From the perspective of international security, it is of utmost importance to leave no country or 'dead region' outside the security and defence umbrella of the Alliance," explains Professor Hasret Comak, vice-rector of Kocaeli University and an expert on NATO enlargement at the Wise Men Centre for Strategic Studies (BİLGESAM).

"When it comes to NATO enlargement in the Mediterranean region, the immediate impact of the Mediterranean Dialogue has been the contribution to the counter-terrorism efforts [and] to the fight against drug smuggling as well as illegal immigration," Comak says.
The Partnership for Peace Programme, which includes 22 countries -- and many from the former Soviet Union including the Turkic Republics -- is also significant for Turkey's security because it creates a common platform to increase dialogue in this geography, adds Comak.
Looking at a map of current and potential NATO members, including the various partnerships surrounding Turkey, reveals that despite what is often termed Turkey's "dangerous neighbourhood", Turkish security against traditional and non-traditional threats is considerably enhanced by the strategic depth of these NATO-based relationships.
"The fact that there are countries wishing to be NATO members proves that it is still a prominent alliance meeting the security and defence needs of the countries," concludes Erguvenc.

Turkey's interests and hyper-active foreign policy sometimes result in a divergence from NATO or the stance of individual member states. However, experts note that initial disagreements between the parties end up with the alignment of Turkey's policies with those of the Alliance.

The NATO-led military intervention in Libya and the anti-missile defence shield are often cited as recent examples.

"For considerations of national interest, Turkey was reluctant to endorse NATO's involvement in both, considering that it may engender new dynamics of conflict around its borders," explains Emiliano Alessandri, a Transatlantic Fellow at the Washington-based German Marshall Fund.

According to Alessandri, the fact that Turkey accepted both of these initiatives in the end is testament that Turkey wants its voice to be heard but will avoid undermining NATO's unity by using its veto power.

Joint activity to promote stability in the Middle East and North Africa is needed precisely because regional instability in Turkey's proximate geography has the most potential to directly affect the country.

Selcuk Colakoglu, an international security expert from International Strategic Research Organisation (USAK), says that in particular, a joint response is needed to resolve the situation in Syria and bring definitive stabilisation to Iraq.

"Turkey has played and will continue to play a key role in forming and executing policies towards the Assad regime in Syria," Yurter Ozcan, president of the Turkish Policy Centre in Washington, told SES Türkiye.

Even if a NATO intervention similar to the one in Libya is not on the agenda, he says that NATO countries will likely play a role going forward and Turkey will be heavily involved in those efforts through logistics, providing training and arms to the Free Syrian Army, but will shy away from portraying this as an Alliance effort.

As for the broader Middle East, Colakoglu argues Turkey is in a unique position. "The regional expertise of Turkey and NATO's ambition to build a new relationship with those nations can pave the way for an invaluable partnership between two sides."

Turkey's unique position within NATO is also observed in Afghanistan, where it not only seeks to increase diplomatic co-operation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but on an operational level, provides a number of advantages.

"Turkish troops have an instinctive understanding of Muslim sensitivities, which makes it much less likely that they will accidentally insult or antagonise local communities when they are conducting searches of homes and other buildings," Gareth Jenkins, a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy's Turkey Initiative, tells SES Türkiye.

He adds that in asymmetrical wars, like the war on terrorism, the most important battleground is psychological. "One of the efficient ways to convince Muslims that the war on terror is not against their religion is to have a Muslim country as part of the Alliance."
According to Alessandri, Turkey will most likely remain engaged in Afghan security and development even after the withdrawal of ISAF forces, which is currently set for 2014.
However, despite repeated statements from politicians and the military establishment that the Alliance is the country's most vital strategic asset, public support has traditionally been low, presenting a serious disconnect between policy makers and society.

According to the 2011 Transatlantic Trends survey released by the German Marshall Fund, only 37% of those polled in Turkey say that NATO is essential, consistently the lowest among NATO member states.

There seems to be a number of reasons why Turkish public opinion takes a relatively negative view of NATO.

"First of all, Turkish public opinion perceived NATO as a Western and Christian organisation set up to support anti-Islam feelings," explains Colakoglu, adding that the rise of anti-Islam discourse in the West has fanned negative perceptions.

With this in mind, NATO's Public Diplomacy Division is planning to organise a series of activities in 2012, both to celebrate the anniversary and to increase support for NATO in Turkish public opinion.

However, for Faruk Logoglu, a former Turkish ambassador to Washington who is currently serving as a CHP deputy on the Foreign Relations Committee, the primary reason for the low level of public support lies behind the policies of the ruling AKP.

"While the AKP has been in power over the last decade, they have changed the threat perceptions and altered the public's views on the Alliance negatively. Turkey's neighbours, including Iran, have been delisted by the AKP as sources of potential threat to Turkey," he explains.

According to Logoglu, another reason is the overconfidence of the AKP leadership in Turkey's military and economic prowess. "The AKP radiates populist messages that Turkey can stand alone and is a regional power with global pretensions," he says.

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