If there’s a country that could challenge North Korea for world’s least predictable government, Turkey would have to be it. Recent actions taken by the Turkish government have people scratching their heads wondering what exactly President Erdogan is doing. His seeming determination to anger both the United States and the European Union risks completely upending the existing relationship between Turkey and the West and throwing a wrench into Western intervention in the Middle East.
The most prominent spat has been that between Turkey and the US over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. The US tried to get Turkey to purchase Patriot missiles but Turkey insisted on purchasing the S-400, even after the US threatened to kick Turkey out of the F-35 program. Now that Turkey has begun taking delivery of the S-400, Turkish pilots have been kicked out of the F-35 training program, Turkish parts suppliers have been prohibited from producing any more parts for the F-35, and Turkish orders for the F-35 have been canceled.
There’s a lot more going on to the dispute between the US and Turkey, including Erdogan’s continued belief that the US was behind a coup attempt in 2016, as well as US support for Kurdish militias in Syria whom Turkey regards as terrorists. But given the continued strain between the US and Turkey, for which a rapprochement doesn’t appear likely, the safety of US troops at the Incirlik air base and the nuclear weapons they safeguard could be in jeopardy.
Added to the strain with the US are new Turkish efforts to spurn Europe. Turkish drilling ships have moved into waters in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone to drill for natural gas, ignoring existing international agreements regarding those waters. Turkish warships have even chased off ships licensed by the Cypriot government to drill for gas. All of this stems from Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and the continuing occupation of northern Cyprus by Turkey.
In response EU ministers agreed to cut off EU financial aid to Turkey, and halted talks on a proposed aviation accord. Should the crisis worsen, sanctions could very well be on the table. With the Turkish economy weakening, sanctions from both the EU and the US could end up being very debilitating. Would that force Erdogan to give in, or would he continue to lash out?
Given the way Erdogan has acted so far, one would have to imagine that his ego wouldn’t allow him to capitulate. Don’t be surprised to see Erdogan continuing to spurn the US and EU, grow closer to Russia, and put Turkey at risk of leaving NATO. And if Turkey does leave NATO, the risk of a Turkish clash with US forces in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East will become much more likely.