Experts: NATO’s future in flux as allies place sanctions, arms bans on Turkey

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As Turkey’s military operation in Syria enters its sixth day despite widespread condemnation, the diplomatic fallout threatens the future of NATO.

The 29-member international military alliance - made up of the US, Canada, Turkey and European states - has been tested to the core as Turkey’s NATO partners have condemned its incursion into northeastern Syria and halted arms sales to Ankara in response.


Experts say these developments could crack the NATO alliance.

“If Turkey does not back down in Syria, then American sanctions and penalties will likely lead to a major cleavage in NATO and could be a step toward Ankara’s exit,” Jonathan Schanzer, an expert on Turkey at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told Al Arabiya English.

The US slapped sanctions on Turkey on Monday, accusing Ankara of putting civilians in Syria at risk and allowing the release of ISIS extremists. House and Senate lawmakers are preparing bills to potentially ban US arms exports to Turkey.

Five EU member countries, including Italy and the Netherlands, have halted all arms sales to Turkey. France and Germany, also part of the EU, announced the halt of arms sales on Saturday that “could be used” in the Syrian offensive.

Turkey’s NATO partners oppose its military operation against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who were a key partner in the fight against ISIS.

Ankara said it “fully rejected and condemned” the EU’s moves.

“We will seriously review our cooperation with the EU on certain areas due to its unlawful and biased attitude,” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

In addition to undermining Turkey’s relations with the EU, which it is still officially negotiating to join, the rift threatens the collective military alliance of NATO – a cornerstone of defense policy for North American and European states.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he warned Ankara prior to the incursion that the operation would damage Turkey’s ability to stay in NATO during an interview with Fox News Sunday.

Schanzer told Al Arabiya English that Turkey has been at odds with NATO for several years and that “the current crisis may hasten a political crisis.”

Given there is no official process in place for ousting a NATO member, American constitutional law scholar and Yale Law School professor Bruce Ackerman says Article Two of the NATO Treaty could serve as the basis to expel Turkey from NATO. Article Two commits member states to “strengthening their free institutions.”

“If a state moves down the path of destroying freedom instead, the other member states therefore have the authority to suspend their commitment, under Article Five, to defend one another from aggression. This is precisely what should happen in the case of Turkey, given Erdogan’s sweeping assault on fundamental democratic principle,” said Ackerman in an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya English.

Ackerman said Europeans should take the lead in this initiative since a strong NATO is in the continent’s interest.

In contrast Jolyon Howorth, a British scholar of European politics and defense policy, said Turkey’s removal from NATO is unlikely.

“NATO will not expel Turkey…and Turkey will not seek to leave of its own accord, any more than it will cut off negotiations with the EU. It has proved very good at going through the motions of membership… [which] improves Turkey’s image as a player. Why should it stop now?” Howorth, who currently teaches at Harvard University told Al Arabiya English.

Cracks benefit Russia

The North Atlantic Treaty (NATO), which Turkey joined two years after its establishment in 1951, was founded to create a counterweight to Soviet Union military capabilities.

NATO member countries are now expressing frustration at Ankara’s recent ties to Russia, and experts say the NATO tensions could push the two countries closer.

Esper said on Sunday that Turkey’s behavior over the past several years has been “terrible,” citing its relationship with Russia.

“We see them purchasing Russian arms, coming up to President Putin…we see them do all these things that frankly concern us,” said Esper during an interview with Fox News.

In July the US government removed Turkey from the American F-35 fighter jet program over its purchase of Russia’s S-400 defense system.

Russian president Vladimir Putin criticized NATO as a “military bloc” during an interview with Al Arabiya that aired Sunday, adding that Russia “is not happy about” NATO’s infrastructure moving closer to its borders.

“I think it is clear to everyone that NATO is just a US foreign policy tool,” said Putin.

While the current NATO friction may suit Moscow, NATO leadership is standing by Turkey’s membership in the alliance.

“Turkey is important for NATO. It has proven important in many ways, not least in the fight against [ISIS]. We have used, as NATO allies, the global coalition, all of us have used infrastructure in Turkey, bases in Turkey in our operations to defeat [ISIS]. And that’s exactly one of the reasons why I’m concerned about what is going on now. Because we risk undermining the unity we need in the fight against Daesh,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Monday.

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