Commentary by Abdullah Bozkurt
Turkey’s ruling elite, composed of Islamists and neo-nationalists, have been agitating for a hard breakup with the transatlantic alliance for years but have at the same time grown uneasy about the ramifications of such a disengagement on the Turkish economy, which could very well undermine their grip on power.
The strange bedfellows at the helm of the government — President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his allies in the nationalist bloc led by Devlet Bahçeli and the neo-nationalist bloc led by Doğu Perinçek — have been contemplating the fact that a controversy over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 long range missiles may lead to such a rupture. Ideologically none of them have any trouble with such a break from the NATO alliance and have been committed to an anti-US position for years, albeit in latent form for some and more overtly for others.
The fact is that they do not seem to care about how such a disengagement could actually weaken Turkey’s national security and military, which have benefited from close ties with the Americans in terms of increased deterrence, access to sophisticated defense equipment and the political and diplomatic advantages of having a strong ally on its side. A massive purge of pro-NATO officers including half the generals from NATO’s second largest army in terms of manpower, which crippled the Turkish Air Forces, critical to the backbone of Turkey’s defense, confirms the view that this despicable crowd will go to extremes to get what they want.
Now the talk in Ankara is centered around how Turkey can and should respond to possible US sanctions amid the S-400 row and trouble brewing in F-35 deliveries. Among the choices offered by the partisan policymakers are Turkey’s denial of access to the US and other allies to İncirlik Air Base in Adana province, shutting down the Kurecik radar base in Malatya and the withdrawal of support for NATO missions in the neighborhood, such an operation in the Black Sea against the Russian threat as well in distant places where Turkey contributes as a NATO ally.
İsmail Hakkı Pekin, the former head of Turkish military intelligence and a convicted felon who now works with the neo-nationalists in shoring up support for the Erdoğan regime, is one of several public faces expressing and advocating the view of Turkey’s disengagement from the US. “Before everything else, Turkey can stop supporting İncirlik base. The contributions of Turkey to the region, NATO and US interests are significant. All these contributions can be withdrawn,” he said, as quoted by the Aydınlık daily, a pro-Iran mouthpiece, on April 4, 2019. Turkey has many measures that it can apply against the US if F-35 deliveries are cancelled, he added. Pekin also claimed the Turkey can manufacture its own fighter jets within four to five years.
Beyazıt Karataş, another neo-nationalist figure who was a major general in the air force before becoming deputy chairman of the Homeland (Vatan) Party, led by Perinçek, also called for immediately denying the US access to Incrilik Air Base in a message posted on his Twitter account. This is hardly surprising considering the fact that pro-Iranian groups including the Perinçek gang have long been campaigning to shut down US access to Incirlik and kick the American troops out by using every opportunity to make their case. Frequent rallies in front of Incirlik were organized by this group in cooperation with Erdoğan’s Islamist supporters. Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), also sides with Erdoğan in this matter.
What Erdoğan really thinks of NATO and the US was made clear in a confidential investigation into IRGC Quds Force activities in Turkey that was hushed up by Erdoğan in 2014. A document discovered by the investigators from an Iranian operative’s archive that included secret military maps of the southeastern provinces of Adana and Gaziantep tells quite a story. The document covered notes about the conversation this Iranian operative, named Hüseyin Avni Yazıcıoğlu, had with two deputies from Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The meeting was held on Oct. 19, 2010 on Istanbul’s Çamlıca Hill, which overlooks the Bosporus, and was attended by Seracettin Karayağız, a deputy from Muş province, and Hayrettin Çakmak, a deputy from Bursa. The conversation was about the NATO early radar warning system to be deployed in Malatya’s Kürecik district as part of NATO’s missile defense system. Karayağız said Erdoğan was no longer allowing the Iranian border to be used as a garrison for the US, Israel and Europe and was resisting efforts to that end by Turkey’s allies. He said Erdoğan was strengthening political, economic and military ties with Iran and saw the radar system as a trap to derail that process. The other lawmaker, Çakmak, recalled a private conversation he had recently had with Erdoğan, who said: “When I get a chance, I know what to do with NATO, Europe and Israel. I’m going to f**k their mothers. NATO and the US are as terrorist as Israel.”
Erdoğan’s former top aide and now the chief ombudsman in Turkey, Şeref Malkoç, publicly entertained the idea of shutting down Incirlik to Americans in February 2016. Malkoç’s son-in-law is Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül, whose prosecutors accepted a criminal complaint filed against American troops stationed at the base. The complaint, filed by thugs linked to Erdoğan’s office, not only asked for the detention of US troops but also demanded the issuance of search and seizure warrants for Incirlik Air Base to gather evidence, along with the halt of all outbound American flights from the base. The same month Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu started raising the shutting down of access to US troops to both İncirlik and a NATO base in İzmir. He had earlier made similar threats in February 2018, alluding to the possibility of closing the Kürecik radar base and İncirlik Air Base.
Perhaps Erdoğan and his allies think the time has come to take on long-time ally the US and believe that the divergence on the S-400 system can deliver that moment of opportunity. The only concern that remains is the repercussions on Turkey’s troubled economy, putting a brake on Erdoğan’s ambitions.