12/05/2019 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – As he prepared to depart for London earlier this week, President Recep Erdogan of Turkey doubled down on his hardline stance against the Syrian Kurds, calling on NATO to join him in labeling the Kurdish YPG a terrorist group and threatening to block a NATO plan to bolster security in the Baltics if he did not get his way. The NATO plan in the Baltics, a response to Russian aggression in the region, was a major point of discussion in Tuesday’s summit.
This week’s debate over how to label the Kurdish YPG pits Turkey against much of the rest of NATO, a group which has previously expressed clear disapproval of Turkey’s stance towards the YPG and the Kurdish people more generally. Erdogan’s threat to block the plan to strengthen security in the Baltics, then, was a proactive move to gain allies for his already unpalatable position regarding the Kurds, a vulnerable ethnic minority in the area. His strategy worked to some extent—Poland and the Baltic states urged other NATO members to acquiesce to Erdogan’s demands in order to ensure funding for the Baltic defense plan.
The United States and a number of its European allies, however, refused to designate the YPG as a terrorist group. This led to tension with Turkey throughout Tuesday’s summit, with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper publically condemning Erdogan’s insistence that the bloc label the YPG a terrorist organization. “Not everybody,” Esper told Reuters, “sees the threats that [Turkey] sees.”
The Baltic defense plan was ultimately approved at the summit after Erdogan backed down. Still, Turkey occupies a tenuous position in the NATO alliance after a series of rogue incidents which cast doubt on Turkey’s standing in NATO. Systematic suppression of the press, regular violations of citizens’ right to free speech, and a wanton disregard for NATO’s interests in regards to Russia and the Baltics all suggest that Turkey will not, in fact, make good on the commitments it made to human rights when it joined NATO in 1952.
As recently as 2012 Turkey appeared to be an upstanding ally in the fight for human rights and rule of law in the Middle East. Turkey was, at that time, angling for membership in the European Union. In an interview with NATO Review on the 60th anniversary of Turkey’s membership with NATO, Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz stated that Turkey was committed to NATO’s “universal values,” specifically “democracy, human rights, and… rule of law.”
Whether Turkey is willing to return to these universal values remains to be seen. But as long as Erdogan is willing to use NATO’s security interests as a bargaining chip against human rights he makes one thing clear—Turkey’s current values are irreconcilable with those of the free world.