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So, why is Turkey in NATO, anyway? A look at the country's complex history with the alliance

Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Concessions were the real goal, several analysts said — from NATO and especially the United States. The Biden administration has kept Erdogan at arm’s length over his human rights record, arrests of thousands of dissidents and journalists, and his intervention in Syria that slaughtered U.S.-supported Kurds and backed Russia and, ultimately, the government of Bashar Assad.

A Biden administration official said Tuesday that no concessions were granted.

“What Erdogan is trying to do is engage Biden,” said Bulent Aliriza, a founding director of the Turkey project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

Erdogan had close relations with former President Donald Trump, who declared himself a “big fan” of the Turkish president when he welcomed him to the White House in 2019. By contrast, President Joe Biden has had a couple of telephone conversations with the Turkish leader — including one on Tuesday — and met him only on the margins of international conferences, as will happen at this week’s NATO meeting in Madrid.

Turkey has also sought to parlay the Russian war in Ukraine to its favor by showing NATO how it can be a valuable partner, despite its friendliness with Moscow. Members of the Erdogan family build and sell drones to the Ukrainian military. Erdogan has hosted peace talks, which have so far been unproductive, between the governments of Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and is reportedly attempting to open Black Sea ports blockaded by Russia to free up Ukrainian grain exports.

“The invasion has been a window of opportunity” for Erdogan, said Gonul Tol, who heads the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “It has allowed him to attempt to rebuild the image of Turkey as a key NATO ally ... a valued partner, as opposed to a year ago when Turkey was portrayed as a Trojan horse in NATO.”


But, she warned, Erdogan could easily overplay his hand.

“Maximalist demands could undermine the goodwill,” Tol said.

Turkey was also the first, and until recently only, Muslim country in NATO. (Albania joined in 2009.) Before Erdogan‘s tenure, however, Turkey was steadfastly secular; women were actually barred from wearing head scarves in many venues. That also has changed in the nearly two decades of Erdogan rule. He is a devout Muslim, and he has introduced religion into public life in contravention to the principles of Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Though a religious government also goes against the grain in NATO, it is Turkey’s military ties with Russia that have most concerned the U.S. government and lawmakers in Washington, who demanded sanctions against Ankara.


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