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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

Despite repeated warnings from Washington and NATO, Erdogan in 2019 purchased a large number of Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. They are not compatible with NATO weaponry, and Western officials were worried that the purchases would give Russia access to NATO intelligence and equipment specs.

Turkey still looks to its NATO membership for “prestige, gravitas and panache,” said Sinan Ciddi, a Turkey specialist at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a professor at the U.S. Marine Corps University. And NATO values Turkey as a buffer and “prime geostrategic real estate.”

Turkey, with one of the largest militaries in all of Europe, has also sent troops to Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo to back up U.S. and U.N. peacekeeping forces.

But, Ciddi said, Erdogan “can turn the tables on the United States and NATO.”

Earlier this month, Erdogan welcomed the disgraced crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, to Ankara less than four years after journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, an act that U.S. intelligence says was ordered by Mohammed.


The killing provoked outrage throughout NATO, the U.S. and even Turkey at the time. But now Erdogan, facing dire economic conditions domestically and a potentially difficult election next year, must look for friends where he can, analysts say.

Erdogan’s relationship with Russia is complex, said Henri Barkey, a Turkey-born former State Department official who is now a professor at Lehigh University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. For example: showing support for Ukraine but also needing Moscow to fight Kurds in Syria.

But in the end, “like Putin, Erdogan is his own worst enemy,” Barkey said, noting that his actions “undermine his credibility and they don’t trust him.”

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