NATO’s Disappearance from the Middle East Starts in Turkey

Published March 21st, 2018 - 01:56 GMT
Recep Erdogan at a NATO conference (AFP/FILE)
Recep Erdogan at a NATO conference (AFP/FILE)


  • A subtle shift in the balance of power is underway in the Middle East
  • Turkey is seeking closer relations with Russia
  • As a result, NATO member countries risk being pushed out of the region
  • NATO is seeking to bolster its partnership with Jordan to re-balance power


By Ty Joplin


In the power struggle between the Soviet Union and the West during the 20th century, the Middle East was seen as a region on the fringes of global power. But things are changing fast, and the Middle East is storming onto the scene as the center-point upon which the world’s powers balance and counterbalance.

Since the region opened with the 2011 Arab Spring, regional and global powers have surged forward to secure holdings and stake out interests. One key outlet Europe and the U.S. has to project their power has been the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.

Its key member, which grants NATO access to the Middle East, has been Turkey. But as Russia emerges onto the scene as a powerbroker, and Iran becomes a force worth engaging with, Turkey appears to be moving away from NATO.

As a result, Western powers may become irrelevant in the region, isolated without an access point into the region.

Understanding these subtle shifts now will help inform what may happen in the near future in the Middle East, as Russia looks poised to replace the West as the arbiter of power.

Traditionally, NATO was established to counter the Soviet bloc during The Cold War, but since the demise of the Soviet Union, its role has morphed into a more general arm of the West.


NATO’s Activity in the Middle East

A servicemen of NATO’s mission to Libya aboard an aircraft carrier (AFP/FILE)


NATO’s involvement in the Middle East has thus far been limited. One notable exception is its intervention in the 2011 Libyan civil war where NATO forces enforced an arms embargo and no-fly zone over Libya. The intervention also included a campaign of airstrikes on Libyan military targets.

Turkey only took on a small role in the operations, and was later criticized by then U.S. Secretary of State Robert Gates for not committing more resources to the effort.

For the most part, Turkey has been the crucial gateway allowing NATO members to access the Middle East.

This may change as Russia and Turkey both look to grow their influences in the region, which may crowd out NATO.

“NATO’s main focus is to provide security in the Euro Atlantic Area, however, it has “borders” with the Mediterranean Sea and Turkey became a member in 1952,” said Boris Toucas, a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to Al Bawaba.

“The need to keep the Soviet Union at bay pushed Turkey to join.”

Toucas claimed in an interview that NATO’s presence in the Middle East is meant to ensure stability rather than maximize Western power. This may change however, as Russia looks to accelerate its role in the region as a powerbroker and entice Turkey as an ally.

This would inevitably draw Turkey away from NATO, thus removing NATO’s ability to determine what the Middle East’s political landscape looks like.

NATO, Dr. Mohanad Hage Ali, Director of Communications at the Carnegie Middle East Center argued, “will become more relevant if the U.S. decides to confront Russia’s expanding role in the region, and that would most certainly re-enforce Turkey, which has now to continuously negotiate its influence and expansion of its ‘safe zone’ in Northern Syria, with Moscow.”

Russia has quickly become the leading power in Syria, setting up political mediation talks and agreements in Asatana to established supposed ‘de-escalation zones’ and develop a blueprint for postwar Syria in conferences in Sochi. Turkey’s President, Recep Erdogan, is looking to expand Turkey’s role in the region and beyond as a formidable player.

He has coordinated closely with Russia in his multiple interventions into Syria, and has begun building military bases outside of the Middle East.

But, Dr. Ali said, Turkey still has an interest in working with NATO rather than going all in for an alliance with Russia.

“Politically, NATO grants Turkey both the legitimacy and leverage in the West. I just don’t see that going away… I just don’t see why Turkey would pull out from such a powerful military alliance given the multiple benefits that this entails.”


The Looming Middle East Shake-up

Turkey President Erdogan and Russia President Putin meet (AFP/FILE)


One telling sign that the balance of power is slowly shifting away from a Turkey-NATO alliance toward a Turkey-Russia partnership is the quiet purchase of Russian-made defense missile defense systems.

Those S-400 missile defense systems were purchased by Turkey for $2.5 billion in late 2017 and are incompatible with NATO defense systems, meaning they cannot be integrated into the NATO’s defense infrastructure. According to experts, this purchase is a notable move by Turkey, because it primes the country to be able to move closer to Russia and farther from NATO.

In practical terms, it also makes it much easier for Turkey to be integrated into a Russian bloc of defense systems.

“Turkey is playing between U.S. and Russia, especially because of the lack of hegemonic power in Syria,” argued Ismet Akca, a scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

“The purchase of S-400 missiles should be seen as leverage, as a cause against the U.S. in foreign policy.”

Dr. Ali agreed, calling the purchase a kind of ‘safeguard’ for Turkey in the case of a shift in the balance of power. Beyond the purchase of the systems, Turkish and U.S. relations are deteriorating fast, to the point that Erdogan is now making direct threats against U.S. troops on the ground in Syria lest they get in the way of Turkey’s regional aims to enlarge its foothold in Syria.

Although both Dr. Ali and Akca caution that this process is slow and neither the NATO nor Turkey have a current interest in breaking off relations.

Nevertheless, cautions are being taken and NATO member countries have moved assets to another partner in the region as Turkey becomes a less reliable ally.

In the summer of 2017, NATO enhanced its partnership with Jordan under the Partnership Interoperability Initiative (PII), to “ensure that the deep connections built up between NATO and partner forces over years of operations will be maintained and deepened,” according to the NATO announcement. The integration of Jordan into NATO’s interoperable systems came just six months before Turkey threatened its departure from NATO’s infrastructure with the S-400 purchases.


A German troop in front of a Tornado jet in Turkey (AFP/FILE)


A little over a week after NATO’s announcement, Germany told the world that it would be moving its Middle East operations from the  Incirlik airbase in Turkey to a new base in Jordan.

Germany’s force in Jordan currently include four reconnaissance and surveillance planes in addition to a refueling aircraft and a little under 300 German troops.

Turkey has been more openly hostile to German, another key NATO ally.

Turkey blocked German politicians from visiting German troops in Turkey after Germany granted asylum to several military personnel who allegedly took part in a failed coup of Erdogan.

If tensions continue to rise and the partnership with Turkey to other NATO member countries becomes more fragile then, “Turkey would like to establish closer ties with Russia,” something that Russia would likely incentivize, said Akca.

Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia threatens to redraw boundaries of influence between the West and Russia.

Though no cataclysmic divide has happened yet, and indeed may never happen, the pieces are currently being laid to undercut NATO members’ influence in the Middle East and be replaced by Russian interests.

Given Russia’s proclivity to violence in Ukraine, Georgia and Syria, this re-balancing, if it were to happen, would likely result in continued violence, displacement and chaos in a region that is already struggling to cope with the sheer number of conflicts engulfing it.



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