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Written by Emilio Giuliani

Turkey’s recent decision to opt for a $3.4 billion missile defense system from a Chinese weapons firm over American and European alternatives alarmed the U.S. and the rest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The deal has not been signed yet, and recent reports suggest that Ankara has asked bidders in the missile defense system tender to extend the validity of their bids, a sign that Turkey wants to keep its options open.

Ankara insists that the acceptance of the Chinese bid is not a political move, but it is hard to ignore the crossroads Turkey has placed itself in, that is, squarely in between its traditional western allies and a rising power in the east.

The strategic importance of Turkey to the West is paramount. Turkey stands between countries like Iran and the rest of Europe, and Turkish military bases are critical for any NATO operations in the region and beyond. Nonetheless, due to shifting power dynamics, Turkey is now looking for opportunities to step ahead of its regional competitors in the Middle East; and some of these opportunities may end up putting it at odds with its western allies. While Turkey’s recent political posturing may not seem radical compared to years past, they could be indicative of a long-term shift in goals and direction.

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Chinese military forces. The recent news of a defense missile purchase from China may signal a shift in the country’s policies [Photo credit: Reuters]

Turkey is uniquely located at the crossroads between the West and the Middle East geographically, but also ideologically and politically. Turkey’s 61-years as a member in NATO and its perpetual candidacy to membership in the European Union (EU) are two examples that indicate that Turkey has a lot to lose if it ever makes a radical political break with the West. Although such a break is unlikely, Turkey has recently been testing the waters to see how far it can go before facing repercussions from its traditional allies.

Testing the alliance

The Chinese firm Turkey has tentatively bought the systems from, CPMIEC, is currently under sanctions by the U.S. government for violating nonproliferation agreements with Iran, Syria, and North Korea.  The possible deal itself isn’t as significant as the symbolic and independent move to act outside of NATO’s interests. Officials from the U.S., NATO, and individual member countries have questioned Turkey’s move and have since placed pressure on Ankara, causing Turkey to think twice before it making a similar decision again.

Logo of China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corp at its headquarters in Beijing

CPMIEC, the Chinese firm that won the deal with the Turkish government, is currently under U.S. sanctions for conducting arms sales and other illicit transactions Iran, Syria, and North Korea [Photo credit: Reuters]

On the Iranian nuclear issue, Turkey adamantly opposes an Iran with nuclear weapons, but it does not want to contradict itself by condemning all Iranian nuclear pursuits and limit a possible future option of building its own nuclear power infrastructure.

Turkey wants to be able to work with Russia, Iran, and China while simultaneously maintaining its strong relationships with the U.S. and NATO. Ultimately, if Iran were to produce nuclear weapons, Turkey is likely to move further toward its already nuclear-capable western allies rather than split and try to forge on its own.

The regional tightrope

Regionally, specifically regarding the Syrian issue, Turkey has tried to walk a tightrope between aiding the opposition and avoiding becoming directly involved in the fighting. Turkish citizens have been killed by border skirmishes, and Turkey has shot down a Syrian helicopter that strayed too far into Turkish airspace. Recently, Turkey extended a motion allowing it to send troops to Syria if needed, but it has been hesitant to act unilaterally without significant western backing.

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Turkish troops near the Syrian border [Photo credit: The Associated Press]

Furthermore, while Turkey has been relatively open to supporting groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the West has tried to limit the scope of Turkish assistance to specific groups within the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The issue of providing support to the rebel group may not be a large problem at the moment, but depending on the direction of the war and its outcomes this could hinder efforts down the road for future Syrian governance.

All in all, there is no easy route for Turkey to take in the Syrian conflict, and thus it should keep its options open while addressing the humanitarian crisis as much as possible.

Turkey has its own prerogatives and its own problems. If the U.S. and the rest of the West wish to see a Turkey that is sympathetic to their values and strategic objectives, then they should probably opt for respecting Turkey’s independent ambitions while constructively engaging with their domestic and regional problems. If that middle ground may be pursued, then Turkey is more likely to move toward more democratic reforms and be a critical ally in addressing conflicts in the region.

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Emilio Giuliani’s blog on the Middle East can be found here.

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