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All eyes on Erdogan: Turkey set to thrash out issues at NATO summit

From Syria to the Baltic states, Ankara and other members are standing on opposite sides regarding a number of issues
Turkey has found itself isolated over a number of issues (MEE/Mohamad Elaasar)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

The leaders of 28 NATO member states including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Donald Trump are in the UK this week to discuss "how to innovate the alliance" that many see as having lost its way in recent years.

Whatever the disagreements and misgivings about it are, however, one thing about the upcoming summit is for certain: the agenda will focus heavily on issues surrounding Turkey.

Sources close to Erdogan's administration told Middle East Eye that the Turkish leader will mainly focus on Syria and terror threats stemming from it.

He is expected to seek political and financial support for his so-called "safe zone" plan in northeastern Syria, where he seeks to settle hundreds of thousands of refugees living in Turkey.

However, other states in the alliance, such as France, have a dim view of Ankara's recent policies, particularly regarding Turkey's offensive in Syria and its its rejection of a NATO defence plan for Poland and the Baltic states.

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Here are the key topics surrounding Turkey that are expected to be discussed at the NATO summit, which is being held at a luxury hotel and golf course near Watford, north of London:

Defence plan crisis 

The Turkish government put a hold on NATO’s Baltic defence plans last month. The reason? It depends on whom you talk to.

Sources in the alliance told the Reuters news agency that Turkey was trying to get NATO to label the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, the leading component of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as a terrorist group.

However, Turkish officials say they took this step only after the US and some European countries blocked the approval of a document that described the YPG as a threat to Turkey. 

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Ankara views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union.

A Turkish security source told journalists on Monday that blocking certain plans to win concessions on other issues is a typical NATO tactic implemented by all countries.

"What's abnormal here is to leak these regular internal negotiations to the media," the source said. 

The stalemate resulted in repeated phone calls between Turkish officials and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. The issue has become more urgent over time. 

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Turkey director at the Washington-based German Marshall Fund, said a solution during this summit was likely, considering the importance of the defence plans.  

"Compared to other countries, Turkey has been an accomodating ally so far. I'm sure Turkey and its fellow allies will find a way to end this crisis," he said. 

Who is brain dead: NATO or Macron?

French President Emmanuel Macron said last month that NATO was experiencing a “brain death” due to strategic discoordination among members, notably regarding Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria.

“You have an uncoordinated aggressive action by another NATO ally, Turkey, in an area where our interests are at stake,” he said.

Erdogan hit back against Macron's criticism by calling the French president "brain-dead" and "very inexperienced".

Erdogan, much like US President Donald Trump, also accused France of not contributing enough to the alliance. 

A Turkish security source, speaking to journalists on Monday, underlined Turkey’s importance to NATO and said Ankara was committed to the alliance.

Turkish officials previously told MEE that Erdogan's government does not have any intention to leave NATO because all of the members are equally represented in the decision-making process.

“It is a military defence umbrella in which we have invested our money and blood. Why should we ever leave?” the source said.

Eastern Mediterranean dispute

Turkey and the UN-backed Libyan government last week signed a memorandum of understanding to delimit maritime zones in the Eastern Mediterranean in an attempt to block further Greek and Cypriot energy drilling activities in the area.

In response, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Sunday that he will seek NATO support over Turkish moves in the area.

Turkish officials believe their agreement with Libya is a success because, legally speaking, they claim it has thwarted a Greek, Cypriot and Egyptian deal to divide the area in their favour.

Turkish officials are still open for further negotiations with Greece and Egypt, Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said last week.


One serious point of contention between Turkey and some key NATO members is the Turkish offensive in northeastern Syria.

Macron warned Ankara last week not to undermine NATO by taking unilateral military decisions that might affect the US-backed coalition operations against the Islamic State group.  

Erdogan responded by saying that France has no place meddling in Turkey's affairs in Syria. Macron has also previously irritated Turkey by frequently hosting YPG representatives at the Elysee Palace.

"What is your business in Syria?" Erdogan said, addressing Macron.

"Jump up and down as much as you like ... you will respect Turkey's right to fighting against terrorism sooner or later." 

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Fellow NATO allies, such as France, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom have agreed to limit arms exports to Turkey over its Syrian operation, prompting condemnation from Ankara.

Ankara wants to normalise its ties with these countries and is looking for political support for its plans in northern Syria where it seeks to set up a buffer zone along the Turkish border that woud keep the YPG at arm's length and potentially be the recepticle for Syrian refugees.

Erdogan and Macron, along with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will meet on Tuesday to discuss a political solution to the war in Syria.

"I think Turkey will be just one out of several conflict points at the NATO summit," Unluhisarcikli said, adding that Ankara's purchase of Russia's S-400 air defence system is also grating.

"Macron will criticise the US and Turkey for Syria, almost everyone else will criticise Turkey for its Syria incursion and S-400 acquisition," he added.

"Trump will criticise almost everyone else on defence spending; Merkel will critisise Macron on his approach to Russia and his comments on NATO; Erdogan will critisise almost everyone else for not demonstrating solidarity with Turkey against terrorism.

"It could turn into a very loud shouting tournament. Meanwhile, Putin will love this!"

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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