Ankara already has acted in ways that warrant its departure, voluntary or other, from NATO. Erdogan has systematically dismantled Turkish democracy and established authoritarian rule. Among the victims have been American citizens. He shifted the country in a more Islamist direction and forged a more cooperative relationship with Russia, despite the current strife over Idlib, even purchasing S-400 air defense missiles. Alliance defenders take solace in his current difficulty with Moscow, but that merely underscores Erdogan’s faithlessness. He can be trusted only to use the alliance to his advantage. He certainly could not be trusted to combat Russia, the only conceivable threat for NATO to guard against, if Moscow attacked another NATO state. On top of that, Erdogan has weaponized Syrian refugees, unleashing them on Europe when seeking concessions and support.
Worse, though, has been Ankara’s role in Syria. The Erdogan government took an aggressive stance against the Assad government and nearly ended up at war with Russia after downing a Russian Sukhoi SU-24 fighter (allied fighters killed the pilot). Turkey originally facilitated the transit of Islamic State fighters into Syria. There are credible allegations that the Erdogan family profited from commerce with ISIS. Moreover, Turkey carried war against its own Kurdish population across the border, invading Syria and attacking that nation’s Kurdish population, putting American military personnel at risk.
In Idlib, Turkish aggressiveness, seizing Syrian territory, and allying with radical Islamists antagonistic toward America, risks triggering war with not only Syria but Russia. Nothing in that conflict warrants Washington backing Ankara, let alone standing behind Turkey against Moscow. Presumably none of the parties wants a new conflict. Full-scale war seems inconceivable because the costs would be so high while the stakes are so low.
But there already have been clashes between U.S. troops and Russian mercenaries and American and Russian forces engaged in a stand-off over Syrian oil illegally seized by the United States. Moreover, there were proposals for Washington to intervene in the Russo-Georgia war and later impose a no-fly zone over all of Syria, made applicable to Moscow as well. In these ways American officials have demonstrated an extraordinary recklessness which, if acted on in the midst of a real military confrontation, could have horrific consequences.
It long has been evident that the best course to advance American security is to withdraw from Syria. The ongoing crisis involving Turkey, Syria, and Russia only reinforces that judgment. But it does more. It highlights the danger of continued U.S. entanglement in NATO, with American policy held hostage by irresponsible “allies” such as Turkey. Washington should encourage the peaceful conclusion of conflicts such as Syria. But maintaining peace at home should remain America’s highest objective.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (Cato Institute) and The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (coauthor, Palgrave/MacMillan).