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Türkiye Is Not An Important NATO Member. Stop Pretending It Is.

Jan 18,  2023

By Michael Rubin*


Türkiye’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu will visit Washington, D.C. today. High on his agenda will be Türkiye’s request for American F-16s. The White House is pushing the sale as a consolation prize after Congress removed the country from the more advanced F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program over Türkiye’s alliance with Russia.

The White House’s logic is two-fold. First, it wants to entice Ankara to drop objections to Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership. Second, Biden’s security aides argue that Türkiye is an important NATO member because it has the second-greatest number of men under arms in the alliance after the United States.

U.S. Concessions to Türkiye, or Coercion

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan are wrong on both counts.

To accede to Turkish blackmail is to justify it.

Because NATO is a consensus-driven alliance, Türkiye might collect F-16s as payment to drop its veto on accession, only to raise its demands the day after their accession, under threat of paralyzing day-to-day NATO functions. Sweden’s civil liberties, meanwhile would be a casualty of the process.

The Biden administration, like each of its predecessors dating back to the Eisenhower era, coveted Türkiye’s NATO membership because of what it might bring to the table: Türkiye has 355,000 active duty men under arms. Compare that to France, with only slightly more than 200,000 active duty personnel in its armed forces, or the United Kingdom, which has just less than 200,000. To include the total military—active duty, reserve forces, and paramilitaries—is to inflate Türkiye’s numbers even more. Türkiye then brings almost 900,000 men into the equation, more than the 19 smallest NATO members combined.

NATO Participation

In Brussels this past weekend, I had an opportunity to speak to a former military planner who had worked on a NATO operation. He made a good point: Statistics about the size of the armed forces of NATO members are often irrelevant. When planning a NATO operation, NATO leaders go to each country and ask what they are willing to contribute. A country might have 100,000-strong forces, but if the political leadership is unwilling to contribute even five percent to a NATO mission, then the total size is irrelevant.

Put another way: If Türkiye promises 5,000 troops but Poland offers 10,000, then it is right to suggest that Türkiye is more than four times more important to the alliance?

This was the case with NATO’s Operation Resolution Support in Afghanistan. In February 2021, the United States contributed 2,500 troops, Türkiye just 600, less than Italy, Romania, Germany, the United Kingdom, and even non-NATO member Georgia, a country with just one-twenty-third Türkiye’s population. And, even when Türkiye’s contribution was larger, often it used its forces for missions beyond NATO parameters.

When I would walk the streets of Kabul, for example, I would see billboards far from NATO headquarters promoting bilateral Turkey-Afghanistan diplomatic relations and business ties based not on NATO principles but rather on Islamic solidarity.

Simply put, Türkiye’s on-paper statistics do not translate to on-the-ground importance to NATO. The country is simply not as vital as it was during the Cold War when it was a frontline state with the Soviet Union, contributed to the Korean War, and was Western-oriented.

The time has come to call Türkiye’s bluff.

*Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre- and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units.

The US Should Stop Deferring to Turkey on the PKK

Feb 03,  2023

By Michael Rubin

Washington Examiner


After meeting his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu at the State Department last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised “close coordination and collaboration in the efforts to fight against terrorist organizations” such as the Islamic State and the Kurdistan Workers Party, or the PKK.

This might be boilerplate diplomatic language, but it hides a logical problem: The defeat of ISIS and the PKK are mutually exclusive. Syrian Kurds sacrificed more than 12,000 men and women to fight ISIS at a time when Turkey and its Syrian proxies supported the group. Still, whether in Syria or Sweden, Turkey makes supposed Western tolerance of the PKK original sin. This is stated reason No. 1, for example, why Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan now vetoes Sweden’s NATO membership.

Rather than indulge Turkey, it is time to stop pretending that the Syrian Kurds — whatever their affiliation — are anything but allies in the war against terror and the fight for democracy.

True, the PKK started as a Marxist insurgency if not terror group. So too did Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. Both evolved. Unlike the Mujahedin-e-Khalq , the group never killed Americans. Belgium has concluded that the PKK is not a terror group. Frankly, the United States should follow suit. The State Department did not designate the PKK as a terror group during the height of its violence during the 1980s. That designation came later when President Bill Clinton wanted to clinch a multibillion-dollar weapons deal with Turkey. Ironically, this victimized the PKK twice: first by stigmatizing it and second by giving Turkey the weapons to slaughter not only members of the group, but also ordinary farmers.

Turkey’s partisans will say that such a move will destroy U.S.-Turkey relations. They exaggerate. For decades, State Department handwringing led the White House to sidestep recognition of the Armenian genocide. Finally, President Joe Biden simply ripped the Band-Aid off. So too did French President Emmanuel Macron, Pope Francis, Germany’s Bundestag, Russia’s Duma, and other states. When they called Turkey’s bluff, Erdogan blustered but ultimately did nothing. Nationalist tantrums aside, he needs the outside world more than the world needs Turkey.

Peace will not be possible if Washington embraces Erdogan’s irrational hatred of the PKK. Nor should policymakers accept the alarmism of Turkey’s partisans in the State Department or think tanks. After all, Turgut Ozal, who dominated Turkish politics as prime minister and president between 1983 and 1993, was prepared to negotiate with the PKK until a heart attack felled him. Thirty years on, it is time to recognize his wisdom.

Biden repeats “diplomacy is back” like a mantra, but sometimes, diplomacy means more than making opponents happy. It is time for a major course correction in U.S. policy in the Eastern Mediterranean. Only when Washington recognizes that Syrian Kurds are America’s best ally in a tumultuous region and stops succumbing to Turkish blackmail can a new, more peaceful order move forward, both within Turkey and throughout the region.

Biden: Rip the Band-Aid off. Delist the PKK. Reward allies. Be a peacemaker. Tell Turkey the age of ethnic incitement is over.

Americans Shouldn’t Accept Erdogan’s Cynical Stance On The PKK

Dec 08, 2022

By Michel Rubin


“We are determined to root out this terrorist organization,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared shortly after a bomb exploded on an Istanbul pedestrian mall, calling the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) “enemies of Islam and humanity.”

For NATO leaders, diplomats, and those in Washington prone to accept and amplify Turkish talking points, Erdogan’s concerns were “legitimate.” Many repeated Turkey’s charge that PKK affiliates in Syria were responsible for the attack, something both Syrian Kurds and the PKK deny.

Such deference to Erdogan has a cost.

Turkey today uses the Istanbul bomb both as a reason to conduct a preplanned operation to eradicate Kurdish self-governance across northern and eastern Syria, and to incite the Turkish public against the United States. “We know the identity, location and track record of the terrorists. We also know very well who patronizes, arms and encourages terrorists,” Erdogan declared, trying to incite anger toward the United States, which has supported the Syrian Defense Forces’ fight against the Islamic State.

While there are legitimate arguments for close U.S.-Turkish ties, it is a mistake to both conflate Turkey with Erdogan and to assume principle rather than politics shapes the Turkish position toward the PKK.

From the very formation of modern Turkey, the country’s leaders discriminated against the country’s Kurds. For Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his successor İsmet İnönü, the problem was the Kurds’ religiosity and resistance to laicism. Subsequently, Turks sought to repress Kurdish ethnic and cultural identity. It was against this milieu and outright racism that Abdullah Öcalan broke with Turkish leftists and founded the PKK on ethnic grounds.

At first, the PKK did engage in terrorism against fellow Kurds and Turks, and embraced Marxist ideology. In August 1984 PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan launched an insurgency and terror campaign, seizing towns in southeastern Turkey and using loudspeakers to declare separatist goals. Over the following decade, fighting between the PKK and the Turkish army resulted in perhaps 20,000 deaths. While Turkey engaged in systematic human rights abuses both before and after the PKK insurgency, PKK attacks on civilians were a tactical mistake as the Turkish public began to see the Kurds as an enemy group rather than a victimized minority, a fact that set the Kurdish cause back decades.

With the end of the Cold War, the PKK liberalized its economic philosophy and shed its separatist demands. With time, PKK evolved first into a more traditional insurgency, and then a far more dormant one. This is the major reason why the United States did not initially designate the PKK to be a terror group; it did so only in 1997 not on the merits of the group’s actions but rather because Ankara demanded it as a condition of a multi-billion dollar arms sale.

None other than Turgut Özal, prime minister and then president during the height of the PKK’s violent campaign, recognized the change in the PKK. Özal repeatedly stood up to Turkey’s ossified elite and broke the taboo surrounding liberalization of Turkey’s Kurdish policies to include allowing the Kurdish language, Kurdish education and television broadcasts. Özal also first proposed establishment of the Kurdish safe-haven in Iraq, albeit to avoid a refugee influx into Turkey. As the Turkish military gained the upper hand over the PKK in the early 1990s, Özal even pushed the Turkish government to address the economic discrimination that fueled separatist fire. Had a heart attack not felled Özal in his prime, it is possible if not even likely the PKK and Turkish state would have begun formal negotiations to end the insurgency.

Özal was not the only leader who sought to end the conflict with the PKK, although he was in hindsight the most sincere. Öcalan welcomed talks and shed doctrinaire inflexibility. Indeed, the PKK evolved with time just as Turkey had. Erdogan repeatedly reached out to the group and its proxies in the belief that his brand of Islamism might form a common bond and that Kurds might offer him electoral support. PKK members even agreed to lay down arms and move to Syria, where, with very few resources, they established a successful and progressive government. For Erdogan to complain that PKK members live in northern Syria is disingenuous since he sent them there as part of a peace deal.

Erdogan’s cynicism and dishonesty run deep. He made myriad promises to Turkish Kurds prior to each election, only to renege on them after. Ultimately, Turkey’s Kurds saw through his cynicism. They voted in earnest for the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (or its earlier iteration), breaking through the ten percent threshold to loosen Erdogan’s grip on parliament. Erdogan responded not by respecting the democratic will, but by arresting its leadership.

This brings us back to the present. Diplomats might appease the Turkish government in the mistaken belief they can appease Erdogan. They err in the belief that short-term appeasement will discourage further violence. Academics and think tank analysts should not be constrained by existing government policy, however. To substitute volume and repetition of Erdogan statements for research is both dishonest and poor research methodology. It is also anachronistic given developments in Turkish-Kurdish relations from the 1990s to the present. Here, there is a parallel to South Africa. Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress was both Marxist and engaged in terrorism in its origin, but both Mandela and the group he led evolved to seek compromise and peace.

There is something very wrong when Americans who have never interacted with or confronted the Syrian Kurdish leadership with their concerns, let alone bothered to visit the region to see whether Erdogan’s characterizations are accurate, seek to be more Turkish than the most ardent, intolerant, and extreme Turkish political groupings. The tragedy is that such academic malpractice can lead to very real consequence with the furtherance of conflict and the murder of even more innocents.

NATO Should Apply Turkey’s Counterterrorism Principle Against Turkey

Nov 12,  2022

By Michael Rubin


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to use Sweden’s desire to join NATO as an opportunity both to humiliate the Scandinavian nation and to extort it. By forcing Swedish politicians repeatedly into submission and servility, Erdogan signals to his followers, not only inside Turkey but also among the sizeable diaspora community in Europe, that democracies are weak and unprincipled, while his brand of strongman rule can bring greatness.

Erdogan frames his latest demands as a campaign against terrorism although, in reality, he conflates terrorism with political opposition and journalism.

Turkish Parliamentary Speaker Mustafa Sentop, Erdogan’s chief rubber-stamp in Turkey’s legislative branch, cares little about such reality, instead insisting that Turkey demanded an end to “propaganda, financing and recruitment activities” from groups it deems to be terrorists.

Before Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson further Neville Chamberlains himself before Erdogan, he might consider whether it would be better to remind Erdogan of NATO’s definition of terrorism:

The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence, instilling fear and terror, against individuals or property in an attempt to coerce or intimidate governments or societies, or to gain control over a population, to achieve political, religious or ideological objectives.

NATO is a consensus-driven organization and it should be neither Erdogan’s role unilaterally to redefine terrorism nor Kristersson’s role to affirm Erdogan’s incongruence.

Rather, a better NATO response would be for each NATO member to deliver a list to Erdogan of Turks and others to extradite based on very real evidence of terrorism. Consider Hamas, a Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood group that openly calls for genocide against Jews. Erdogan not only shelters the group but also gives Turkish passports to its leaders to ease their travel. While Israel demanded Erdogan crackdown on Hamas as a condition of reconciliation, the Turkish leader has reneged on his commitment.

Then there is the Islamic State. One of the main drivers of Erdogan’s irrational anger at exiled journalists is that they have exposed the extent of his, his family’s, and his administration’s ties to the Islamic State. Intelligence debriefings of captured Islamic State fighters suggest that there are numerous safe houses in Turkey and sympathizers throughout Turkey’s Interior Ministry and intelligence service. Perhaps Kristersson and NATO leaders should demand Erdogan put his principle where his mouth is and extradite these individuals for trial.

Next is Somalia. Erdogan went all in on Mohamed Farmajo, the now-former president of the troubled country. After Somalis rebelled against Farmajo at the polls, nearly his entire administration (Farmajo excepted) fled to exile in Turkey. This includes Fahad Yasin, Farmajo’s former intelligence chief and a man allegedly neck-deep in terrorism. Indeed, he should face a trial for his crimes against Somalis.

Finally there are the Gülenists. Prior to 2013, Erdogan worked closely with dissident cleric Fethullah Gülen to marginalize Turkey’s secularists and Kemalists. Erdogan and Gulen’s falling out had more to do with the spoils of Turkey and Erdogan’s desire to monopolize power than any other reason. Erdogan’s anger toward the Gülenists is deeply personal but that does not make them terrorists. Indeed, even the accusation that the 2016 coup attempt was a Gülenist conspiracy is not certain. But, for the sake of argument, if they were, would that not make Erdogan himself complicit in terrorism? His former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu owes his career to Gülen. Why should Sweden sacrifice its citizens and residents when Erdogan allows Davutoglu to go free? Such hypocrisy alone should negate any further claims.

Sweden must today decide whether it values its democratic character more than more immediate NATO membership. At the same time, NATO should respond to Erdogan’s antics by applying its definition of terrorism to Turkey, drawing up and delivering lists of radicals to extradite or imprison. Should Erdogan refuse to uphold the standard he demands, then each NATO member should designate Turkey as a terror sponsor under their own national laws, applying whatever legislative sanctions such designation requires.

Turkey’s concerns about PKK are not legitimate

Jun 28, 2022



It’s become boilerplate diplomatic and journalistic language whenever Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan throws a temper tantrum about Kurdish self-governance in Syria.

"These are legitimate [Turkish] concerns. This is about terrorism. It's about weapons exports," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said during a visit to Finland. Previewing the Group of Seven and NATO summits, Biden administration officials spoke of "Ankara’s state and security concerns." "Turkey has legitimate security concerns on its borders," declared Asli Aydintasbas, an Istanbul-based contributor to the Washington Post.

It is time to stop buying the idea that Turkey’s concerns are legitimate.

True, in the 1980s, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK, waged an insurgency in pursuit of a separate state after decades of Turkish discrimination against Kurds. At the time, the PKK engaged in horrific abuses against those whom it saw as agents of the Turkish state. By the early 1990s, however, Turgut Ozal, who dominated Turkey for a decade first as prime minister and then as president, proposed negotiating with the PKK. Danger persisted, even after Turkish special forces captured PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in Kenya in 1999. Turkish security-enhanced precautions for bus, train, and plane travel across the country through the early 2000s. Nor was the PKK threat limited to Turkey. When I first visited Iraqi Kurdistan in 2000, travel between Duhok and Erbil was risky after sundown because of PKK raids. In 2003, while working for the Coalition Provisional Authority, the PKK briefly held me at gunpoint while I was traveling in the mountains a few miles south of the Turkish border.

Much has changed in recent decades, however.

First, the PKK abandoned its quest for a separate state. For decades, it has pursued federalism based not on ethnicity but on local districts. While Erdogan has transformed Turkey into a state sponsor of terrorism — there likely would have been no Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had Turkey not facilitated the group’s movements and supply across its borders — Syrian Kurdish forces that evolved ideologically from the PKK rallied to fight and defeat the Islamic State.

The world rallied around Yazidi victims of genocide but will not listen to them. Ask Yazidis and they will describe how Syrian Kurdish militias defended them after Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga abandoned them and Turkey targeted them. Turkey’s complaints about cross-border terrorism are fiction. Syrian Kurdish authorities protect their border. Turkey repeatedly violates it and kills scores annually. Turkish aggression toward Iraqi Kurds in Sinjar and Qandil is likewise one-sided.

To suggest that Turkish concerns about the Kurdish diaspora in Sweden or Finland are legitimate is to legitimize racism. It is akin to allowing Russia to hunt down and demand disempowerment, detention, or expulsion of ethnic Ukrainians in Europe and Central Asia. It sets a precedent for China to use its membership in international organizations to extract concessions against Uyghurs or Taiwanese.

The Biden administration is right to be concerned. Erdogan’s behavior raises questions about the future viability of NATO. Rather than assuage Turkey, however, or appease it at the expense of human rights and the rule of law, it is time to ask whether NATO can survive Turkey.

Appeasement will not work. Blackmailers seldom have personal honor. Bargaining with Erdogan will only encourage further demands. Rather, it is time for a united front in which the United States and Europe are willing to use sanctions and other elements of coercion until Erdogan understands holding NATO hostage will bring Turkey not glory but only pain.