The post-coup Turkey – NATO relations

After the failed coup of 15th July, the position of Turkey within NATO needs to be revised. Should Turkey continue to be Member State of the Alliance or should it give up? Better – should NATO take a position in front of the Turkish membership, in particular after the consolidation of Turkey´s relation with Russia? At the moment, the permanence of Turkey in the Alliance seems to be solid but there are negative influences coming from the outside. The Turkish position within NATO has been reaffirmed many times from the US side and the NATO side. In particular, NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, together with Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, visited Ankara on 8th September1. This has been the first official visit to the Country after the failed coup. The visit paid by Stoltenberg and Dunford reaffirmed that Turkey is still a valid ally, one of the most important for the equilibrium in Middle East. Moreover, is important to remember that the Turkish army is one of the most powerful of the Alliance and that in the southern part of the Country is located the Incirlik base, which is important because of its involvement in the war against ISIL.2 NATO needs Turkey and this is a matter of fact.

The failed attempt to overthrow Erdogan had mainly two consequences. On the one hand, it strengthened Erdogan’s grip to power; on the other, it weakened the image of the Country on the international stage. Turkey will pay the consequences of this action for a long time. As we just recalled, the Turkish army is one of NATO’s biggest and strongest armies, but now it is in crisis and the purges eliminated many fundamental commandants. It needs to be reformed. Nevertheless, Turkish armed forces remain involved, in the meantime, in three different scenarios: inside the Country the army is still fighting against the Kurds, outside of the Country the fight against Kurds and Daesh is continuing.

Turkey – NATO relations: the main issue

Turkey is not the only who is paying the consequences of the failed coup. NATO as a whole is paying them as well. The Alliance is reaffirming more than ever the importance of having Turkey as ally and that there are no clear signals about a possible exit of the Country from NATO. However, NATO is now facing not only the just mentioned crisis of the Turkish armed forces, but also the changed behaviour of Erdogan in front of the Allied Countries, pursuing a different foreign policy in contrast with the one promoted by NATO. In particular, I would like to underline the renewed relationship with Russia, after the escalation originated by the shooting down of the Russian Sukhoi Su-24M bomber aircraft near the Syria–Turkey border on 24 November 2015. Such relationship is becoming problematic for the Alliance, that has to manage its own crisis in the first place.

In fact, the main problem is that NATO now is weaker and less cohesive than before. This appears in sharp contrast with Russia, who is instead acquiring more and more power in the Middle East. This has important effects on the NATO-Russia relations, reprised at last at the end of April but still precarious. Breaking such equilibrium, the network of alliances built by NATO in recent years will fall apart. Russia knows this and wants this to happen, acting as a spectator, waiting behind the scenes. To this, we should add the precarious relations between Turkey and the US. Turkey has always been treated as a protected member, the one that should be always supported and gratified by the others. But today, the accusation of Turkey to the US of having sheltered Fetullah Gulen, the main suspect for having conceived the failed coup, is undermining the relations between the two allies. 3

The possibility that Turkey could leave NATO is most likely in the long term and depending on the evolution of the relations between Turkey and Kurds, and to the extent up to which Turkey will be still engaged in the war against Daesh. If the Turkish army will be renovate, and the Alliance will not give support to the Country in the way they ask for, Turkey can decide to leave NATO principally because of unsatisfactory reasons. Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated this summer that the exit of Turkey from the Alliance would be a big affair to deal with for the Member States. The accusation that the Ministry put forth was that NATO was not on the Turkish side when the coup happen. According to Çavuşoğlu, this behaviour showed a scarce interest for the Country that still has a strategic role in the Mediterranean chessboard. And this is true. Yet, the contrary is true, too: the Turks no longer have a good opinion of NATO anymore. At this concern, NATO should take diplomatic measures to change the situation if the member states still want to have Turkey in the Alliance. The coup attempt has reopened a new fault line in Ankara-NATO ties. NATO chose the low profile in relations with Turkey, but Ankara interpreted this as a lack of support4. Outside of the Country, politicians and analysts affirmed that because of the coup, Turkish position within the Alliance had been influenced and for this reason the Country shouldn’t be given the opportunity to be part of the Alliance anymore. But NATO Secretary General insisted that what happened in July will not change the membership of the Country and its support to the Alliance. This doesn’t mean that Ankara will be forced to be committed to NATO. The temptation to leave the Alliance in case the relations with Russia will strengthen is a chance not very far from reality. The possibility to create a Euro-Asiatic alliance is an attractive chance for Turkey, who will become part of a new Central Asia, economically and strategically autonomous, as Russia and China would it to be. The role of Turkey in this case would be useful in order to guarantee the access to the Mediterranean Sea especially to Russia, avoiding the stops of NATO. The last objective of Russia is to destabilize the Atlantic Organization, creating a significant distance from East and from Turkey itself. And, at last, this will break definitively the relations between Turkey and the US. Furthermore, if Russia continues to strengthen that new relation with Turkey, it will be able to push forward its project to extend its hydrocarbon market to Europe. In this way Russia and Turkey will be both in a “win-win” position.5  

What if Turkey leaves NATO?

The “win-win” position has always characterised Turkish membership in NATO, where NATO enhances Turkey´s security contributing to its integration in the Euro-Atlantic community. With the coup the distrust between NATO and Turkey augmented. Right after the coup, the American Secretary of State John Kerry, affirmed that exploiting the coup to crack down on its detractors and undermine its democracy, could cost Turkey its NATO membership. 6 If Turkey leaves NATO, the risks to its security are minimal. But on the opposite side the consequences are different. A “Turexit”, as many called it, would be a big loss for the Alliance.

The coup marks also a turning point in NATO´s war on Syria. If this would happen many scenarios will open: one of these involves the future of the war against Daesh. Without Turkey and its commitment to fight against the self-declared Islamic State, the chances to win this war on the field will be reduced to the minimum. Another consequence of a possible “Turexit”, is the advancement of Russia in the Middle Eastern region with a more aggressive behaviour. Consequently, this can lead to the loss of the major military facilities in Turkey for US and NATO.

Beyond the chance to become part of an Alliance made with Russia and China, the other possibility for Turkey is to transform the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in a real Alliance. But Turkey must be realistic: this is hard to make it happen. Theoretically, it could be a valid solution as to also justify the exit of the Country from the Alliance. But realistically and practically, Turkey does not have a real alternative to NATO.

Alessandra Vernile

Master’s degree in International Relations (LUMSA)


“Secretary General in Ankara: NATO stands in solidarity with Turkey”, 8/09/2016, NATO Public Diplomacy Division,

“Turchia, nella base NATO di Incirlik arriva capo di Stato Maggiore esercito USA”, 01/08/2016, Sputnik news,

“La guerra fredda Usa-Turchia paralizza la NATO ma puo´ far nascere l´esercito europeo”, 19/07/2016, Linkiesta,

“Turkish Perceptions Survey”, 7/06/2015, German Marshal Fund,

“NATO, EU officials visit Turkey for first time post-coup attempt”, 09/09/2016, Deutsche Welle,

Marwan Bishara,“Turexit: Should Turkey leave NATO? If Turkey leaves NATO, the risks to its security are minimal – but the alliance would suffer if it quits”, 21/07/2016, Al Jazeera,

Hatice Kesgin, “NATO welcomes US-Turkey’s ‘closer cooperation’ in Syria”, 08/09/2016, Anadolu Agency,

Giancarlo Elia Valori, “Ecco perché la Russia vuole che la Turchia abbandoni la Nato”, 11/09/2016, Formiche,


1 Secretary General in Ankara: NATO stands in solidarity with Turkey,

2 “Turchia, nella base NATO di Incirlik arriva capo di Stato Maggiore esercito USA”,

3“La guerra fredda Usa-Turchia paralizza la NATO ma puo´ far nascere l´esercito europeo”,

4 Turkish Perceptions Survey,7th June 2015,

5 Giancarlo Elia Valori, “Ecco perché la Russia vuole che la Turchia abbandoni la Nato”,

6 Marwan Bishara,“Turexit: Should Turkey leave NATO? If Turkey leaves NATO, the risks to its security are minimal – but the alliance would suffer if it quits”,