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Stand up to Erdogan

Hofmann Max Kommentarbild
Max Hofmann
December 6, 2016

The alliance needs to take a clear and forceful stand against what the Erdogan regime is doing, not only in Turkey, but also inside NATO, writes Max Hofmann.

Türkei Orden eines NATO Generals aus der Türkei
Image: DW/T. Schultz

In early fall some journalists in Brussels started hearing stories about high-ranking Turkish NATO military officials being summarily suspended, asked to hand in their passports and return to Ankara - on specially-issued one-way travel documents. Research by DW's Studio Brussels now reveals what's happening to these families. Several of those targeted by the post-coup "cleansing" have now shared their personal stories and they are heartbreaking: families split apart, mothers trying to raise children while worrying daily about the father who's been thrown in jail, people in need of urgent medical care suddenly made stateless.  

NATO officers from Turkey have turned into stateless asylum-seekers

Aside from the human dimension of all this, the arrests and possible torture of officials who used to represent Turkey at NATO, non-Turkish officers inside NATO are warning this might have far-reaching military consequences, with some of the alliance's most-experienced personnel sent into hiding. It is troubling to see how far the reach of Erdogan can stretch and how ruthlessly he is using it.

A little less stealth

But first things first, literally: let's take another look at what the preamble to the North Atlantic Treaty (1949) states: "The parties of this treaty […] are determined to safeguard the freedom […] of their people, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law."

Deutsche Welle Studio Brüssel Max Hofmann
DW's Max HofmannImage: DW/B. Riegert

Well, it's safe to say that the Erdogan regime in Turkey isn't subscribing to these principles anymore. In fact, it seems rather opposed to them at the moment. Is it reason enough to kick Turkey out of the alliance? If this goes on for much longer the answer would have to be "yes." But right now it would be better if NATO officials were a little more open and a little less stealthy, at least about the things that are happening inside its headquarters' walls.  

Loss of confidence

It is not enough for NATO's Secretary General to "raise” the issue with the Turkish government and then be satisfied when assured that the "cleansed" officers will all be replaced. NATO is supposed to be the alliance of the free world, the stuff of nightmares for Vladimir Putin, the organization that is NOT afraid to openly condemn what is happening in Turkey. Nowadays all you can hear in Brussels are sterile soundbites that won't offend anyone and mumblings behind closed doors about the "terrible situation."

NATO needs to take a stand, not only when appalling things happen on its borders, like in Ukraine or Syria, but also when they happen within the organization. That's part of the deal of being the defender of the free world, even if it hurts. Otherwise, all trust is lost. DW's research has revealed the complete disappointment with NATO by those Turkish officers that from one day to the next have been left, in one man's words, "without any past and unfortunately without any future". But it also shows how in the circles around them - friends, family, colleagues - the loss of confidence in the alliance is spreading.

Military fallout

Türkei Stoltenberg Rede bei der Sitzung der Parlamentarischen Versammlung der NATO in Istanbul
NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg in TurkeyImage: Reuters/M. Sezer

This, by the way, is not only because NATO is betraying its principles by being so tight-lipped about this indeed terrible situation. It's also because, by some accounts, the organization is being hurt militarily by what is happening.  At NATO installations in Europe and North America, hundreds of envoys were ordered to leave their posts. These experienced, highly-trained Western-minded officials can not easily be replaced, especially not when competence is no longer the selection criteria in Turkey but complete loyalty to an increasingly erratic and dangerous regime back home.

It's understandable that NATO is trying to tread carefully. Turkey is by the numbers and by its geostrategic position one of the most important alliance members with the second-largest military after the US. But if the organization wants to remain credible with the citizens it is bound to protect, it has to stop pointing fingers only at others. It needs to point the finger at itself, too. When the Erdogan regime makes its long arm felt at NATO headquarters, the other alliance members should  deal with it openly and forcefully. Just like they do with other threats to NATO.


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