Nov 21, 2010 | 21:38 GMT

7 mins read

Turkey Accedes to a Missile Defense Plan

Despite reservations on NATO's proposed ballistic missile defense (BMD) network, Turkey agreed Nov. 20 at the alliance's summit in Lisbon to participate in the plan. Ankara will experience some fallout from this decision in managing its delicate relationships with Russia and Iran. Nonetheless, the decision to join the NATO BMD network allows Ankara to keep ties with Washington on a more solid footing — a critical factor in enabling Turkey to consolidate its geopolitical gains in its near abroad.
Turkey agreed Nov. 20 to integrate itself into NATO's planned ballistic missile defense (BMD) network during the alliance's summit in Lisbon. Though a potential Iranian missile threat is often cited as the motivation for the U.S.-led BMD project, a deeper, strategic purpose lies in its ability to provide the United States with a platform to underwrite a Eurasian alliance aimed at containing Russia's growing influence in its former Soviet territory. Turkey is also concerned about Russia's growing influence, but until this point has been reluctant to sign on to a BMD proposal. However, sensing a geopolitical opportunity in its near abroad, Ankara believes that its relationship with the United States — which has frayed over the past year — must be strengthened in order to take full advantage of its blossoming role. Washington welcomes Turkey playing that role, particularly in the Middle East, as long as Ankara remains a strong partner with the West, something it is attempting to affirm with its consent to the deal. The United States had already secured bilateral commitments from Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania to participate in the project. Turkey, given its prime geographic positioning in the region, remained a key component to the project. A forward-deployed sensor, like the portable X-band radar currently positioned in Israel, would provide additional sensors closer to the Middle East to more rapidly acquire, track and plot an intercept of ballistic targets.

Turkey's Opportunity

Turkey has reached a point where it has the wherewithal to assert its regional autonomy, which has manifested in it taking very public positions against the United States regarding Israel and Iran. Naturally, Turkey does not want to be seen as part of a military project that singles out Iran at a time when Ankara has invested a great deal of diplomatic capital in trying to earn Tehran's trust to mediate the long list of disputes Iran has with its adversaries. In addition, Turkey currently depends on Russia for the bulk of its energy supplies, and has little interest in provoking a confrontation with its historic rival, especially as Turkey is trying to expand its foothold in the Caucasus and Central Asia, where Moscow carries substantial influence. But other strategic considerations eventually outweighed Turkey's reasons to resist the project. Turkey, under the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party, has seen its relations deteriorate considerably with the United States over the past year, only exacerbated by Turkey's crisis in relations with Israel over the flotilla incident. A movement, which is making some progress, has more recently developed in both Washington and Ankara to put U.S.-Turkish relations back on a strategic track in light of more pressing geopolitical demands. The United States needs to militarily extricate itself from its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, in particular, Turkey faces an historic opportunity to fill a vacuum created by the U.S. exit and reclaim its influence in the broader Middle East. The United States sees Turkey as a strong regional ally whose interests are most in line with those of Washington, especially when it comes to the need to contain Iran, manage thorny internal Iraqi affairs, elicit more cooperation from Syria and balance against Russia in the Caucasus. If Turkey is to reap the geopolitical gains in its surrounding region, it cannot afford a rupture in relations with the United States triggered by Ankara turning its back on BMD.

Negotiating the Deal

Turkey thus bargained hard over its BMD participation, taking care to assert its autonomy in these negotiations and avoid grouping itself with countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, which are looking for a highly visible U.S. commitment against Russia. The Turkish demands were for its BMD participation to take place under the aegis of NATO, as opposed to a bilateral treaty with the United States. The project also had to ensure that all of Turkish territory be protected by the BMD systems placed within the country, and command-and-control over the system. Finally, Turkey demanded that no countries (like Russia, Iran or Syria) be cited as the source of the missile threat. In signing on to the deal at Lisbon, Turkish President Abdullah Gul claimed that Turkey's NATO allies met all of Ankara's demands. Earlier, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu defiantly asserted that Turkey was not forced into this project against its will, and that Turkey's demands over command-and-control of the system were "misinterpreted." In fact, the United States rejected this demand (the design of the system would not allow for Turkey to operate the system autonomously) and it appears that Turkish officials were finding a way to back down from this stipulation. Turkey did, however, achieve its aim of removing mention of specific targets and made clear it was only signing on to the NATO BMD plan, as opposed to a bilateral BMD commitment to the United States. Behind the scenes, U.S. officials made clear that it would be unwise for Turkey to risk a rupture in relations with Washington at this time, and that its commitment to the project was critical to securing U.S. cooperation on other issues important to Turkey. The United States also argued that Turkey's desire to avoid a military confrontation in the Persian Gulf over Iran's nuclear ambitions was best met with Turkish participation in a missile shield that would (theoretically) increase the region's defenses and thus reduce the need for military action. The NATO alliance aims to complete discussions over the details of what the system will entail and how control of the system will be distributed by June 2011.

Fallout with Iran and Russia?

Having taken the BMD leap, Turkey will now have to downplay the strategic significance of this deal to Russia and Iran to prevent a fissure in relations with both countries. With Iran, Ankara will have to convince Tehran that Turkey's maintaining a close relationship with the United States — and thus preserving the leverage it holds with Washington in the region — is the Iranians' best buffer against an attack. There are likely serious limitations to this argument, but Iran is also not about to sacrifice a crucial diplomatic ally as tensions continue to escalate with the United States. Turkey will likely face a much more difficult time ahead in dealing with Russia. Turkey is watching nervously as the U.S.-Russian "reset" of relations is weakening with snags over the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, continued U.S. support for allies in the former Soviet periphery and, of course, the more obvious U.S. push for BMD. Turkey has been among those supporting Russian inclusion in the NATO BMD plan. This is a move that would at least symbolically dilute the very premise of the project, but does not preclude the significance of the United States working directly with critical NATO allies in installing and operating missile defense installations in the region. The details of what Russian inclusion would actually entail have yet to be sorted out, and it remains unlikely that Russia would be integrated into the system in terms of operational control or veto over the system's use. So far, Moscow has agreed to discuss its inclusion in the project, but this idea remains very much in limbo. For Turkey, this means Ankara must keep a close watch on the trajectory of U.S.-Russian relations to decide its next moves. As Turkey continues its difficult balancing act, it will rely primarily on its trade and energy deals with Russia in an attempt to mitigate the rising pressure it is already facing from Moscow. No amount of diplomatic statements can ignore the fact that Ankara is giving its symbolic commitment to a defense shield that has Russia squarely in its sights.

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