November 20, 2017
Last Friday, the news that Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey and President Erdogan were depicted as “enemies” in NATO military exercises in Norway hit the headlines. It was reported that an image of the “enemy” in the mock exercise was actually a photo of Ataturk. Turkish media also reported that a fake social media account in the name of President Erdogan was used to send anti-NATO messages.
There was an uproar. In an extremely rare display of harmony, the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) leadership, the main opposition and the media were united not only in condemning the incident but also blasting the Alliance. Turkey withdrew its 40 soldiers participating in the drills in protest and criticized the alliance in strong language.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg apologized for the offence caused. He issued a statement saying that the incident was the result of an individual’s actions and didn’t reflect the views of the Alliance. He added that the individual was removed from the exercise and an investigation was underway and it will be for the Norwegian authorities to decide on any disciplinary action. Stoltenberg further said, “Turkey is a valued NATO ally, which makes important contributions to allied security.”
Mr. Stoltenberg apologized again at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada. He said he has already spoken with the Turkish defense chief and that it “won’t create any lasting problems, and I think it’s already behind us.”
And last Saturday, Mr. Stoltenberg called President Erdogan and again apologized.
Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen also apologized for the incident.
“The message does not reflect Norway’s views or policies and I apologize for the content of the message,” Mr. Bakke-Jensen said in a statement. He added that “Turkey is an important ally in NATO, and we value our good cooperation.”
The Joint Warfare Centre is a multi-national NATO unit based in Stavanger, Norway, currently led by a Polish major general. According to its website, the personnel is made up of civilians representing 11 NATO Nations as well as military staff from 15 Contributing Nations including Turkey.
Despite the apologies, high-level anti-NATO vitriol continued. The incident was described as nothing less than a treacherous act. It was presented as new evidence of a distorted, anti-Turkish frame of mind within NATO and further justification for the purchase of S-400 missile systems from Russia. The media upped the ante.
The following may be relevant to an objective review of the incident and the Turkish response:
Were the military drills at the Joint Warfare Centre in Stavanger of any significance to NATO’s political leadership? Hardly.
Why? Because, with due respect to the Center, they are busy with real life issues, not fictitious exercise scenarios.
Was this a scandal? Yes, particularly for the Warfare Center.
Was there malicious intent on the part of those involved in the incident? Beyond a shadow of doubt, yes.
Was Turkey right to protest? Yes.
Is Turkey entitled to ask for disciplinary/legal action against whoever was involved in the incident within the parameters of Norwegian law? Absolutely.
Does Turkey have the right to be fully informed of the proceedings and the conclusion reached? Of course.
Should Turkey press for greater political supervision over NATO exercises? Not many would be delighted, but it could.
Couldn’t Turkey simply ignore the depiction of its founding father and the current President as NATO’s enemy as a minor misconduct? No, because it was more than that.
Would other members of the Alliance, for example Germany, have reacted in exactly the same way had Konrad Adenauer and President Steinmeier had been depicted as NATO’s “enemies”? No, their reaction would have been different.
Why? Because they do not have an overarching problem of chemistry with the Alliance. They would have looked at the incident as nothing more than a brainless act of a few, expressed bewilderment and called for immediate disciplinary action through diplomatic channels, been content with the apologies, refrained from questioning Alliance solidarity and that would have been the end of it. We in Turkey, however, always look for a conspiracy in view of our problematic relations with our Western partners.
On November 24, 2015 Turkey shot down a Russian military plane for having violated our airspace for 17 seconds. A week later, the then Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and NATO’s Secretary General Stoltenberg held a joint press conference in Brussels. Mr. Stoltenberg stated the following as part of his opening remarks:
“We discussed last week’s incident, which led to the downing of a Russian jet.
“All Allies fully support Turkey’s right to defend its territorial integrity and its airspace.
“I welcome Turkey’s efforts to establish contacts with Moscow and through its contacts with Russia, to de-escalate the situation…”
Mr. Davutoglu said:
“… Turkish-Syrian border also is a NATO border. Violation was not only against Turkish border but also against NATO border. Therefore, the same day, we gave all the details, all the details to NATO Allies in NAC, in Council meeting. And we are ready to share all the information with any party to satisfy, to convince, to explain our position.
“And again, I want to express for clear position of NATO, and clear position of Secretary General personally – yesterday I had also the chance to meet with EU leaders here in Brussels – again I want to express our thanks to all NATO Allies expressing their solidarity with Turkey. Thank you very much.”
Two years on, Turkey has purchased S-400 missile systems from Russia for defending the same Turkish/NATO border. Our relations with our Western allies are at all-time low.
Beyond this last episode with NATO, we need to examine urgently and with cool-headedness, the reasons underlying the downturn in our relations with the West; make a fair distribution of responsibility for the mistakes committed and hopefully reach the conclusion, as in the past, that solidarity with our NATO allies and cooperation with Russia are not mutually exclusive. Actually, these are two pillars of our foreign and security policy, the third being relations with regional countries. Regrettably, none of these pillars are strong anymore. Our public reaction to the latest incident, particularly the NATO-bashing has been disproportionate and does not serve our broad interests. Moreover, in the days of the Cold War Turkey and Norway enjoyed a special relationship as NATO’s flank countries and neither side has any interest in destroying that.
No doubt, Turkey’s reaction to the mischief in Stavanger has an internal politics dimension. It aims at showing that the JDP Government can stand up against no matter who, no matter what. Few would dare question the price we pay. Thus, the leader of the main opposition felt compelled to become the highest bidder and said that “routine apologies are not enough”. Perhaps somebody needs to brief him that the apologies offered were not “routine”. And, also remind him that convicted of murdering 77 innocent people in a horrific bombing and shooting attack in July 2011, Anders Behring Breivik of Norway is serving a 21-year prison sentence in a three-cell suite of rooms equipped with exercise equipment, a television and a laptop, albeit one without Internet access. Yet, he is still complaining about his prison conditions. To millions in the East as well as the West this may be incomprehensible. Regardless, that is Norway, that is the law of Norway and Norway is a long-standing NATO ally. And, NATO is still an alliance of consequence where Turkey has been an equal member since 1952.