Monday, 22 November 2010

Turkey at Lisbon: the Missile Defense Compromise

Published in Articles

By Gareth H. Jenkins (vol. 3, no. 20 of the Turkey Analyst)

The reaffirmation of Turkey’s continued active membership in NATO should reassure those who have been worried that the ruling Justice and development party (AKP) is abandoning Turkey’s westward strategic ties and embracing an eastern orientation. Nonetheless, an evolution of Turkey’s strategic identity cannot be ruled out since the current Turkish government has been abandoning many other long-standing foreign policy tenets.

BACKGROUND: The most contentious issue for decision at the NATO  summit at Lisbon, which was held on November 19-20, was whether to adopt comprehensive ballistic missile defense (BMD)— the capability to cover European NATO allies’ territory, population and military forces—as an alliance-wide mission. International media had been reporting Turkish   opposition to the plans. However, Turkish officials insisted that they were not objecting to the BMD in general but rather negotiating over the specific details of the planned system. 

The Obama administration was seeking NATO’s support for linking the U.S. BMD systems that will be deployed in Europe with NATO’s collective missile defense program. In particular, Washington wanted to expand NATO’s Active Layered Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBMD) command-and-control system to give it the capability to support territorial missile defense in conjunction with U.S. national systems deployed near Iran. With this capacity, European countries could better integrate their BMD assets with those of the United States. As part of this newly integrated BMD architecture, the United States would like to place early-warning and tracking radars on the territory of Turkey. The interceptor missiles would be placed in states somewhat further from Iran, such as in Romania.

In various official and unofficial statements, Turkish officials laid down several conditions regarding what kind of NATO BMD decision Turkey would accept. The first of these “red lines” was that any NATO BMD decision not worsen Turkey’s relations with neighboring countries. Turkey has traditionally been a front-line state between NATO and its adversaries, be it Russia or Iraq. Turkish officials did not want to resume this status in relation to Iran, Russia, or anyone else. Turkey’s foreign policy of “zero problems,” articulated by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, has seen Ankara improve its ties with former foes on its borders like Syria, Iran, and Russia. Therefore, Turkish officials did not want NATO to name these or other countries as a specific target of the BMD system, which they consistently depicted as an offensive rather than a defensive weapon. Before the summit, Turkish Foreign Ministry officials told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review that, “We demanded that Iran and Syria not be cited as ‘threats’ in NATO’s official documents on the planned defensive shield.”

The Foreign Ministry also stressed their requirement that “the deployment of the shield should cover the territory of all NATO allies, as well as the entire territory of Turkey.”  In return for their diplomatic and possibly logistical and other support, as well as the risks of making Turkey a target if a NATO adversary sought to destroy the alliance’s missile defenses deployed on Turkish territory, Turkish officials want to make sure that any NATO missile defense system would protect all of Turkey. Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty guarantees the security of all its members. Yet, at times in the past, such as during the wars with Iraq, the allies were reluctant to come to Turkey’s defense.

Turkish officials wanted the NATO system to be genuinely an alliance initiative designed to help all members’ security. They feared that the U.S. was using a NATO cover as a means to pressure Turkey into accepting a mainly U.S. system designed to help primarily the United States. 

Turkish policy makers also insisted on being included in decisions involving the possible use of the system. Turkish officials especially want control over any elements of the NATO BMD system based on Turkish territory. “The issue is who will have its command,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on November 16. “It should definitely be given to us, especially if it is a plan within our borders, covering our land. Otherwise it is impossible to accept such a thing.” Turkish officials also sought some say in when and where any interception would occur. For instance, they might want the right of veto if the United States attempts to shoot down a missile overflying their territory, since in theory any successful hit could lead nuclear material, and maybe even a nuclear warhead, falling on Turkish territory.

Conversely, although Turkish officials wanted to be sure that NATO’s BMD architecture would protect all alliance members, and that all NATO governments would have some say in the design and operation of any missile shield, they insisted that the system not be seen as helping to defend Israel. Iranian commentators had depicted the planned NATO system as designed primarily to defend Israel rather than Europe and had been lobbying Ankara to fight this alleged “Zionist plot”. The AKP leadership has cited Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons and other policies as the main threat to peace in their region rather than Iran’s possible interest in developing nuclear weapons. In operational terms, the Turkish government insisted that the alliance commit not share BMD information with non-NATO members.

Turkish officials also sought to secure some concrete benefits from any BMD deployment decision. If Turkey had to host these systems for the good of the alliance, then the allies should do good things for Turkey in return. This principle manifested itself in two concrete objectives. First, Turkish officials wanted financial, technological, and other allied support for constructing their own national BMD system. Second, although generally supportive of NATO’s cost-saving drive (the alliance is now running a deficit for the first time in its history), Turkish officials wanted the alliance not to close NATO’s Allied Air Component Command in İzmir. 

IMPLICATIONS: At Lisbon, NATO agreed in principle to integrate the European and U.S. BMD programs with the goal of providing comprehensive protection for NATO members’ populations, territory, and forces. Yet, the allied governments deferred finalizing such issues as the specific elements of the system, their location, the structure’s command arrangements, and the means by which its construction and operation will be financed.

In reaching these decisions, NATO met many of Turkey’s conditions. NATO and U.S. officials took care to characterize the planned system as both a defensive system, directed against no foreign country in particular, as well as well as a multilateral initiative rather than a scheme designed to enforce Washington’s preferred security in Europe. Regarding the first issue, Turkish President Abdullah Gül engaged in an explosive fight with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the summit over whether to identify Iran as an explicit threat.   President Barack Obama and other NATO leaders sided with Gül over the issue since they knew this was perhaps Turkey’s clearest red line.  NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and other NATO leaders observed that the alliance’s flexible BMD architecture would help counter a range of potential threats emanating from the dozens of countries that are seeking to acquire ballistic missiles.

NATO leaders and declarations appropriately pledged to protect all NATO members’ territory. Turkish analysts recognize that, for technical reasons, it will be difficult to ensure than any shield can cover their territory as effectively as allies located further away from Iran or other possible missile-launching countries. But Turkish officials seemed content to secure a NATO commitment to the indivisibility of alliance security, which reassures their status.

Turkish, U.S., and other NATO officials also took care to characterize the alliance’s BMD efforts as multilateral structures and systems rather than as essentially American initiatives with an alliance add-on. U.S. officials repeatedly denied that they were trying to pressure their Turkish counterparts to host U.S. BMD assets. In return, Turkish officials praised Obama’s leadership at the summit. They also apparently compromised on the command-and-control issue by implying that, since Turkey is a member of NATO, if NATO’s multinational command made the decision when to attempt a missile interception, then Turkey would be participating. Following the summit, Erdoğan commented: “We have said that the command system should be at NATO.” 

Still, NATO will not decide the precise command arrangements for the system until next year. The alliance also deferred until 2011 decisions regarding which NATO headquarters and other military facilities they would cut. But Gates has already declared the U.S. position that Turkey should be allowed to keep at least one command base, presumably İzmir, on its territory.

The question of whether NATO, particularly the United States, would help the Turkish government develop its own national missile defense system remains unclear. Turkish officials have expressed hope that the U.S. and NATO might subsidize their BMD purchases and prove extra generous regarding technology transfer issues, but Turkish officials are considering buying missile defense systems from China and Russia as well as from European and American companies. U.S. and NATO officials would hardly support Turkey’s buying systems that would present technical interoperability, intelligence-sharing, and commercial difficulties for them. Another problem is that many Turkish policy makers want a BMD system independent of NATO command for use in a possible conflict with fellow NATO member Greece.

CONCLUSIONS: Several considerations might account for the outcome of the Lisbon summit insofar as Turkey is concerned. Turkey continues to derive security and prestige benefits from its NATO membership. The Turkish leaders at Lisbon emphasized the importance of the alliance Article V collective security guarantee. In addition to this traditional reassurance, Turkey might need NATO’s assistance against the novel security threats highlighted in the alliance’s latest Strategic Concept: WMD proliferation, failed states, transnational terrorists, and even threats to the country’s energy security and climate. Finally, the Russian decision not to resist NATO’s missile defense decision made it easier for Turkey to support it as well.

Beyond this collective defense and security contribution, Turkey’s continued active membership in NATO reassures those worried that the AKP is abandoning Turkey’s westward ties and embracing an eastern orientation. Nonetheless, an evolution of Turkey’s strategic identity in the future cannot be ruled out. The current Turkish government has been modifying and even abandoning many of the long-standing tenets of the country’s core foreign policies. How long NATO escapes this restructuring is anybody’s guess.

Richard Weitz, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".


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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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