Following the recent ‘coup attempt’ in Turkey – that has so far left up to 350 killed; over 9,000 arrested; almost an unbelievable 50,000 workers suspended; the removal of educational institutions and a portion of the judiciary and police; and plans for the reinstatement of the death penalty in the State – there have been calls in the media to suspend Turkey’s NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) membership, as well as threats from the United States Secretary of State. However, this move has both legal and geo-political consequences that may not make this an enticing proposition.
It is appropriate to first discuss the purpose and history of NATO as this will likely play a large factor in determining the future of Turkish involvement in the organization. NATO was founded in 1949 by 12 members of the international community in a bid to combat the growing threat of the former Soviet Union. The worry of Russia can still be seen through expansion of NATO, with Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, former Soviet Union States, becoming members in 2004 and Slovenia and Croatia, former Yugoslav States, acceding to the treaty in 2004 and 2009 respectively. Now, NATO is seen as a collective defence treaty, with Article 5 providing that an attack on one member constitutes an attack on all members, this will be discussed later.
It is no coincidence that NATO has expanded to include States surrounding Russia in order to allow NATO bases to monitor Russia closely. Turkey’s global position in relation to Russia, shown below, and the Middle East is of great strategic value to NATO members that makes the threat of expulsion to be unlikely. Allowing NATO members to have military planes in the sky should there be cause to do so has always been the greatest incentive in permitted Turkish membership. Furthermore, Turkey’s contribution to NATO is also of importance as Turkey contributes the second largest military, over a total of 1,000,000 personnel – only behind the United States. Finally, the risk of alienation and the threat in driving the Turks into the path of Russian and Arab alliances may be seen as too great a threat to the Western States. In just over a decade in charge, President Erdogan has transformed Turkey from a secular society, protected in the Turkish constitution (just as the right of the military to conduct a coup is protected in the Turkish constitution), into a largely Muslim society.
Moving on to examine the legal discussion surrounding the expulsion of Turkey’s NATO membership, it is important to establish that there is no removal process by means that is not self-expulsion. Whilst Article 13 of the treaty provides that a member may withdraw following the enforcement of it for 20 years, there is no process for other States to expel a ‘bad’ member – perhaps an oversight by the founding members. However, if NATO choose not to act, members could be dragged into a territory and conflict that they want no part of.
As alluded to above, Article 5 of the NATO treaty provides that an attack on one member party constitutes an attack on all. The application of this, however, has been rare and has only been invoked once – at the request of the United States following the 9/11 attacks and invasion of Afghanistan. It was surprising that France chose not to invoke Article 5 following the Bataclan attacks in November 2015. However, in the wake of the coup, the Turkish Government have stated they expect unfaltering support from NATO members to bring those responsible to justice.
In summary, NATO has no legal mechanism to remove Turkey from the alliance, despite the burning desire many may have to do so. The increased radicalization of religion in the region, coupled with Turkish actions against Syrian and Russian forces, it may be no surprise that NATO members are uneasy with Turkey’s involvement. However, expelling Turkey could lead to a disastrous knock-on for the region, creating more unrest in the Middle East and losing an important geo-political member.