U.S. and Turkish military forces conduct the third ground combined joint patrol inside the security mechanism area in northeast Syria, Oct. 4, 2019.

U.S. and Turkish military forces conduct the third ground combined joint patrol inside the security mechanism area in northeast Syria, Oct. 4, 2019. Staff Sgt. Andrew Goedl/Army

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Turkey’s Military Ties to US and NATO Remain Strong: U.S. Army Leaders

Joint exercises remain on the schedule as Turkish forces attack America’s Syrian rebel allies.

Turkey’s military relationship with the United States and NATO remains strong despite the news out of Syria, according to two U.S. Army generals who lead European operations. 

“On a military-to-military level, very solid relations on that front,” Lt. Gen. Chris Cavoli, the commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, said at an event hosted by Defense One

Cavoli and Lt. Gen. J.T. Thomson, who commands NATO Allied Land Command, said they expect Turkey to remain in the alliance, and for U.S.-Turkey ties to endure.

But while the relations may be solid, the outward appearance is anything but. The U.S. military is withdrawing its forces from northern Syria, essentially abandoning the Syrian Democratic Forces after President Trump capitulated to a demand from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Last weekend, U.S. military officials said, Turkish forces fired artillery near U.S.  positions in an attempt to intimidate them. On Tuesday, Trump announced sanctions against several members of the Turkish government;  the U.S. Senate is pursuing tougher economic penalties of its own. 

Bit by bit, for years now, Erdogan has been alienating many in the West and particularly in Washington, rolling back protections for free speech, dissolving government checks on his power, and cozying up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Erdogan has given Russia — NATO’s first and primary antagonist — unprecedented influence over an alliance member, said another panelist at the event, the Atlantic Council’s Lauren Speranza.

“A lot of what you hear in the context of the NATO conversation is this question about core values…the question of democracy and freedom and the rule of law, and human rights that are fundamental to alliance. And when you see those degrade, that opens the door to Russian influence,” said Speranza, deputy director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Those problems were compounded when the Turks bought an S-400 anti-aircraft radar and missile battery from Russia, and did so against repeated warnings from the U.S. and other NATO partners. They took possession of it in July, a move that got them kicked out of the F-35 program. 

“I think that the S-400 program and the exit from the F-35 program is going to be a blow to [NATO] interoperability, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s in our interest to continue working through these issues. At the end of the day, it's about the reliability of an ally to be part of the alliance,” said Speranza. 

Away from the diplomatic skirmishes playing out in the capitals of Europe, the U.S. military conducts a number of key exercises with Turkey. And even as the Erdogen’s government behaves like an outlier, the Turkish military is deeply embedded in NATO. 

Cavoli said, “I maintain strong relations with my counterparts, within the parameters of U.S. policy at any given time. We spend time going back and forth and visiting each other. We exchange units. We recently had the Turkish Commando brigade send a company to train with us in Germany and reciprocated with a company going to exercise in Turkey.” 

In September, soldiers with the Turkish 1st Commando Brigade joined U.S. and Italian paratroopers in Germany for Saber Junction 19, a NATO exercise with 16 member states. 

But there are signs that the marriage is growing awkward. The U.S. Army on Tuesday night tweeted out a picture of Saber Junction 19 with a description reading “Turkish Commandos joined American and Italian paratroopers during and an airborne assault that was a part of the training exercise #SaberJunction19 at Hohenfels training area in Germany.” The replies show…  skepticism. 

Asked how that relationship had changed in the past week, Cavoli declined to answer. 

Lt. Gen. Thomson of NATO’s Allied Land Command said, “The thing we need to remember from a NATO perspective is the contributions that Turkey makes: the second-largest Army contributing to operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo, Bosnia, our day-to-day operations.”

Thomson’s command is headquartered in Izmir, Turkey. “Having this headquarters in Turkey is very very important for them. The majority of my staff is Turkish. I work with Turkish officers every day, day in and day out,” he said. 

Thomson noted that his chief of staff is a two-star Turkish general. “He and I are very good friends. We talk on a daily basis. There’s been no noticeable change in our relations. We’re focusing on our mission,” he said. 

Turkey and NATO still have plans for expanding Turkey’s role, plans that are on track, at least for now. “We’re trying the NATO Rapid Deployable Corps in Turkey, right now. It will be the NATO response force. That corps commander is switched on. Their senior leadership is absolutely committed to Turkey picking up that mission in 2021,” said Thomson.