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In light of Russia’s increasing aggression towards its neighbour countries under Putin’s leadership, NATO has started work on contingency plans, especially for the defence of Poland and the Baltic states. NATO’s Defense Plan was created following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and prioritized the protection of countries about their threat level of being a target of Russian aggression. The security of the Baltic countries and Poland were of particular concern, though Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary would also be added to the deterrence plan. This plan aimed to cover all of the security threats faced by the member countries.

Notably, Erdogan’s recent attempt to block NATO’s Baltic Defense plan brings to light some of the unspoken problems and disagreement among the member countries. In this case, the disagreement centres primarily around the status and role of certain Kurdish militias and Turkey's balanced policy with Russia and the US. Nevertheless, Turkey's veto against the Baltic Defense was not unexpected; rather, it was the consequence of a series of prohibitions regarding the renewal of the 2016 NATO Defense Plan and Turkey's desire for key Kurdish militias to be labelled a terrorist organization by the military alliance.

In 2016, Turkey defined the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and its Syrian branch, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as terrorist organizations threatening its national security, and hence made sure that this was accounted for in the NATO Defense Plan. It is important to note that the plan was approved “as is” by the other member countries in 2016. In short, PKK and YPG were both terrorist organizations under the statutes of this plan. Nevertheless, when the time came time to renew it in 2019, this request was denied by several NATO countries, including the US, France, and Germany, which were supporting YPG as allies in the fight against Daesh/ISIS.

YPG is the military branch of the Syrian Kurdish resistance group and political party PYD (Democratic Union Party) that fought against the Syrian regime and later Daesh and established an autonomous zone in Northern Syria. Turkey officially does not differentiate between YPG and PYD and maintains that they are a branch of PKK, which is already recognized as a terrorist organization by the UN. YPG was initially established by the former PKK guerrillas who fought against the Turkish forces in South-eastern Anatolia. Even though PYD/YPG deny their connection to PKK, they do not hesitate to hang the photo of the founder of PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, in their offices, or use his photos in their formal rallies or military parades.

Turkey recently launched a military operation—Peace Spring—into Northern Syria to implement its plan on the ground but has received serious objections from the international community. PYD/YPG have a good impression in the eyes of the international community because of their efforts to diminish the strong Daesh presence in the area while also advocating for Kurdish autonomy in Northern Syria since they announced the Democratic Federal System for Rojava in 2016.[1]

Turkey considers YPG as its enemy due to its organic connections to PKK, which has been fighting with Turkish forces for nearly four decades. Turkey took things further by increasing the bounty on General Mazloum, who is former PKK militant, one of the founders of YPG, and now commander-in-chief of SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces). In the last NATO meeting, Erdogan played his veto card to shape the narrative of what was happening on Turkey’s Syrian border. Erdogan said that he expects NATO allies to support his Syrian policy and the military operation against YPG.

Before he went to London for the NATO meeting, Erdogan stated: “the alliance should be renewed, and it is inescapable. If they don’t accept PKK/PYD as a terrorist organization, then Turkey won’t approve the security plans of the alliance.”[2] One day following Erdogan’s statement, his spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin also said: “Alliance and solidarity are the main two pillars of the NATO. Turkey's expectation from its allies to stand strongly with its NATO ally against any terrorist organizations like PKK, PYD, Daesh, and FETO... No one can be safe without everyone is safe.”[3]

Still, YPG’s association with the fight against Daesh is why some NATO countries are reluctant to label their Kurdish partner as a terrorist organization. Hoping to pressure its NATO allies into labelling YPG as a terrorist threat, Erdogan stated that Turkey was not going to approve the Baltic Defense Plan. His intentions regarding this issue have different aspects and history. To understand the main force behind his decision-making process, it is necessary to understand at least some of the vital points in Turkish politics.

The two primary factors shaping Turkey’s Syria policy are the Syrian refugee crisis and the PYD/YPG presence in Northern Syria. The first has significant impacts not only on Turkey’s foreign policy moves but also on its internal politics and economy. In recent years, the Turkish people have started to believe that the Syrian refugees will not return to their home country. Regarding the economy, the massive numbers of Syrian refugees have also caused a low wage crisis in the Turkish labour market and has led to complaints from Turkish and Kurdish workers about illegal refugee laborers who are willing to work for lower wages. The house rents are also highly affected since the refugee flow started. Turkey claims that it has spent more than US$40 billion aiding Syrian refugees so far, which has been conceived by many as wasting their taxes for people who have stolen their jobs. In addition to this, people also are blaming the refugees for the recent economic crisis.

These reasons and reactions of its citizens to the refugee issue have forced Turkey into taking serious actions in creating a safe zone to place refugees within the Syrian border. The most suitable place to settle those people happens to be in Northern Syria. The Turkish authorities have been trying to create a buffer zone between Turkey and PYD/YPG in Northern Syria, which will also serve as a safe zone to resettle Syrian refugees in their homeland. This plan seemingly aims to ease the public pressure on the Turkish government, which is seen as being responsible for accepting more than four million refugees over eight years. However, it has not been easy for Turkey to implement its plan, as the area had been under the control of PYD/YPG for a long time due to assistance from the US.

Turkey is determined to extinguish YPG’s presence on its southern border and wants to make sure that YPG does not increase its strength by holding a large portion of land in Northern Syria. Turkey elucidates the operation against YPG militias as an attempt to eliminate the security threat posed by YPG and to create a safe zone wherein approximately two million Syrian refugees will have to be accommodated in the cities.[4] Additionally, Turkey is planning to build new cities, which will include schools, hospitals, houses, and public areas for those refugees.

Another concern from all sides, including Russia, is that Turkey’s move to place two million Arabs in Kurdish majority areas will conclude with a sharp demographic change in Northern Syria. Turkish presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın said: “Turkey has no plans for demographic change in north-eastern Syria, and both Arabs and Kurds would be able to return to their home once the region will be cleared of the terrorists. If you look at our previous military operations against Daesh or PKK, we have never changed the demographic composition of the population[5] Included in Turkey's refugee population of approximately four million, are 300,000 Kurdish refugees who fled from Northern Syria since the civil war erupted. However, Turkey claims that the Kurds had never constituted a majority in these areas.

Turkey’s refusal to sign off on NATO’s military plan to protect the Baltic countries from possible Russian aggression is conceived by the other members as “disruptive.”[6] Turkey held up the Baltic plan to bring attention to the security concerns on its Syrian border, but the crisis was eventually resolved by offering Turkey a technical solution which is not explained in detail. Perhaps was difficult for Turkey to persuade NATO to acknowledge YPG as a terrorist organization; however, the main aim for Erdogan was to prevent them from interfering in his Syrian policy and military operations against YPG.

Although President Trump gave Turkey the green light to act against YPG, the US Senate has objected to the operation and implemented arms sanctions on Turkey, though limited in scale. France and Germany also have strongly objected to the Turkish military intervention in Syria, but these objections will be unable to force the Turkish army to take a step back from its ongoing operation. When observing the current balance of powers in the region, Turkey can implement its policies in Syria and prove that it could deal with the consequences.

Nowadays, NATO is suffering from the dissatisfaction of multiple member countries. US President Trump has accused European countries like France and Germany of not doing their jobs properly and for relying too heavily on US contributions to NATO. French Prime Minister Macron said that NATO is experiencing “brain death.”[7] Turkey also stated many times that it feels betrayed by its NATO allies and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that Turkey is not against the Baltic Defense Plan, but expecting the same sensitivity for Turkey’s security concerns regarding its southern border.

But things are complicated in that matter. The US and several other NATO member countries have been arming YPG in its fight against Daesh. Last year, France’s Macron hosted a delegation of PYD/YPG in Paris to show his support. After the meeting, he stated the “There will be reinforcements to help secure from attacks by Islamic State and stop foreign aggression,” referring Turkey.[8] Turkish MFA spokesperson Hami Aksoy condemned Macron’s meeting with PYD/YPG delegates and said; "This attempt to give artificial legitimacy to the extensions of a terrorist group is a rather wrong step which is incompatible with the alliance relations”[9]

Furthermore, Turkey’s pivot towards Russia in the last decade has raised questions about Ankara’s reliance on NATO. The purchasing of Russian S-400 air defence systems has been criticized harshly by other NATO member countries as a threat to NATO military defence systems. Turkey has also been negotiating with Russia over the Syrian Civil War and launching military co-operation and patrols over Idlib and Northern Syria. This political and military pivot is seen as Turkey’s drifting away from NATO. Even though Erdogan agreed to take his veto off the table regarding the NATO defence plan, it also can be considered that Turkey’s increasing ties with Russia prevents other countries from taking such an action. But, as Turkish officials stated, the main issue is the YPG presence in Northern Syria as Turkey pressures NATO to recognize it as a terrorist organization.

Nevertheless, the official recognition of YPG as a terrorist organization which threatens a NATO frontier would lead to serious problems for the US and the other NATO countries who supported YPG militias, putting them in a position where a terrorist group armed and trained by the US military is posing a threat to another NATO ally. The situation in NATO is gridlocked, and it seems unlikely to be resolved shortly. 


[1] Rodi Said, “Syria's Kurds rebuked for seeking autonomous region”, Reuters, 17 March 2016,  Web Link

[2] Haber Turk, “Last Minute! President Erdogan: NATO’s self-updating is inevitable”, 3 December 2019, Web Link

[3]Hurriyet, “Ibrahim Kalin assesses NATO Summit”, 4 December 2019, Web Link

[4] BBC News, “What is known about Peace Spring Operation?”, 14 October 2019, Web Link

[5] Ayhan Simsek, “Turkey has no plans for demographic change in Syria”, Anadolu Agency, 22 October 2019, Web Link

[6]Robin Emmott, “Exclusive: Turkey holds up NATO military plans over Syria dispute – sources”, Reuters, 26 November 2019, Web Link

[7] BBC News, “Nato alliance experiencing brain death, says Macron”, 7 November 2019, Web Link

[8] John Irish and Marine Pennetier, “France's Macron vows support for northern Syrians, Kurdish militia”, Reuters, 30 March 2018, Web Link

[9]Beyza Binnur Dönmez, “Turkey condemns Macron’s meeting with PYD/YPG terrorists”, Anadolu Agency, 19 April 2019, Web Link


As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy