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Is Turkey a part of NATO?

Turkey has been a member of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) since 1952. This makes Turkey one of the earliest members of NATO, having joined only a few years after the organization was formed in 1949. Despite some occasional tensions, Turkey has remained a NATO member for over 70 years.

Brief History of Turkey Joining NATO

NATO was formed in 1949 by 12 founding members – the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Iceland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark, and Portugal. The first expansion of NATO came in 1952, when both Greece and Turkey were admitted. At the time, NATO was seeking to solidify its southern flank against the threat posed by the Soviet Union. By admitting Greece and Turkey, NATO integrated the armed forces of the two countries into its strategic planning and secured important access to bases in the eastern Mediterranean region.

Turkey formally joined NATO on February 18, 1952, when it became one of the first two countries admitted into the alliance. This was following Turkey’s long-standing efforts to align itself with the Western powers after World War II. Turkey participated alongside the United Nations in the Korean War from 1950-1953, demonstrating its anti-Soviet and pro-Western credentials. Upon joining, Turkey became entitled to the protection offered under NATO’s founding treaty – that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all.

Turkey’s Strategic Importance to NATO

There were several key reasons why NATO wanted Turkey as a member in the early days of the Cold War:

  • Geographic location – Turkey bordered Soviet-controlled Bulgaria and Georgia, providing NATO with strategic proximity to the USSR.
  • Control of Turkish Straits – The Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits connect the Black Sea with the Mediterranean, allowing Russia maritime access. Turkey’s control of these straits was considered strategically important.
  • Land barrier – Turkey effectively serves as a barrier between Europe and the Middle East. Its membership strengthened NATO’s southern flank.
  • Bases – Turkey provided NATO access to air bases and radar facilities close to the USSR’s southwestern border.
  • Military strength – Turkey maintained a large military and could contribute forces to NATO operations.

In particular, Turkey’s control of the Turkish Straits leading from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean gave NATO advantages over the Soviet Navy. Throughout the Cold War, Turkey helped choke off Soviet maritime access to the Mediterranean. Even today, Turkey maintains an important position monitoring Russian naval movements between these critical bodies of water.

Turkey’s Military Contributions to NATO

As a NATO member, Turkey has contributed substantially to NATO operations over the decades:

  • Korean War (1950-1953) – Turkey sent 15,000 troops to support UN and US forces, suffering 721 killed in action.
  • Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) – Turkey allowed NATO Jupiter missiles to be stationed on its territory, provoking Soviet ire.
  • Gulf War (1990-1991) – Turkey sent troops and allowed coalition forces use of its air bases and air space.
  • War in Afghanistan (2001-2021) – Turkey contributed troops to the NATO coalition with over 60 killed.
  • Kosovo Force (1999-Present) – Turkey has maintained forces as part of the NATO peacekeeping force.
  • Counter-ISIL (2015-Present) – Turkey allows use of Incirlik air base for anti-ISIL operations.

Turkey has also long hosted a large portion of NATO’s military forces, with NATO bases and equipment stationed on Turkish soil as a forward deployed defense starting in the Cold War. Even today, key NATO infrastructure in Turkey includes air bases, radar sites, training facilities, and command centers.

NATO Missile Defense in Turkey

A core part of Turkey’s strategic geography has been its serving as a site for NATO missile defense installations:

  • 1959-1963 – NATO stationed Jupiter ballistic missiles in Turkey aimed at the USSR.
  • 1961-1979 – The US-operated Hawk missile defense system was based in Turkey.
  • 2012-2019 – NATO deployed Patriot missile batteries to protect Turkey’s border from Syria.
  • 2015-2019 – The US operated an anti-missile radar station in Malatya, central Turkey.

However, in more recent years, disagreements between Turkey and its NATO allies have impacted these missile defense efforts. In 2019, Turkey received the advanced Russian S-400 missile system over objections by NATO powers who argued it was incompatible with NATO systems. As a result, Turkey was suspended from the F-35 stealth fighter jet program and missile defense cooperation has declined.

Turkey’s Relationship with NATO

Despite its longstanding NATO membership, Turkey has had a complicated relationship with the alliance over the decades:

  • During the Cold War, Turkey was seen as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism in a strategically important region.
  • In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus, resulting in condemnation from NATO members like the US and UK.
  • In 2003, Turkey refused to allow the US to invade Iraq from Turkish territory, straining ties with Washington.
  • The conflict in Syria has caused tensions between Turkey and other NATO members over approaches to the civil war.
  • Turkey’s growing ties with Russia – through energy pipelines, arms deals, and cooperation in Syria – have worried other NATO states.
  • Democratic backsliding in Turkey has led to criticism from NATO allies and concerns about Turkey’s reliability as an ally.

However, Turkey still remains integrated into NATO’s military structure and maintains membership in the alliance. Ongoing access to NATO intelligence and supervision by NATO officers provides incentives for Turkey not to fully break with the alliance. NATO membership also still garners Turkey protection under Article 5.

Recent Tensions Between Turkey and NATO

In recent years, Turkey’s relationship with NATO has come under increasing strain:

  • In 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet near the Turkey-Syria border. This sparked a crisis between Russia and Turkey, worrying other NATO members.
  • Turkey’s 2019 purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia represented a stark break from NATO allies. It resulted in Turkey’s suspension from the F-35 program over security concerns related to Russia.
  • Turkey’s military interventions in Syria, Iraq, and against Kurdish groups have caused tensions with other NATO members over undermining allies and potential human rights concerns.
  • President Erdogan has threatened to deny NATO access to Turkish bases in response to criticism from allies over its Syria policy and S-400 purchase.
  • Ongoing democratic issues in Turkey have led to a divergence in values with other NATO democracies.

Despite these tensions, Turkey remains highly unlikely to leave NATO given the long-term benefits it still accrues from membership. NATO allies also remain eager to maintain Turkey’s place in the alliance given its strategic importance.

Turkey’s Strategic Role in NATO Today

While Turkey’s relationship with NATO is more complicated today than during the Cold War, its strategic importance to the alliance persists:

  • Turkey’s geographic position remains critical – bordering the Black Sea, close to the Middle East, and controlling naval access to the Mediterranean.
  • Turkey has the second largest military in NATO with over 600,000 active personnel.
  • Turkey provides NATO with influence in the Muslim world and access to bases in an unstable region.
  • Russian naval access to the Mediterranean is still contingent on transit through Turkish waters.
  • Instability from the Syrian civil war and the threat of ISIL has reinforced Turkey’s continued relevance.

Therefore, Turkey is likely to remain a NATO member for the foreseeable future given its unique strategic attributes and the advantages NATO membership still provides Ankara in security affairs and military cooperation.


Turkey has been a member of NATO for over 70 years, joining in 1952 as part of NATO’s expansion into the Mediterranean. Throughout the Cold War and after, Turkey has remained vital to NATO strategy based on its geographic position bordering the Soviet Union/Russia, control of naval access between the Black Sea and Mediterranean, and substantial armed forces. Turkey has participated in nearly all major NATO operations, while hosting key NATO infrastructure and bases on its territory. However, Turkey’s relationship with NATO has also frequently been strained based on negative Turkish public opinion, human rights concerns, and Turkey’s growing ties with Russia. Recent years have seen periods of serious tension between Turkey and other NATO members related to foreign policy differences and arms deals with Russia. Nevertheless, Turkey is still a full member of NATO and neither side sees an interest in ending Turkey’s strategic role in the alliance.