UPDATED: Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was “milking” an offensive incident at a NATO exercise in Norway last week for all it’s worth during the weekend, claims the editor of a Turkish-Norwegian political website. Top NATO and Norwegian officials both extended apologies to Erdogan, but he wasn’t willing to accept them. On Monday, Norway’s biggest newspaper was warning Norwegian officials against falling into a “Turkish trap” set up by Erdogan.
The conflict began during NATO’s Trident Javelin 2017 commando and data exercise at NATO’s Joint Warfare Centre near Stavanger last week. Norwegian defense officials confirmed that a Norwegian civilian who’d been hired on a freelance basis to work on the computer-based military exercises had inserted photos of both Erdogan and the revered “father” of the modern Turkish republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, as enemies instead of allies.
Turkish news bureau Andalou reported that Erdogan, upon hearing of the incident, immediately withdrew around 40 Turkish soldiers taking part in the exercise in protest. Erdogan claimed both he and Turkey as a nation were insulted.
Both Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen explained in a statement to news bureau NTB on Friday that the incident occurred on a closed network set up for the training exercises, in a segment “written by an individual,” and that it “in no way reflected Norway’s view of Turkey.” Bakke-Jensen called Turkey “an important ally in NATO, with which we want to maintain good relations.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who’s Norwegian as well, also blamed the incident on a civilian Norwegian hired in to work on the exercise. Stoltenberg claimed in a press release that “this individual” was immediately removed from the exercise and that an investigation into his involvement was underway. Stoltenberg described him as a civilian adviser from Norway who was not employed by NATO, and that it was up to Norway to further evaluate any disciplinary reaction. Stoltenberg went on to call Turkey a valuable member of NATO that contributes to member nations’ security.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Sunday, though, that Erdogan had dismissed the regrets of both Norway and NATO. “This can’t be covered by a simple apology,” Reuters reported Erdogan as saying in a televised address in Turkey. He claimed the incident showed a lack of respect for Turkey and that such an incident couldn’t have been carried out by “fools,” but only by “mean-spirited people.”
Aftenposten reported that Norway’s defense ministry didn’t want to respond to Erdogan’s remarks, nor would Norway’s foreign ministry. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that Stoltenberg offered an additional apology to Erdogan in a telephone conversation on Sunday.
Aftenposten’s political commentator and longtime editor Harald Stanghelle suggested that’s enough. No one contests that apologies were in order after such a blunder at the NATO exercises, which raises many questions as to how it could have happened. “Where’s the quality control and the many-starred military leadership in this case?” Stanghelle wrote. He wondered how a civilian freelancer could have been allowed to insert the offensive photo into an otherwise prestigious NATO exercise, og called for more openness around the incident from Norway’s defense apparatus.
Stanghelle also wrote, however, that “a steadily more authoritarian Erdogan is in the process of reversing Turkey’s democracy,” by cracking down on critical media and opponents. “Norway has been clear in its criticism of this anti.democratic development,” Stanghelle said, and “must continue to be so. What’s worrisome now is whether this ‘crisis’ between Norway/NATO and Turkey might lead to a more careful approach. We saw that in relations with China (during Norway’s six-year diplomatic freeze with China because China was offended by the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiabao). Blunders like this one can seem to be nearly created for being blown up to serve the Turkish government party’s interests.” Stanghelle warned against falling into any “trap” that Erdogan can set to serve his own interests as well.
The incident has also prompted several political commentators to suggest that Erdogan was seizing the opportunity for his own political gain within Turkey. “This all stopped being a foreign policy conflict when the apologies came,” Morten Myksvoll, editor of the website tyrkiskpolitikk.no, told Aftenposten. “It was correct for Norway and NATO to apologize. Now this is mostly about Erdogan’s desire to milk the situation as much as possible. He will use this episode to strengthen himself within Turkey.”
Myksvoll added that Erdogan “hasn’t forgotten that Turkish officers were granted asylum in European countries (also in Norway) after the (military) coup attempt last year. He says often that Europe supported the coup attempt. It’s a type of rhetoric he uses to become more popular in the homeland.”
Einar Wigen, who specializes in Turkish matters at the University of Oslo, told NTB that “we should never underestimate Erdogan’s willingness to use incidents like this in a tactical manner. He can exploit his own winnings from it.”
Wigen described the NATO incident as “unusually stupid,” and stressed that it’s viewed “naturally enough as a great offense in Turkey.” He also noted that Turkey has often felt misunderstood by its allies in NATO.