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Canada Suspends Turkey Arms-Trade As NATO Member Facilitates Conflict

On October 5, 2020, Foreign Minister François-Phillippe Champagne suspended export permits to Turkey amidst allegations that Canadian drone-imaging technology was being used in the recent conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

  • Canadian arms control group Project Ploughshares says video of airstrikes released by Azerbaijan indicates the drones had been equipped with imaging and targeting systems made by L3Harris Wescam, the Canada-based unit of L3Harris Technologies Inc LHX.N.
  • Turkey publicly supports Azerbaijan in the conflict and supplies its militia with weaponry and mercenary fighters from Syria.
  • On Thursday, October 2, French President Emmanuel Macron accused Turkey of sending jihadists to fight in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and joined Russia and the United States in calling for an immediate ceasefire. The three countries are co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Co-operation’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, set up in 1992 to mediate a peaceful resolution over the disputed enclave.

In Short: Turkey’s active support for Azerbaijan has created tensions with its Western NATO allies, straining the already difficult relationship. Canada, as well as its European allies, will be looking to diffuse the conflict without expressly retaliating against Turkish involvement to avoid losing Turkey’s partnership in securitizing the crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa.

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Turkey and the West

Despite Turkey’s dictatorship and disregard of established Western standards of democratic unity, Canada and NATO still rely on Turkey as a geopolitical anchor. Its proximity and active involvement in key areas of interest, like the Mediterranean and the Middle-East, makes Turkey a valuable asset in establishing a Western presence in these theaters. At the same time, Turkey benefits from NATO’s collective military power.

  • NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Monday that NATO’s security interests are synonymous with those of Turkey, and promised the bloc’s support.

Turkish strategic interests align with the West on important geopolitical interests, namely:

  • Both Turkey and the West have interests in reducing Russian imperialist presence in the Black Sea and its encroaching presence on military bases in places like Qamishli, Syria; and,
  • There is a mutual interest to stabilize Syria, prevent Islamic State insurgency and aid in reconstruction of the area.

However idyllic an alliance may seem between Turkey and its Western neighbours, Turkey operates on its own agenda. For instance, Turkey once angered the United States after purchasing Russian air defence weaponry against the USA’s wishes, leading to sanctions. More generally, Turkish warfare against Kurds and the rebellious Kurdistan Workers’ Party has been met with a deluge of criticism from human rights organizations and condemnation from the European Court of Human Rights.

The challenge for the West has been to balance its commitments to human rights without losing the military support of Turkey, which provides over $100 million a year to NATO initiatives.

Turkey’s Entanglement with Canada

In 2019, Canada and Turkey signed a Memorandum of Understanding establishing a Joint Economic and Trade Committee, with a view to expand bilateral trade. The Government of Canada promotes investment opportunities in Turkey’s energy, mining, infrastructure and IT industries.

Turkey and Canada also share ideas in many multilateral forums, like the G20, WTO and the OECD.

Pro-Armenia protests have been held in Montreal and Toronto, signalling Canadian public support for Armenia and the self-declared Republic of Artsakh in the contested area of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The challenge for Canada mirrors the rest of its Western allies going forward – to stop Turkey’s military involvement without overloading Turkey with sanctions, which would likely prompt Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to blame the West for any recession stemming from sanctions.

The Big Picture

The latest conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh has the world on pins and needles. Major geopolitical players, like Russia, the UAE and Turkey, will seek to leverage the conflict to suit their own strategic interests. The challenge for NATO will be to carefully balance their involvement in human rights interests and peacekeeping with their working strategic partnership with Turkey.

A corollary to this is that Turkey’s active support of Azerbaijan will raise the question of the feasibility of a NATO-Turkey relationship. Although Turkey assists NATO with many of its security interests, President Erdoğan has not made cooperation easy during his time as a de facto dictator. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh may quickly turn into a fiercer affair than it already is, and most people in the West will be looking to mediate the conflicts and prevent further bloodshed – and external military participation.