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Turkey is considering new steps to address post-Cold War security threats, including a proposed joint missile defense program with Israel. Debate over the impact of Ankara’s reshaped defense program is likely to spark a major identity crisis for the NATO alliance.

Turkey and Israel agreed this month to enhance their burgeoning and highly controversial security relationship, including joint moves on ballistic missile defense. Aviation Week and Space Technology reported July 16 that the two governments have appealed to Washington to approve Ankara’s purchase and possible co-production of the Arrow anti-tactical ballistic missile interceptor, developed by the United States and recently deployed in Israel.

With its new security strategy, Turkey hopes to counter rising threats from its Arab neighbors and Iran. Ankara also is grappling with its status in the post-Cold War world: There is growing evidence that European members of NATO no longer believe Turkey is vital to European security and, because of commitments established under the Washington Treaty, see it as a potential drag on their own military strength. Conflict over Turkey’s role in NATO and the European Union will cause a rift between Europe and the United States, which views Turkey as a crucial partner in the Middle East.

Ultimately, the debate could split NATO wide open. Without Turkey as a full partner in European security, the Western alliance will be more at risk than anytime in its 52-year history.

Seeking cooperation with non-Arab neighbors and with the former Soviet republics, Ankara is carving out a defense posture that will be increasingly less European in focus. But the government also hopes to join the European Union, a goal that is falling on deaf ears amid Turkey’s economic tailspin. Meanwhile, both Turkey and the United States have expressed fears that EU efforts to create a new rapid reaction force independent of NATO would shut Ankara out of key elements of European security policy and planning.

The battle over a rapid reaction force was recently joined anew. Radio Free Europe reported on July 18 that Turkey has refused EU requests that the proposed force have automatic access to NATO military planning facilities. Ankara first wants a formal voice in the new security structure’s deliberations, which the union appears unwilling to grant. Turkish intransigence could force the union to create a separate military planning mechanism – much to the chagrin of its NATO allies, particularly the United States.

The rift between Turkey and European NATO members is not new. American pressure in the face of a Soviet threat originally brought Turkey, NATO’s only Islamic member, into the alliance. Over the years, European members have shut Ankara out of political, economic and now security organizations.

For instance, some two dozen European, American and Russian officials indicated at a recent RAND Corp. conference that some NATO members are increasingly concerned about the application of Article V of the Washington Treaty, a key underpinning of the alliance that guarantees any member military aid in the event of attack. Participants concluded that Turkey’s growing exposure in the Middle East could drag NATO into potential conflicts “in which it has little direct interest.”

But Washington sees things differently. “Turkey’s importance for the Middle East, which could become an out-of-area threat to Europe, has visibly grown,” according to a paper published by the U.S. Army War College last year.

For its part, Turkey lacks confidence that European NATO members would respond if Ankara invoked Article V, a suspicion that dates back at least a decade to the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Turkey, which provided vital assistance to the United Nations coalition by cutting off Iraqi oil and opening its military bases, was initially apprehensive because of the threat along its border with Iraq. Ankara agreed to help after assurances of reinforcements from European allies as well as the United States. But some European countries, particularly Germany, balked at first.

The experience “left a bad aftertaste and has made Ankara highly sensitive to restricting the meaning of Article V,” RAND conference participants concluded. In Turkey’s view, Article V has been undermined by NATO’s recent focus on peacekeeping and humanitarian operations as well as by the war in Kosovo.

NATO responsibility toward Turkey was “a very contentious issue” during the Gulf War, according to a former senior NATO officer, and “there is no doubt” that Turkey’s future role in Europe’s security structure “will again be contentious.” The debate throws into sharp relief the growing rift between the United States and many of its European NATO allies.

Because it views Turkey as a vital partner in long-term security plans, the United States likely will approve the Israeli-Turkish defense request, though perhaps not for several years.

The U.S. priority is to defend Israel from missiles from Iran and other adversaries, and it is unclear whether Ankara will be able to afford the Arrow system. But earlier this month, U.S. defense officials told Congress they plan to add $20 million to the Arrow program for additional testing and production, opening the door for a third-party transfer of the technology.

But the defense plan will face heated opposition throughout the region. Turkey’s Arab neighbors will certainly oppose its military cooperation with Israel, their enemy. European members of NATO will view Turkey’s deeper involvement in Middle East security as a liability. Russia also will take a negative view of any developments that link Turkey more closely to the Middle East or the Caucasus region of Central Asia – where Moscow believes Ankara, and NATO by extension, seeks to expand influence at Russia’s expense.

Russia is already mounting a campaign against NATO’s very existence. Moscow contends that without the Soviet threat, a new European security framework that includes Russia is necessary; otherwise, East-West tensions will continue unabated as NATO looks to expand eastward.

But it may fall to Turkey – not Russia – to force NATO’s identity crisis. With Turkey as a flash point, conflict between the United States and Europe over NATO’s geographic boundaries may spread to disagreement over its very mission, throwing the alliance’s survival into question.

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