Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting at the presidential palace in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. In a long-feared escalation of tensions between Russia and NATO as well as the Syrian conflict, Turkey on Tuesday shot down a Russian warplane that it claims had crossed into its airspace during a sortie against rebels in Syria. Turkey has vowed to support the Syrian Turkmen and Erdogan on Tuesday criticized Russian actions in the Turkmen regions, saying there were no Islamic State group fighters in the area. (AP Photo/Kayhan Ozer, Presidential Press Service, Pool )

NATO must retain Turkey as a member despite soaring tensions over Ankara’s campaign for a controversial referendum, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday.

Beyond Turkey’s strategic importance, von der Leyen warned that rupturing ties could give the democratic Turkish opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the sense the West was leaving it in the lurch.

“Turkey is not making it easy for us within NATO. But no one should believe that a Turkey outside NATO would listen better to us or would be easier to deal with than a Turkey in NATO,” she told AFP.

Von der Leyen, who has served as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s defence chief since 2013, said that NATO provided a platform for the West to “discuss — sometimes heatedly — our convictions about democracy and open society”.

She warned that allowing the current tensions with Ankara to lead to a permanent rupture would have a negative impact on Turkish society.

“We must not abandon the many Turks who don’t want an expansion of the president’s powers with the upcoming referendum,” she said.

Ankara is locked in a dispute with several European countries which have sought to stop Turkish ministers from holding rallies on their soil ahead of the April referendum on expanding Erdogan’s powers, leading the Turkish leader to rail against “Nazi practices”.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere on Tuesday said Ankara was playing the victim with its broadsides against NATO allies to galvanise support ahead of the referendum.

Amid the tension, Florian Hahn, a politician from Merkel’s Bavarian allies the CSU, called on Berlin to withdraw its troops stationed at Turkey’s Incirlik air base.

Von der Leyen rejected the call, saying the soldiers were not in Incirlik to protect Turkey but as part of the international coalition against the Islamic State group “which is entering a decisive phase in Raqa and Mosul”.

“It would weaken us and would not be a smart decision”.

  • ssn21seawolf

    turkey out nato, the turkey peoples out from europe, turkey is not europe

  • DB100-SM2

    Once again Germany is presuming the Turkish people will vote "No" for a Presidential system like the US and France. Lets wait and see until the referendum.
    Turkey has also already signed a strategic partnership with Russia and is also about to sign a multi-billion dollar arms deal which includes the S-400, Pantsir-S1, Active Protection Suites for MBT's all with ToT.

  • VGA

    I am ashamed of my country being a part of NATO. They keep emboldening Turkey.

    Frankly, i am sick and tired of hearing how strategically important Turkey is. Enough is enough, NATO is a joke. It should protect its members FROM rogue countries like Turkey. Soon Erdogan will gain more power after he wins the referendum, too.

  • virgile

    Believing it is indispensable to NATO and to the world, Turkey is abusing and blackmailing the EU and the USA. These are overtly and covertly trying to prevent Turkey from becoming a dictatorship. If they fail, how long would they accept a non-democratic state as a member of NATO?