Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan put a cold shoulder on the historic decisions of Sweden and Finland to seek NATO membership, declaring that cannot allow them to join due to their alleged support for Kurdish militants and other groups that Ankara says threaten its national security.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has expressed confidence that the alliance will move to admit Sweden and Finland quickly. But Erdogan’s statement suggests that the two Nordic countries’ path to membership could be anything but easy.
Turkey’s approval is crucial because the military alliance makes its decisions by consensus. Any of its 30 member countries can veto a new member.
The Erdogan government is expected to use the two countries’ membership offers as leverage to extract concessions and guarantees from its allies.
WHAT IS TURKEY’S PROBLEM WITH MEMBERSHIP OFFERS?
Turkey, which has the second largest army in NATO, has traditionally supported NATO enlargement, believing that the alliance’s “open door” policy improves European security. For example, he has spoken out in favor of the possibility of Ukraine and Georgia joining.
Erdogan’s objection to Sweden and Finland stems from Turkish complaints with Stockholm’s, and to a lesser degree Helsinki’s, perceived support for the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, the left-wing extremist group DHKP-C, and the followers of US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. Ankara claims it was behind a failed military coup attempt in 2016.
Many Kurds and other exiles have found refuge in Sweden in recent decades, as have members of the Gulen movement more recently. According to Turkish state media, Sweden and Finland have refused to extradite 33 people wanted by Turkey.
Ankara, which frequently accuses allies of turning a blind eye to its security concerns, has also bristled at restrictions on the sale of military equipment to Turkey. These were imposed by EU countries, including Sweden and Finland, following Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria in 2019.
To further justify your objection, Erdogan says his country does not want to repeat Ankara’s “mistake”which agreed to readmit Greece into NATO’s military structure in 1980. It claimed that the action had allowed Greece to “take a stand against Turkey” with NATO’s backing.
WHAT COULD TURKEY GAIN?
Turkey is expected to seek to negotiate a compromise deal under which the two countries will crack down on the PKK and other groups in return for Turkish support in joining NATO. A key demand is expected to be that they stop any support for a Syrian Kurdish group, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG. The group is a Western ally in the fight against the Islamic State group in northern Syria, but Turkey sees it as an extension of the PKK.
Erdogan could also try to use the membership of Sweden and Finland to extract concessions from the United States and other allies. Turkey wants to return to the US-led F-35 fighter jet program, a project it was kicked out of after the purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems. Alternatively, Turkey is looking to purchase a new batch of F-16 fighter jets and upgrade its existing fleet.
Other possible demands could include ending an unofficial embargo on military sales to Turkey by allies; concessions from EU member countries in connection with Turkey’s failed attempt to join the bloc; and increased funds to help the country support 3.7 million Syrian refugees.
HOW DOES THIS AFFECT TURKEY’S IMAGE IN THE WEST?
Turkey’s veto threat is likely to undermine its own status in Washington and across NATO, reinforcing the image of a country that is blocking the alliance’s expansion for its own benefit. With the move, Turkey also risks damaging the credit it had earned by supplying Ukraine with Bayraktar TB2 armed drones that became an effective weapon against Russian forces.
“There is no scenario under which Turkey does not end up being seen as the mole of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin within NATO”said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute. “Everyone will forget the objections linked to the PKK. The whole world will focus on the fact that Turkey is blocking NATO expansion. It will distort the view of Turkey through (NATO).”
Cagaptay said Turkey’s obstruction could also undo “the positive momentum” that had begun to build in Washington regarding the sale of the F-16s. “I can’t see the sale going through at this stage,” he said.
IS TURKEY TRYING TO PACIFY RUSSIA?
Turkey has built close relations with both Russia and Ukraine and has been trying to balance its ties with both. He has refused to join the sanctions against Russia, while supporting Ukraine with the drones that helped negate Russia’s air superiority.
“The fact that Erdogan is derailing the (NATO) process intentionally suggests that he may be trying to balance the strong military support that Turkey has given to kyiv with political support for Russia,” Cagaptay said.
A senior Turkish politician also expressed concern that Finnish and Swedish membership could provoke Russia and inflame the war in Ukraine. Devlet Bahceli, the leader of a nationalist party allied with Erdogan, said the best option would be to keep the two Nordic countries in the “waiting room”.
CAN THE MOVEMENT HELP ERDOGAN’S RATINGS AT HOME?
The Turkish leader is seeing a decline in his domestic support due to a faltering economy, skyrocketing inflation and a cost-of-living crisis.
A showdown with Western nations over the emotional issue of perceived support for the PKK could help Erdogan boost his support and muster the nationalist vote ahead of elections currently scheduled for June 2023.
“With domestic support dwindling at a time when Turkey is entering a critical election cycle, Erdogan is seeking a higher international profile to demonstrate his global importance to Turkish voters,” analyst Asli Aydintasbas wrote in an article published on the European Council on Foreign Relations.
(with information from AP)
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