The effort to bring Sweden and Finland into NATO remains stalled, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists that his country will exercise its authority to veto an expansion of the alliance.
In public remarks on the issue, Erdogan has claimed that by allowing some Kurdish dissident groups that oppose his government to operate in Sweden, the Swedish government is damaging Turkey’s national security. Erdogan has also expressed frustration with arms embargoes levied against his government by European countries after he sent troops into Syria in 2019.
The two Scandinavian countries, which have maintained their neutrality for many years, officially applied to join NATO in May, nearly three months after Russia invaded Ukraine. While Sweden does not share a border with Russia, Finland, its neighbor to the east, does. The Finland-Russia border is nearly 1,300 kilometers long.
Issue for Biden
The dispute over expanding NATO could become a political liability for the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, who encouraged Sweden and Finland to apply, hosted their leaders in Washington and publicly expressed his expectation that their application would be accepted promptly.
The administration has since tried to distance itself from the discussion.
On Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, “We will continue to have consultations with our NATO counterparts, with our allies, with our ally Turkey, with our partners, Finland and Sweden, who will, we think, soon be considered allies, as well. So, we will continue to engage in that dialogue, but ultimately this is not an issue between the United States and Turkey. This is an issue between those three countries.”
However, experts said that practically speaking, there are no discussions about the composition of NATO that do not involve the United States, by far its largest member state.
Turkey has been involved in decadeslong conflicts with a number of Kurdish groups seeking independence or an autonomous region within Turkey.
One of these organizations, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is formally recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and others. However, there are multiple other groups that advocate for sovereignty for the Kurds — the largest ethnic group in the world without its own state.
Some of those groups have allied with the United States in the battle against Islamic State in northern Syria. The People’s Protection Units, or YPG, have been particularly effective in that fight, but are deeply mistrusted by Erdogan because of their connections to PKK separatists in Turkey. Another group, the PYD, is the political arm of the YPG and has established relationships with some Western governments, including Sweden.
In Turkey’s view, connections to the PKK make groups like the PYD de facto terrorist organizations.
Erdogan makes his case
In an article published by The Economist this week, Erdogan described his country as a staunch supporter of NATO, noting the many actions it has taken in support of the alliance over the years.
In the NATO reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Turkey’s contribution to the effort has been among the most significant. In addition to providing vital military equipment and diplomatic support, Erdogan’s government has also blocked Russian warships from passing between the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea.
“As all NATO allies accept Turkey’s critical importance to the alliance, it is unfortunate that some members fail fully to appreciate certain threats to our country,” he wrote. “Turkey maintains that the admission of Sweden and Finland entails risks for its own security and the organization’s future. We have every right to expect those countries, which will expect NATO’s second-largest army to come to their defense under Article 5, to prevent the recruitment, fundraising and propaganda activities of the PKK, which the European Union and America consider a terrorist entity.”
Calls for extradition
Erdogan went on to call for the extradition from Sweden of “members of terrorist organizations,” which it deems necessary for Turkey to lift its veto on NATO membership.
In addition, he said that arms embargoes against his country must be lifted.
“Turkey stresses that all forms of arms embargoes — such as the one Sweden has imposed on my country — are incompatible with the spirit of military partnership under the NATO umbrella," he said. "Such restrictions not only undermine our national security but also damage NATO’s own identity.”
While the embargo imposed by Sweden and other European countries after Turkey’s incursion into Syria is the only one directly mentioned by Erdogan in his article, it may not be the only one on his mind.
After Turkey purchased Russian air defense systems in 2019, the United States blocked the country from purchasing the F-35, America’s most advanced fighter jet. Later, when Turkey asked to purchase more F-16 fighters from the U.S., members of Congress took action to block the sale.
While Turkey appears to have accepted that the F-35 is off the table, an easing of the blockade on the F-16 might make Erdogan more amenable to accepting Sweden's and Finland’s applications.
Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, chair of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, told VOA that Turkey is a “transactional foreign policy player.”
Erdogan, he said, wants a tangible benefit from allowing the two Scandinavian countries to join NATO — especially because his country feels that its contributions to the alliance are frequently overlooked.
“Turkey’s assessment, and they're absolutely right ... is that it is seen as, at best, a half-member, tolerated but not liked by the rest of NATO, and certainly not by the Washington foreign policy community,” Jeffrey said.
He added, “I mean, it is ridiculous to have an arms embargo on a fellow NATO country when you're then demanding that NATO country take action for you.”
Some experts say it is impossible to separate Erdogan’s position on Sweden and Finland from Turkish domestic politics. Spiraling inflation has severely damaged the Turkish economy and hurt Erdogan’s standing in public opinion polls.
“This is almost 90% about domestic politics,” Kemal Kirisci, a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, told VOA. “Erdogan is fully exploiting any opportunity that arises to boost his standing in the eyes of the public," and the Swedish and Finnish applications come "at a perfect time.”
Kirisci said that while Turkey may have some legitimate grievances, particularly about Sweden’s treatment of Kurdish dissident groups, Erdogan is unlikely to win major concessions on those issues. For that reason, he agrees that the Turkish president’s real goal in holding up the Swedish and Finnish applications is to have arms embargoes against Turkey lifted.
This would allow Erdogan to demonstrate that he is “able to stand up to the West,” Kirisci said, while simultaneously strengthening Turkey’s military.
New Syria offensive
In a possible complicating factor, Erdogan confirmed Wednesday that he is planning to send more Turkish troops into Syria to expand a 30-kilometer-deep “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border.
"Let's see who supports these legitimate steps by Turkey and who hinders them," he said in remarks to members of his political party.
Past incursions have led to conflict between Turkish troops and members of Kurdish organizations that have been supported by the U.S. There are currently 900 U.S. troops in northern Syria supporting efforts against the Islamic State group.
However, Jeffrey said that Erdogan’s announcement that the new offensive would target Syria's Tal Rifaat and Manbij areas should reduce concerns.
“They're both to the west of the Euphrates,” he said. “They’re not areas that the U.S. has much concern about,” because American troops are not working with the Kurdish forces in that region.