NATO’s row over Turkey’s opposition to Swedish and Finnish membership goes beyond the expansion of the North Atlantic military alliance. It’s as much about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s immediate political goals as it is about Turkey’s positioning in a new world order of the 21st century.
At first glance, the spat concerns Turkish efforts to obstruct support for Kurdish ethnic, cultural and national aspirations in Turkey, Syria and Iraq and the crackdown on suspected supporters of a preacher who lives in exile in the United States. -United. Turkey accuses the preacher, Fethullah Gulen, of plotting a failed military coup in 2016.
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The spat could also be a play for NATO’s second-largest standing army to regain access to US arms sales, especially upgrades for Turkey’s aging fleet of fighter jets. F-16 as well as later more advanced models of the F-16 and top-of-the-line F-35.
Finally, playing the Kurdish card benefits Mr. Erdogan domestically, potentially at a time when the Turkish economy is in the doldrums with an inflation rate of 70%.
The battle over perceived Scandinavian, and primarily Swede, support for Kurdish aspirations involves the extent to which the United States and Europe will continue to crush the road to what is yet another Middle Eastern powder keg.
Mr Erdogan announced this week that Turkey would soon launch a new military incursion against US-backed Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria. Erdogan said the operation would expand the Turkish Armed Forces’ control areas in Syria to a 30-kilometre strip of land along the two countries’ common border.
“The main target of these operations will be areas that are centers of attacks against our country and safe areas,” the Turkish president said.
Turkey says the US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian militia that helped defeat Islamic State, is an extension of the PKK. The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey, home to some 16 million Kurds. Turkey, the United States and the European Union have designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.
Erdogan accuses Sweden and Finland of giving refuge to the PKK and demands that both countries extradite members of the group. Turkey has not officially released the names of the 33 people it wants extradited, but some have been reported in Turkish media close to the government.
Swedish media reported that a doctor allegedly on the list died seven years ago and was not known to have had ties to the PKK. Another appointee was not resident in Sweden, while at least one other is a Swedish national.
Swedish and Finnish officials were in Ankara this week to discuss Turkey’s objections. Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson insisted as officials made their way to the Turkish capital that “we do not send money or weapons to terrorist organisations”.
Timely, pro-government media reported on the day the officials arrived that Turkish forces had found Swedish anti-tank weapons in a cave in northern Iraq used by the PKK. Turkey recently launched Operation Claw Lock against PKK positions in the region.
Erdogan’s military plans make it difficult for Sweden and Finland to join NATO. The two Nordic states imposed an arms embargo on Ankara after its first foray into Syria in 2019. The Turkish leader demanded the embargo be lifted as part of any deal on Sweden and Finland joining to NATO.
A new incursion that would cement Turkey’s three-year-old military presence in Syria could also put a damper on improving relations with the United States due to Turkish support for Ukraine and mediation efforts to end to the crisis triggered by the Russian invasion.
Turkey slowed its initial foray into Syria after US President Donald J. Trump threatened to “destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy.
The State Department warned this week that a new incursion would “undermine regional stability.”
Boosting arms sales to the United States would go a long way to cementing relations and downplaying Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 anti-missile system, even though Turkey’s opposition to joining Scandinavian will have a lingering effect on trust. The United States kicked Turkey out of its F-35 program in response to the acquisition.
This week, Erdogan appeared to widen the NATO dispute after Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis lobbied the US Congress against military sales to Turkey. “Mitsotakis no longer exists for me. I will never agree to meet him,” Erdogan said. He said Mitostakis’ lobbying violated an agreement between the two men “not to involve third countries in our bilateral matters.”
US arms sales would also impact Turkish-Russian relations, although Turkey, unlike most NATO members, will continue to seek to balance its relationship and avoid an open break with Moscow or Washington. .
“Russia’s geopolitical revisionism is poised to bring Turkey and the West relatively closer on geopolitical and strategic issues, provided that Turkey’s current blocking of Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO candidacy be resolved in the not too distant future,” said Turkish researcher Galip Dalay.
Turkey’s bet on NATO is a high-stakes poker game, given that Russia is as much a partner to Turkey as it is a threat.
NATO is Turkey’s ultimate shield against Russian civilizational expansionism. Russian support in 2008 for the irredentist regions of Georgia and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 created a buffer between Turkey and Ukraine and complicated the arrangements between Turkey and Russia in the Black Sea.
Nonetheless, Erdogan risks fueling a debate over Turkey’s NATO membership, just as Prime Minister Victor Orban’s opposition to a European embargo on Russian energy has raised questions about Hungary’s place. in the EU.
“Does Erdogan’s Turkey belong to NATO?” asked former US vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman and former senator Mark D Wallace in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. Unlike Finland and Sweden, the two men noted that Turkey would not meet NATO’s democratic requirements if it applied for membership today.
“Turkey is a member of NATO, but under Mr. Erdogan it no longer subscribes to the values that underpin this great alliance. Article 13 of the NATO charter provides a mechanism for members to withdraw Perhaps it is time to amend Article 13 to establish a procedure for expulsion from a member country,” Lieberman and Wallace wrote.
Both men implicitly argued that turning the tables on Turkey would force the complicated NATO member back on track.
Moreover, prominent Turkish journalist and analyst Cengiz Candar warned that “giving in to Ankara’s demands is like letting an autocrat design Europe’s security architecture and shape the future of the Western system.”
Dr James M Dorsey is a Senior Researcher at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore and Deputy Senior Researcher at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.