Turkey Is Playing a Dangerous Game With NATO
Amid speculation about a reduced US military commitment to security in the Middle East, Turkey has spotlighted the region’s ability to act as a disruptive force if its interests are neglected.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan set off alarm bells this month, declaring that he was not “positive” about possible Finnish and Swedish applications for membership in NATO, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
NATO membership is contingent on a unanimous vote in favor by the organization’s 30 members. Turkey has NATO’s second-largest standing army.
The vast majority of NATO members appear to endorse Finnish and Swedish membership. NATO members hope to approve the applications at a summit next month. But a potential Turkish veto would complicate efforts to maintain trans-Atlantic unity in the face of the Russian invasion.
Erdogan’s pressure tactics mirror the maneuvers of his fellow strongman, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orban threatens European Union unity by resisting a bloc-wide boycott of Russian energy.
Erdogan linked his NATO objection to alleged Finnish and Swedish support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and the EU.
The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency in southeast Turkey in support of Kurds’ national, ethnic, and cultural rights. Kurds account for up to 20 percent of Turkey’s 84 million population.
Turkey is at odds with the United States over American support for Syrian Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State. Turkey asserts that America’s Syrian Kurdish allies are aligned with the PKK.
Referring to the NATO membership applications of Sweden and Finland, Erdogan charged that “Scandinavian countries are like some kind of guest house for terrorist organisations. They’re even in parliament.”
Erdogan’s objections relate primarily to Sweden, with Finland risking becoming collateral damage.
Sweden is home to a significant Kurdish community, and hosts Europe’s top Kurdish soccer team, which reportedly empathizes with the PKK and Turkish Kurdish aspirations. In addition, six Swedish members of parliament are ethnic Kurds.
Turkey scholar Howard Eissenstat suggested that Turkey’s NATO objection may be a turning point.
“Much of Turkey’s strategic flexibility has come from the fact that its priorities are seen as peripheral issues for its most important Western allies. Finnish and Swedish entry into NATO, in the current context, absolutely not peripheral,” Eissenstat tweeted.
The Turkish objection demonstrates the Middle East’s potential to derail US and European policy in other parts of the world.
Moreover, Turkey risks endangering significant improvements in its long-strained relations with the United States.
Turkish mediation in the Ukraine crisis and military support for Ukraine prompted US President Joe Biden to move ahead with plans to upgrade Turkey’s fleet of F-16 fighter planes, and discuss selling it newer, advanced F-16 models, even though Turkey has neither condemned Russia nor imposed sanctions.
Some analysts suggest that Turkey may use its NATO objection to regain access to the United States’ F-35 fighter jet program. The US cancelled a sale of the jet to Turkey in 2019, after the NATO member acquired Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defense system.
Erdogan has “done this kind of tactic before. He will use it as leverage to get a good deal for Turkey,” said retired US Navy Admiral James Foggo, dean of the Center for Maritime Strategy.
A top aide to Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, appeared to confirm Foggo’s analysis.
“We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey,” Kalin said, referring to Erdogan’s remarks on Finland and Sweden joining NATO. “Of course, we want to have a discussion, a negotiation with Swedish counterparts.”
Spelling out Turkish demands, Kalin went on to say that “what needs to be done is clear: they have to stop allowing PKK outlets, activities, organisations, individuals, and other types of presence to … exist in those countries.”
Erdogan’s brinkmanship may have its limits, but it illustrates that world leaders ignore the Middle East at their peril.
For the United States and Europe, the trick will be developing a policy that balances accommodating autocrats’ disruptive demands, often aimed at ensuring regime survival, with the need to remain loyal to democratic values, amid a struggle over whose worldview will underwrite a 21st-century world order.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.