How to Stop Turkey From Holding NATO Hostage
NATO’s spat over Turkish opposition to Swedish and Finnish membership is about more than expanding the North Atlantic military alliance. It’s as much about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s immediate political goals, and Turkey’s positioning itself in a new 21st-century world order.
On its surface, the spat is about Turkish efforts to hinder support for Kurdish ethnic, cultural, and national aspirations.The spat may also be a play by NATO’s second-largest standing military to regain access to US arms sales, particularly upgrades for Turkey’s aging fleet of F-16 fighter jets, as well as more advanced newer models of the F-16 and the top-of-the-line F-35.
Finally, playing the Kurdish card benefits Erdogan domestically, at a time that the Turkish economy is in the doldrums, with a 70 percent inflation rate. 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 extend the Turkish armed forces’ areas of control in Syria to a 30-kilometer swath of land along the two countries’ shared border.
“The main target of these operations will be areas which are centers of attacks to our country and safe zones,” the Turkish president said.
Turkey asserts that the US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian militia that helped defeat the 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 charges that Sweden and Finland give the PKK sanctuary, and is demanding that the two countries extradite the group’s operatives. Turkey has not officially released the names of 33 people it wants to see extradited, but some were reported in Turkish media close to the government.
Swedish media reported that a physician allegedly on the list had died seven years ago and was not known to have had links to the PKK. Another person named 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 the officials headed for the Turkish capital that “we do not send money or weapons to terrorist organizations.”
Conveniently, pro-government media reported the day the officials arrived that Turkish forces found Swedish anti-tank weapons in a cave in northern Iraq used by the PKK.
Erdogan’s military plans complicate Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO. The two Nordic states slapped an arms embargo on Ankara after its initial incursion into Syria in 2019. The Turkish leader has demanded the lifting of the embargo as part of any deal on Swedish and Finnish NATO membership.
Turkey slowed its initial incursion into Syria after then US President Donald J. Trump threatened to “destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy. The State Department warned this week that a renewed incursion would “undermine regional stability.”
Revived US arms sales would go a long way to cement improved relations and downplay the significance of Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile system, even if Turkey’s opposition to Scandinavian membership will have a lingering effect on trust. The United States expelled Turkey from its F-35 program in response to the acquisition of the Russian anti-missile system.
This week, Erdogan appeared to widen the dispute in NATO, 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 that Mitostakis’ lobbying violated an agreement between the two men “not to involve third countries in our bilateral issues.”
Turkey’s NATO gamble is a game of high-stakes poker, given that Russia is as much a partner of Turkey as it is a threat.
NATO is Turkey’s ultimate shield against Russian civilizationalist expansionism. Russian support in 2008 for irredentist regions of Georgia and annexation of Crimea in 2014 created a buffer between Turkey and Ukraine, and complicated arrangements between Turkey and Russia in the Black Sea.
Nevertheless, Erdogan risks fueling a debate about Turkey’s membership in NATO, much like Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s opposition to a European embargo of Russian energy has raised questions about Hungary’s place in the EU.
“Does Erdogan’s Turkey Belong in NATO?” asked former US Senator Joe Lieberman and Mark D. Wallace, a former UN envoy, in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. Unlike Finland and Sweden, the two men noted that Turkey would not meet NATO’s democracy requirements if it were applying for membership today.
“Turkey is a member of NATO, but under 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 the expulsion of a member nation,” Lieberman and Wallace wrote.
The two men implicitly argued that turning the tables on Turkey would force the complicated NATO member back into line.
Adding to that, prominent Turkish journalist and analyst Cengiz Candar cautioned that “giving into Ankara’s demands amounts to letting an autocrat design the security architecture of Europe and shape the future of the Western system.”
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.