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June 8, 2022 10:20 am

Double Standards Haunt US and Europe in NATO Dispute with Turkey

avatar by James M. Dorsey


Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan arrive for a news conference following their talks in Moscow, Russia March 5, 2020. photo: Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

US and European acquiescence in Turkey’s long-standing refusal to honor Kurdish ethnic, cultural, and political rights has come home to roost with Turkish opposition to Finnish and Swedish NATO membership.

The opposition has sparked debates about Turkey’s controversial place in the North Atlantic defense alliance.

Turkey’s detractors point to its problematic military intervention in Syria, relations with Russia, refusal to sanction Moscow, and alleged fueling of tension in the eastern Mediterranean, calling the country’s NATO membership into question.

Its defenders note that Turkey, NATO’s second-largest standing military, is key to maintaining the alliance’s southern flank. Also, Turkey’s geography, population size, economy, military power, and cultural links to a Turkic world make it a critical link between Europe and Asia. In addition, Turkish drones have been vital in Ukraine’s war with Russia, while Turkey has been a mediator in the conflict, albeit with limited success.

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Kurdish rights hardly figure in the debates, and if they do, only as a prop for taking Turkey to task for its slide into authoritarianism.

The Kurds — an ethnic group spread across southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northern Syria, and western Iran — are seen at best as assets in the fight against the Islamic State, and at worst a threat to Turkish security and territorial integrity. Turkey’s estimated 16 million Kurds account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population.

Turkey has made its agreement to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership dependent on the two Nordic countries effectively accepting its definition of terrorism as including any national expression of Kurdish identity.

Turkey has also demanded that Sweden and Finland extradite 33 people, some of whom are Swedish or Finnish nationals, because of their alleged support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) or exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds responsible for a failed military coup in 2016.

Turkey accuses the two Nordic countries of allowing the PKK to organize on their territory. Alongside the United States and the European Union, Turkey has designated the PKK as a terrorist organization. The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey in which tens of thousands have been killed.

Turkey also wants Sweden and Finland to support its military operation against the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a US-backed Syrian Kurdish group that played a crucial role in defeating the Islamic State. Turkey asserts that the YPG is an extension of the PKK.

Erdogan recently announced that Turkey would launch a new military operation to extend the Turkish armed forces’ areas of control in Syria to a 30-kilometer swath of land along the two countries shared border. The offensive would target the YPG in the towns of Tel Rifaat and Manbij, and possibly Kobani, Ain Issa, and Tell Tamer.

Past US and European failure to stand up for Kurdish rights, as part of Turkey’s need to meet the criteria for NATO membership that include “fair treatment of minority populations,” has complicated the fight against the Islamic State, stymied Kurdish aspirations beyond Turkey’s borders, and enabled the repression of Kurdish rights in Turkey.

More immediately, the failure to hold Turkey accountable for its repression of Kurdish ethnic and political rights within the framework of the Turkish state has enabled Ankara to establish Turkish policies as a condition for NATO membership even if they violate NATO membership criteria.

Those policies include defining the peaceful expression of Kurdish identity as terrorism and the rolling back of Kurdish language and cultural rights since the collapse in 2015 of peace talks with the PKK. Kurdish language programs in universities have dwindled in recent years amid administrative hurdles, while Kurdish parents complain of pressure not to enroll their children in elective Kurdish courses.

Most Kurdish-language services and activities were terminated by government-appointed trustees who replaced dozens of Kurdish mayors ousted by Ankara for alleged links to the PKK. Many of the ousted mayors and other leading Kurdish politicians remain behind bars.

For his part, US President Joe Biden has sought to regain the moral high ground in the wake of the Trump presidency that broke with American liberalism and support for democratic and human rights. Biden and Europe’s problem is that their credibility rides on cleaning up at home and ensuring that they are seen as sincere rather than hypocritical.

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.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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