Turkey’s search for concessions in its dealings with NATO
In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this month that Ankara’s approach to these two countries joining the alliance “would not be positive,” as he accused them of harboring PKK terrorists.
History is repeating itself. Seventy years ago, Turkey had sought NATO membership for a similar reason. Then-Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin had asked for joint control of the Turkish Straits and the return of two eastern Turkish provinces — Kars and Ardahan — to Moscow. Alarmed by this threat, Turkey laboriously sought alliance with NATO and joined it in 1952.
Speculation abounds on Erdogan’s possible motives for his negative attitude toward Sweden and Finland’s applications to join NATO.
One of them is his disillusionment because of the Nordic countries’ tolerance for the activities of members of the PKK and of various anti-Turkish activists. Turkey’s perception of freedom of speech varies considerably from that of the Nordic countries. In Sweden and Finland, the nonviolent expression of opinion is not a punishable act. In Turkey, meanwhile, several human right activists are serving long prison sentences for signing a declaration that criticized government policy.
Another reason for Erdogan’s intransigence stems from the arms embargo that several Nordic countries imposed on Turkey in 2019. He emphatically underlined that he would veto the accession to NATO of countries that banned arms exports to his country as a result of its military operation in Syria.
A closer look at this issue reveals there are several nuances. A debate was opened in the EU in 2019, when Turkey launched a military operation in Syria dubbed “Peace Spring.” At the time, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde criticized Turkey’s military operation and said “this operation violates international law, stirs instability and is likely to cause a humanitarian crisis.”
Despite these statements, there was no recorded decision to officially impose a ban on the supply of weapons. However, certain countries, including Sweden, Norway and Finland, refrained from selling weapons to Turkey because they did not want to further stir instability. Ankara does not want to make a distinction between the formal imposition of an embargo and a country’s sovereign decision to refrain from selling weapons to a specific country.
According to the rule of consensus in NATO, all member countries’ consent is required to adopt a decision, including the admission of new members.
There is widespread speculation that Turkey may have resorted to vetoing Sweden and Finland’s membership applications in an attempt to gain concessions from NATO. However, Turkey wants to negotiate with these two countries before they join the alliance. Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said that Turkey has not closed the door on Sweden and Finland’s accession. He asked that restrictions be introduced regarding terrorist activities in these countries.
On previous occasions, the Nordic countries have either refrained from promising Turkey they would take any substantive measures to ban the activities of terrorist groups or diluted their implementation of these promises. Turkey does not want to face similar disappointment again.
Though the main subject of Turkey’s objection relates to the Swedish and Finnish NATO membership bids, the US will probably be deeply involved in these negotiations as the main broker in all NATO-related affairs. One such issue is the F-16 fighter jet package. After Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 advanced fighter aircraft project, Ankara made a separate demand to update its fleet of F-16s and purchase an additional 20. This request is being debated in the US Congress and there is no guarantee it will be approved.
The US will probably be deeply involved in these negotiations as the main broker in all NATO-related affairs.
While the debate on Turkey’s potential veto of Sweden and Finland’s accession was going on, Erdogan surprised everyone by announcing last Monday that Turkey was preparing to carry out a new military operation in Syria. He said this would complete the unfinished work of the previous operations. He is apparently aiming to broaden the scope of the negotiations to include Syria along with NATO enlargement and the active role Ankara is playing in the Ukrainian crisis. He may also be expecting to draw from this big bargain a concession that the ruling Justice and Development Party can use to increase its votes in the 2023 elections.
The Wall Street Journal newspaper quoted three US officials as it reported that Turkey was trying to gain concessions from Washington. They include the purchase of F-16s and meeting US President Joe Biden more frequently, including telephone contact.
All of these scenarios are possible and make sense. If one of them fails, another may succeed.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar