By Turkmen Terzi
Finland and Sweden applied for Nato membership last week, breaking decades-long military non-alignment following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdoğan, as the leader of the country that has Nato’s second-largest army, has stated that Turkey would not agree to Finland and Sweden becoming Nato members.
He says the countries support terrorists such as the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot YPG/PYD. It is plausible that Erdoğan is using this as an opportunity to display anger towards US President Joe Biden, who has displeased the regime.
“Neither of these countries (Finland and Sweden) has an open, clear stance towards terrorist organisations. Sweden is already a hotbed of terrorist organisations,” Erdoğan said in a joint press conference with President Abdelmadjid Tebboune of Algeria on May 16. They are reportedly coming to Turkey on Monday. Are they coming to convince us? Excuse me but there is no need to bother. Above all, we cannot say ‘yes’ to the joining of those, who impose sanctions on Turkey, to Nato, which is a security organisation.”
Swedish State Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Security Oscar Stenstrom and Permanent State Secretary for the Finnish Foreign Ministry Jukka Salovaara, along with their delegations, had a meeting with the Turkish delegation in Ankara to convince Turkey of their Nato membership.
“We stated that if Turkey’s security concerns are not met with concrete steps, the process will not progress. The delegations received our message,” Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said.
Each of Nato’s 30 member countries has a potential veto over who can join, as the organisation makes all its decisions by consensus, hence Erdoğan has vowed to block them from becoming members.
Finland and Sweden have angered Turkey by hosting members of Kurdish militant groups. Adding to the anger, Sweden has suspended arms sales to Turkey since 2019, over Ankara’s military operation in Syria.
Erdoğan has also criticised the countries for hosting Gulen Movement members, whom he blames for the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. Gulen followers deny involvement. However, Erdoğan is aware of the fact that the Nordic countries grant asylum to critical groups and individuals and have no intention of punishing Turkey.
Turkey is in the midst of a dire economic crisis and Erdoğan desperately seeks support from major economies. Turkish media has often reported on Nato’s major members, US, Germany, England and France providing sophisticated weapons to PKK and its Syrian branch, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Erdoğan, had, however, hosted the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Ankara in March. French President Emmanuel Macron has also been seen with his hand on Erdoğan’s shoulder during Nato’s summit in Brussels in March, despite the Turkey-France stand-off over oil and gas exploration in the disputed Eastern Mediterranean waters.
Erdoğan has also visited the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, the countries he accused of having financed the July 15 coup attempt. Ankara’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air defence system triggered US sanctions and the US government removed Turkey from its F-35 jets programme in 2019, while Washington blacklisted Turkey’s Defence Industry Directorate in December 2020 and imposed sanctions on senior Turkish defence officials. Erdoğan has requested that Biden lift sanctions on Turkey’s defence industry.
But Biden excluded Turkey from the Summit for Democracy in December. Turkey criticised the US government’s support for the PKK and other Kurdish groups in Northern Syria, requesting that Fethullah Gülen be extradited from Washington.
The US has been supporting the YPG who fought against the Islamic State, and former president Donald Trump warned Turkey against targeting the YPG.
Washington also rejected Turkey’s extradition request for Gulen, the leader of the Gulen Movement residing in the US. The US asserts that there is no concrete evidence to suggest that Gulen was behind the coup attempt while Washington criticises Turkey’s human rights record.
Biden, who came to power in January, announced that he would be placing the human rights issue at the centre of his foreign policy. Erdoğan has been trying to improve ties with the US, and Afghanistan was a good chance as the US completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan in August last year when the Taliban took the Afghan capital.
Erdoğan proposed to guard the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul after the withdrawal of Nato, during his first meeting with Biden in June.
The US military establishment on Greece’s Turkey border also angered Erdoğan. He said in November that Greece had turned into a US military base. Greece and Turkey are Nato members but they have been at odds over the air and sea rights in the oiland mineral-rich Aegean.
Former foreign affairs spokesperson and ambassador to Washington, Namık Tan, said Erdoğan’s frustration lay not with Finland and Sweden but that the Turkish leader was sending a warning to the White House.
* Terzi is a Turkish journalist based in Johannesburg