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Turkey’s opposition to NATO’s northern enlargement fuels row ahead of June summit

ANKARA: Turkey’s opposition to NATO’s decision to open membership talks with Finland and Sweden has sparked debate over what concessions Ankara could obtain to greenlight membership of the two Scandinavian countries – the biggest change in the European security architecture for decades.

Any country wishing to join NATO must obtain the consensus approval of its 30 members, with the next NATO summit in Madrid taking place at the end of June.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists that Ankara, a NATO member since 1952 and possessing the alliance’s second largest army, does not support Finland and Sweden joining, blaming the two countries from harboring terrorist groups.

Turkey has told its allies it will reject NATO applications from Sweden and Finland, Erdogan said in a video posted to his Twitter account on Thursday.

“This decision, which threw cold water on expectations for Finland and Sweden’s ‘historic’ membership in the military alliance, was hardly a surprise,” said Paul Levin, director from the Institute of Turkish Studies at Stockholm University.

Turkey has long criticized Sweden’s policy of turning a blind eye to the presence of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party on its soil despite being classified as a terrorist group by the US and EU.

However, for Levin, what Erdogan wants in return has a number of possible interpretations.

“Sweden’s policy against the PKK and its Syrian Kurdish branch of the YPG in northern Syria has long been a matter of concern not only for the ruling government in Turkey, but also for the national security establishment. In this regard, disagreement on this critical issue has been a widely shared sentiment,” he told Arab News.

Finland and Sweden have imposed arms embargoes since 2019 as part of Turkey’s cross-border operation in Syria against Syrian Kurdish militants. Contacts between senior Swedish officials and YPG leaders have been condemned by Ankara.

But, for Levin, there is always a domestic political dimension behind such decisions in Turkey.

“Erdogan’s personal concern is staying in power ahead of the looming 2023 elections in a struggling economy,” he said.

“Playing tough with the West is likely to attract (a) domestic audience and shore up stronger public support that needs nationalistic motivations.”

However, Levin is unconvinced that Turkey’s opposition to NATO expansion will persuade Washington to approve Turkey’s request in October to buy 40 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters and about 80 missile kits. modernization for its current combat aircraft, which the United States has so far refrained from doing.

“The presence (of) the Russian-made S-400 defense system on Turkish soil makes the acquisition of the F-35 aircraft impossible due to interoperability issues. I’m not sure the US Congress can also approve the sale of other modernization kits, as this can be seen as a concession against Turkey’s blackmail,” he said.

On Wednesday, Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist met his American counterpart Lloyd Austin in Washington, while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met his American counterpart Antony Blinken in New York.

Cavusoglu also had recent talks with his Swedish and Finnish counterparts in Berlin.

“Negotiations are ongoing to reach a diplomatic resolution,” Levin said.

“But I don’t expect Sweden to make public concessions on human rights that could push the ruling Social Democrats into a corner before the September parliamentary elections.”

Sweden currently has six Kurdish deputies in office.

“Abandoning the Kurdish cause by extraditing 33 people accused of terrorism to Turkey will not play well with the Swedish government, as the country is home to a large Kurdish diaspora,” Levin added.

Turkey wants the Nordic duo to stop supporting Kurdish militant groups on their soil, refrain from having contact with members of the PKK and lift bans on arms sales to Turkey.

For Karol Wasilewski, director of actionable analyzes at the Warsaw-based agency NEOŚwiat, Turkey wants to show its NATO allies that it is very serious when it says that its security interests, in particular its sensitivity to issues of the PKK and the YPG, must be respected.

“For a long time, and not without reason, Turkey felt that its allies’ approach to its security interests did not correspond to the country’s contribution to the security of the alliance,” he said. he told Arab News.

But Wasilewski believes the issue will be resolved through negotiations between Turkey, Sweden and Finland, with the backing of the United States and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

“Perhaps Erdogan’s statement that Turkey cannot agree on the membership of countries that sanction Turkey was a signal of an area where compromise could be found,” he said. declared.

“Turkey would certainly lead a tough negotiation, but I find it very difficult to imagine that it would result in a hard veto.

“Turkey is well aware of the benefits that Finland and Sweden joining NATO would bring, and that blocking enlargement would lead to immense pressure from other member countries. And Turkey simply cannot afford a strong reaction from the West.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute, believes Turkey’s main objection to NATO’s northern expansion is rooted in the PKK’s existing fundraising networks in Sweden and the Sweden’s public links with YPG officials.

“Following closed-door conversations, Sweden may take steps to satisfy Turkey’s sensitivities,” he told Arab News.

Stoltenberg also made it clear that Turkey’s concerns would be addressed in a way that would not delay the accession process.

Cagaptay thinks there are several explanations for Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric on NATO expansion.

“He decided to raise the bar to publicly embarrass Stockholm to get real action,” Cagaptay said.

“There is also a Russian angle, where a veto inside NATO against northern expansion would make Russian President Vladimir Putin extremely happy.

“On the US side, Erdogan is also signaling that his objection to NATO expansion could be lifted if Biden convinces Senator Bob Menendez to lift his objections to Turkish defense exports,” Cagaptay added.

The United States is continuing its active diplomacy in the face of Turkish objections, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Wednesday.

“Turkey’s concerns can be addressed. Finland and Sweden work directly with Turkey. But we are also talking with the Turks to try to help facilitate,” he said.

According to Cagaptay, this latest crisis, in addition to showing that Turkey is akin to a Russian ally in NATO, has helped Erdogan to re-project his image as a global strongman at the national level.

“At the end of the day, he will write a narrative of the political war he waged against Europe and emerge victorious from this fight,” he said.

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