Two Turkey Experts on Why Erdoğan Is Rejecting NATO Expansion
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In a video posted to Twitter on Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he would oppose Finland’s and Sweden’s bids to join NATO, citing concerns over combating terrorism. Since expansion requires unanimous support from all thirty members, the bids—prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—now face an uncertain future. Below, Carnegie Visiting Scholars Marc Pierini and Sinan Ülgen discuss Turkey’s motivations and the alliance’s options.
Why is Turkey objecting to Finland and Sweden joining NATO? Was this move expected?
Marc Pierini: The objection surprised NATO partners, since prior discussions didn’t signal much divergence on the subject, especially as it was discussed between the Finnish and Turkish presidents. And Ankara had been supportive of NATO’s earlier statements on expansion.
Pierini is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
Ankara has issues with Sweden because Turkish Kurds are a noticeable political presence in the country. Turkey opposes the Kurds’ statehood demands, has clashed with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for decades, and has labeled the PKK a terrorist organization. Sweden’s recent governments have been very keen on issues of human rights and rights of minorities in their foreign policy and have welcomed as many as 100,000 Kurds, and its parliament has six deputies of Kurdish origin. This has led to several incidents between Ankara and Sweden—including objections over a meeting between the Swedish foreign minister and a representative of the political wing of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that Turkey considers part of the PKK—to the point that Erdoğan called Sweden a “nesting ground for terrorists.”
The predominant reading in Europe is that the move has its roots in domestic politics. Erdoğan and his ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), are not in a good position for the 2023 presidential and legislative elections, while the economy is in very dire straits. Therefore, an initiative showing Turkey’s “strong role” in a major international crisis may have been seen as politically profitable—all the more that it’s framed around the fight against Kurdish terrorism.
But ultimately this issue is dwarfed by the inescapable feeling that the Turkish objection is also meant to play in favor of the Kremlin, though this was denied by government circles in Ankara.
Ülgen is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on Turkish foreign policy, nuclear policy, cyberpolicy, and transatlantic relations.
Sinan Ülgen: Turkey feels that Sweden and Finland have been insensitive to its demands to change their stance on issues that are relevant to Turkey’s national security. With Finland, that issue is the arms embargo imposed in the wake of Turkey’s cross-border operation in northern Syria in 2019. With Sweden, it is more complicated. Ankara believes Stockholm has been too lenient concerning its approach to the PKK and the PKK-linked entities, including the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the YPG in Syria. Turkey expects Sweden to do more to curtail the fundraising and recruitment of these entities in Sweden and to respond positively to the extradition requests of prosecuted PKK members. Turkey also wants Swedish authorities to cease the public displays of affection and other means of support to the ranking members of the SDF and YPG.
What leverage do NATO members have to persuade Erdoğan to drop his objections?
Sinan Ülgen: Fundamentally, Turkey has no interest in blocking Sweden’s and Finland’s membership. Turkey backs NATO’s open-door policy and would view the accession of these countries as enhancing alliance security. Yet taking advantage of its position as a long-standing member of the alliance, Turkey wants these countries to acknowledge its own security concerns related to terrorism and use its leverage to convince Helsinki but more particularly Stockholm about the need to change their stance on the PKK, SDF, and YPG.
NATO has to have unanimous support for new members, so this reality will compel Stockholm and Helsinki to give serious consideration to Ankara’s concerns. However, it’s not clear if all of Turkey’s demands can be met. So, the scenario of a diplomatic bottleneck that will delay this round of accession cannot be totally ruled out. But the more the disagreement prevails, the more pressure Ankara will feel to lift its objections, possibly leading to a rupture of Turkey’s relations with the West. The sooner these divisions can be healed, the smoother this round of NATO enlargement will be.
Marc Pierini: But the next steps are hard to predict because the stakes for Erdoğan in domestic politics are so important. Maybe some sort of diplomatic concessions could close the episode, or conversely Ankara could hype it up in the context, for example, of anticipated elections.
What’s the opinion in Turkey on this objection? In Europe?
Sinan Ülgen: The government’s approach has bipartisan support in Turkey and is not a dividing line in domestic politics. The criticism is more about the style than the substance. In other words, the opposition has criticized Erdoğan for opting to play this out in public, arguing that Turkey’s interests would have been better served through closed-door diplomacy. His grandstanding is a calculated move to help him gather political support domestically and to appear as the strong man internationally.
Marc Pierini: As potentially useful on the domestic scene, the move has been badly received in Europe and in NATO, where it sounds like an attempt at bargaining Turkey’s support. Finland and Sweden joining NATO is a move of historical significance and one of the most important responses the West can give to the horrific and unjustified Russian invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, the two countries will make NATO a “more European” institution, which in itself could resolve the protracted debate on a European defense architecture. But, inevitably, this will place Turkey in a difficult spot since two neutral countries reverse their defense policy in a spectacular way at a time when Ankara didn’t follow NATO and the West on sanctions or military deployment.
Erdoğan is up for reelection next year. Is this a factor?
Sinan Ülgen: Not really. Elections are still one year away, and that is a long time in Turkish politics. Also, the main issue for the electorate is the state of the economy, and as a result, the popularity gap between Erdoğan and some of his possible political challengers has widened considerably, reaching double digits. Foreign policy initiatives on their own will not bridge this divide.
In the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Turkey was taking the lead in mediation attempts, and its Bayraktar drone helped in Ukrainian military successes. Will this NATO objection influence its role in the conflict?
Sinan Ülgen: No, it will not. Turkey’s policy toward Ukraine and Russia has been shaped by other considerations than NATO enlargement. But if Turkey’s objection to Sweden and Finland’s accession continues over the medium term, Ankara could come under increased pressure for its carefully balanced policy toward Russia.
Marc Pierini: Turkey has been supportive of the diplomatic aspects of the Western reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both at the UN General Assembly and in the NATO ministerial discussions. It has also closed the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits to Russia’s navy after the start of the invasion and has provided Ukrainian forces with efficient drones. However, in the name of its balanced policy toward Russia, Turkey hasn’t imposed sanctions or flight restrictions, and Russian oligarchs have been welcome in the country.
The objection has since been somewhat minimized by Ankara, but the resulting impression is one of an unpredictable foreign policy and a lesser reliability than expected from a key NATO partner. Again, this sounds like domestic political contingencies prevailing over the Atlantic alliance’s necessities in a major military crisis.
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