Why Turkey does not want Sweden and Finland to join NATO

When Finland and Sweden announced their interest in joining NATO, the two Nordic states had to be quickly accepted as members of the defense alliance. But joining NATO requires the consensual approval of all existing members, and Turkey – one of the group’s most strategically important and militarily powerful members – is not happy.

The reasons are complicated, emotional and rooted in decades of often violent history.

Historical decision

Unaligned until now, Finland and Sweden announced last weekend their intention to abandon that position and join NATO in the wake of Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine.

Official partners of the alliance since the 1990s, the idea that the Nordic states could indeed join the group has bristled Moscow. NATO expansion is something he has previously cited to justify the invasion of Ukraine, also a NATO partner.

Now Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has the power to determine the future of the NATO alliance – as well as its power and size in the face of Russia’s war.

In fact, Erdogan has already blocked an early NATO attempt to fast-track the candidacies of Finland and Sweden, saying their membership would make the alliance “a place where representatives of terrorist organizations are concentrated.”

From 2022, NATO has expanded to include three former Soviet states and all former Warsaw Pact countries.

Bryn Bach | CNBC

The clash has left Western diplomats scrambling to rally Turkey, as Ankara presented a list of grievances to NATO ambassadors over its problems with Nordic states, Sweden in particular.

What are Turkey’s grievances against Sweden and Finland?

When Erdogan speaks of “terrorists” in this context, he means the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or the PKK – a Kurdish Marxist separatist movement that has been fighting Turkish forces on and off since the 1980s. It operates primarily in the southeast of Turkey and parts of northern Iraq.

The PKK is classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, as well as by the United States, Canada, Australia and the European Union.

In fact, Sweden was one of the first countries to designate the group as a terrorist organization in 1984.

However, Turkey claims that Sweden has supported PKK members and provides them with protection. Sweden denies this, saying it supports other Kurds who are not part of the PKK – but the details are more complicated.

Sweden’s foreign ministry declined to comment on Erdogan’s accusations when contacted by CNBC.

Since 1984, between 30,000 and 40,000 people have died in fighting between the PKK and the Turkish government, according to Crisis Group. The PKK has carried out dozens of attacks in Turkey.

Members of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) continue their operations against the PKK, listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the EU, and the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG, which Turkey considers a terrorist group, in part of Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in Ras Al Ayn, Syria on October 17, 2019.

Turkish Armed Forces | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

When it comes to Finland, Turkey’s opposition to NATO membership seems to be more by association – the country has a much smaller Kurdish population than Sweden, but its foreign policy tends to be similar.

Finland has also banned the PKK as a terrorist organization, but joined Sweden and other EU countries in stopping arms sales to Turkey in 2019 following military action of Ankara against Kurdish groups in Syria.

Erdogan asks Sweden to extradite a list of people whom Turkey has accused of terrorism. He also wants Sweden and Finland to publicly disavow the PKK and its affiliates and lift their arms ban on Turkey.

For Hakki Akil, former Turkish ambassador, the Turkish perspective is “very simple”.

“If Finland and Sweden want to join a security alliance, they have to give up their support for a terrorist organization. [PKK] and not give them refuge. On the other hand, they must also accept Turkish requests for the extradition of 30 terrorists, [which are] very special cases.

Why do the Kurdish people matter to Turkey?

The Kurdish people are often described as the largest ethnic group without a homeland in the world – around 30 million people. Mainly Sunni Muslims, they have their own language and customs.

Nearly 20% of Turkey’s 84 million people are Kurds, with some Kurds holding prominent positions in Turkish politics and society, although many say they face discrimination and their political parties are suppressed by the Turkish state .

Spread between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, they have been heavily persecuted, marginalized and even victims of genocide in the counties where they live – see Saddam Hussein’s chemical gas attacks which killed nearly 200 000 Kurds in Iraq in the late 1980s. Various Kurdish groups have pressed for autonomy and the creation of a Kurdish state over the decades, some peacefully and others, such as the PKK, through violence.

Kurds celebrate to show their support for the independence referendum in Duhok, Iraq, September 26, 2017.

Ari Jalal | Reuters

Kurdish fighters in Syria linked to the PKK have played a major role in the fight against ISIS, receiving support and arms funding from the United States and Europe, including Sweden. This sparked huge tensions with Turkey, which then launched attacks against Kurds in Syria.

“You are talking about people who have been actively fighting with Turkey for over 40 years and killing tens of thousands of civilians in the process,” Muhammet Kocak, an international relations specialist based in Ankara, told CNBC.

“Turkey is not happy with the fact that they suddenly become good guys just because they were useful against IS.”

Western governments hailed Kurdish fighters as allies, and several EU countries imposed various embargoes on Turkey over their targeting of Kurdish militias in Syria, highlighting the intractable differences between how each side viewed the fighters .

Sweden’s relations with Kurdish groups

Underlying the tension between Turkey and Sweden is how each country defines “terrorist,” says Hussein Ibish, senior resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“It’s not just a matter of Sweden’s liberal policies towards Kurdish refugees and political dissidents and activists. It’s also a reflection of differing definitions of who and what constitutes intolerable Kurdish extremism,” said Ibish.

“Turkey basically classifies all Kurdish groups it dislikes at all as PKK front organizations. This includes many non-PKK Kurdish entities and organizations inside and from Turkey itself , but also the Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria and a number of Iraqis. Kurdish groups as well.”

Sweden has a long history of hosting Kurdish refugees and asylum seekers, especially political refugees. Several Kurds even have seats in the Swedish Parliament.

While most Kurds living in Sweden – who local groups say number 100,000 – have no affiliation with the PKK, the Swedish government has supported members of other Kurdish organizations, particularly the political wing of the Syrian branch of the PKK, called the PYD. .

Sweden says PKK and PYD are different – ​​but Turkey says they are one.

Stockholm also politically and financially supports the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the SDF, a Kurdish-led militia created with US support to fight ISIS in Syria. Ankara says the SDC is dominated by PKK terrorists.

In 2021, the Swedish government announced an increase in funding for Kurdish groups in Syria to $376 million by 2023, saying it remained an “active partner” with the Kurds in Syria and that its funds aimed to “strengthen the resilience, human security and freedom from violence”. and improving “human rights, gender equality and democratic development”.

What will Sweden do?

With Swedish elections looming in September, the government is unlikely to make any major concessions to Erdogan that would be unpopular at home, some analysts say.

Others believe that Erdogan will not ultimately block Sweden and Finland from joining NATO, but will instead seek to ameliorate his waning domestic popularity.

“I suspect that Turkey eventually, especially if it can wrest a few concessions here and there from Western powers and its NATO allies, will not ultimately seek to prevent Finland and Sweden from joining the organization,” said Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute. mentioned.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the fact that the war is now focusing on parts of that country adjacent to Turkey and of deep strategic and even historical interest to Ankara have reminded many Turks of the value of NATO membership.”

Still, NATO could face a stalemate for some time if Erdogan is unhappy with Sweden’s and Finland’s responses to his demands.

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