Just when, after years of idling around, NATO appears to be gaining some strategic prominence following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the only Muslim member of the alliance is holding 29 other members as hostage, blocking the most critical move in its history. Surrendering to an Islamist's well-known oriental bargaining tactics will mean the demise of the alliance.
In a historic move, Sweden and Finland recently submitted their written applications to join NATO but Turkey's Islamist strongman, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is threatening to use his country's veto power to block the Nordic nations coming under the Western security umbrella. This is putting NATO's renewed credibility at stake, presumably to the delight of NATO's nemesis, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On May 25, senior Swedish and Finnish delegations arrived in Ankara to meet with Erdoğan's spokesman, Ibrahim Kalın, and deputy foreign minister Sedat Önal, with a mission to overcome Turkey's objections. Every single diplomat in the Turkish capital knew that the mission would fail before it even took off.
"We stated that this procedure [Sweden and Finland joining NATO] would not be possible until Turkey's security concerns were addressed," Kalın told the media after the meeting. But what are Turkey's security concerns, and why are they related to two small European Union nations, one with a 1,300 km (810 mile) border with Russia?
Officially speaking, Turkey demands "written agreement" from Finland and Sweden for steps to end their "support for terrorism" -- meaning their alleged logistical and political support for the PKK Kurdish insurgents and their YPG branch in Syria. It accuses the two countries of harboring members of the "Gülen movement," which Ankara alleges was behind a failed military coup attempt in 2016. Furthermore, Ankara demands that Sweden and Finland end the ban on exporting weapons to Turkey, which they imposed after Turkey's military incursion into northeast Syria in 2019.
Ankara said that it has requested the extradition of Kurdish fighters and other suspects since 2017 but has not received a positive response from Stockholm. The Turkish government claimed that Sweden has decided to provide $376 million to support Kurdish fighters in 2023 and that it has provided them with military equipment, including anti-tank weapons and drones. Sweden denies these accusations.
Erdoğan seems to think that he has found a golden opportunity to blackmail the entire Western alliance, and get the maximum out of a list of official and unofficial demands. Erdoğan also seems to be hoping to reset Turkey's badly strained ties with the West, most notably with the U.S. He appears to want a new, warm political welcome back into the Western world, along with a narrative to Turkey's anti-Western masses of how he brought the evil West to its knees -- always a sure vote-catcher in xenophobic Turkey. He badly needs that Western appeasement for his campaign for re-election in June 2023. Turkey's economy, with an annual inflation rate of 70%, is in doldrums to put it mildly.
What else does Erdoğan want? He will start negotiating a return to the US-led F-35 fighter jet program, from which Turkey was expelled after it acquired the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air defense system. If re-joining the multinational program to manufacture the world's most advanced fighter jet is not possible, Erdoğan will bargain for U.S. approval to buy a batch of 40 F-16 Block 70 aircraft and upgrade kits for 80 more jets.
Erdoğan's foreign policy team will make the process of entering NATO as hard as possible for Sweden and Finland. "It is not an easy process," a senior Turkish official told Reuters adding that Sweden and Finland must take "difficult" steps to win Ankara's support. "Further negotiations will continue. But a date doesn't seem very close."
All 29 other NATO allies want to seal Sweden and Finland's membership before the NATO Summit in Madrid on June 29-30. After a meeting in Washington with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said it was extremely important that results be achieved before the Madrid summit. Raising the stakes in this poker game, however, Turkish officials downplayed prospects of reaching an agreement before the summit.
Unlike independent observers, some Western leaders are downplaying the "Turkish problem." NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, for instance, wrote on Twitter that he and Erdoğan "agree that the security concerns of all Allies must be taken into account and talks need to continue to find a solution."
When asked if he could assuage Turkish concerns, U.S. President Joe Biden said, "I'm not going to Turkey, but I think we're going to be OK."
Echoing similar optimism, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said:
"We're confident that, at the end of the day, Finland and Sweden will have an effective and efficient accession process, that Turkey's concerns can be addressed. We feel very good about where this will track to."
Erdoğan's blackmailing tactics risk fueling a debate within NATO about Turkey's fitness to remain an ally. "Does Erdoğan's Turkey Belong in NATO?" asked former US Senator Joe Lieberman and Mark D. Wallace, a U.S. Ambassador to the UN for Management and Reform, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. They noted that unlike Finland and Sweden, Turkey would not meet NATO's democracy requirements if it were applying for membership today. According to Lieberman and Wallace:
"Turkey is a member of NATO, but under Mr. Erdoğan, it no longer subscribes to the values that underpin this great alliance. Article 13 of the NATO charter provides a mechanism for members to withdraw. Perhaps it is time to amend Article 13 to establish a procedure for the expulsion of a member nation."
Adding to that, Turkish journalist and analyst Cengiz Candar cautioned:
"Giving in to Ankara's demands amounts to letting an autocrat design the security architecture of Europe and shape the future of the Western system."
With its $8,000 per capita GDP, Erdoğan's ailing Turkey is not more powerful than the other 29 NATO allies combined. NATO's political leaders must stop acting as if it is.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.