Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has a history of threatening to withhold his support for important NATO policies but, in the end, caving under pressure.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's history regarding the NATO alliance suggests he has often seized on the opportunity to be a spoiler and made threats, but did not really follow them through to the end, eventually caving under pressure.
The recent crisis with Erdoğan's move to try to make the best out of Sweden and Finland's application to join NATO follows the same and familiar pattern, although the domestic checks and balances on the Islamist president's rule are no longer there.
Looking at when the Erdoğan government entertained the idea of blocking significant moves by NATO and member states helps explain his actions.
Two cases stand out. In 2009, Turkey gave its consent to France's return to full participation in NATO's military command after a forty-three-year absence. Later that year at a NATO summit, Turkey approved admitting former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to the candidacy for NATO secretary-general.
When then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced publicly in April 2008 that his country wanted to rejoin the military arm of the alliance, the Erdoğan government expressed reservations, purportedly in response to France's blocking of some accession chapters during Turkey's talks to join the European Union.
However, Turkey did not drag its feet and agreed to approve France's return, which alliance members approved unanimously. France had already been on the NATO Military Committee since 1994, allowing it to participate in military and political activities for over a decade.
Turkey threatened to veto Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen's candidacy to head NATO, but relented.
Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen was a front-runner for secretary-general in 2009 to replace incumbent Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. Then-Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said Turkey would not back Rasmussen to become the new NATO chief, as a candidate must have the trust of all member countries.
Turkey presented three issues to challenge Rasmussen's candidacy. It claimed Denmark allowed a pro-Kurdish militant television station, ROJ-TV, to broadcast from Denmark, and recalled comments by Rasmussen in 2003 saying that Turkey would never be a full EU member. Third, the Erdoğan government was not happy with Rasmussen's handling of the 2006 Danish "cartoon crisis" concerning a Danish newspaper's cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. Rasmussen refused to apologize for publication of the cartoons.
Despite word from Ankara that Turkey might block Rasmussen's appointment to head NATO, the Turkish government green-lighted him in the end.
Perhaps Erdoğan did not yet feel strong enough in Turkey to block France or Rasmussen. Turkish institutions, especially the army, resisted such actions, and the then-vibrant Turkish overwhelmingly followed a pro-NATO editorial line.
Checks and balances no longer exist in Turkey. Erdoğan purged the army of almost all pro-NATO officers in the aftermath of a false flag coup bid in 2016. He dismissed one-third of all diplomats, including ambassadors, on fabricated charges of terrorism. Islamist, nationalist, and neo-nationalist partisans and loyalists committed to an anti-Western ideology took their places.
Erdoğan's threats to NATO are for domestic political consumption. His campaign for the 2023 elections will consist of Turkey leading the charge on behalf of Muslims against imaginary Western Crusaders. With its firm control of the media, Erdoğan has erased any critical media over the last decade, so that Turkish voters hear only the Erdoğan government's narrative. The opposition and dissidents are either jailed or exiled.
The economy, which is deteriorating rapidly, is beyond his control and is hurting average Turks struggling amid soaring food and energy prices, rising unemployment, and the declining value of the Turkish lira. The West, especially the U.S., can apply serious pressure by leveraging their strength in trade to finance to force Erdoğan to cave. Knowing how quickly Erdoğan can cave when cornered, it won't be surprising if he endorses Sweden and Finland's candidacy in the end.
Expecting that Erdoğan will stand his ground and keep blocking and even vetoing the membership bids of two Nordic countries is not realistic. He is using the crisis to bargain with the Americans over the Halkbank trial, which is due to start in US federal court.
In 2019 U.S. federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York indicted Turkish state lender Halkbank (Türkiye Halk Bankası A.Ş.) on six counts, including fraud, money laundering, and sanctions offenses related to the bank's participation in a multi-billion dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran. Trial evidence will likely incriminate Erdoğan, who personally approved the sanctions evasion scheme in exchange for bribes.
He has been trying to cut a deal with the U.S. ever since because he thinks he can capitalize on Sweden and Finland's aspirations to join NATO as leverage in bargaining with the Americans. Following a recent meeting with his counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu revealed negotiations on that matter, telling reporters he had conveyed Turkey's expectations regarding the case. Çavuşoğlu claimed the evidence was fabricated and argued that as a state bank Halkbank had immunity from prosecution in the U.S.
Solid evidence of Erdoğan's real thinking about NATO came out during a 2011 confidential counterterrorism investigation into Iran's Quds Force cells in Turkey.
"When I get a chance, I know what to do with NATO, Europe and Israel. I'm going to f*ck their mothers. NATO and the U.S. are as terrorist as Israel," Erdoğan, then prime minister and running the government, told his loyalist lawmakers in a private meeting.
In the face of pressure, Erdoğan will most likely take a step back and drop his opposition to the membership bids of Sweden and Finland. But he will wait for the next opportunity to make another spoiler move in NATO. The alliance is paying a price for appeasing Erdoğan, especially in the aftermath of the 2016 false flag coup that Erdoğan orchestrated to launch a mass purge of NATO officers from the ranks.
Erdoğan says his government may launch a new military operation in Syria, as soon as the military, intelligence and police are done with their preparations, Turkey will start expanding what he called a safe zone some 30 kilometers deep into Syrian territory from the Turkish border.
Perhaps his escalation in anti-Western rhetoric and the threat of a veto for the new applicants for the NATO alliance to some extent has to do with this threat to launch a new military incursion. He hopes to counter or even mute the West's reaction and perhaps secure tacit approval in exchange for softening Turkey's attitude towards Sweden and Finland.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.