WASHINGTON — When Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened this month to block the membership of Finland and Sweden at NATO, Western officials were exasperated but not surprised.
Within an alliance that operates by consensus, the Turkish strongman has come to be seen as something of a heist artist.
In 2009, he blocked the appointment of a new NATO chief from Denmark, complaining that the country was too tolerant with the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed and too sympathetic towards the “Kurdish terrorists” established in Turkey.
Erdogan met with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in September. The rejection of Sweden and Finland from NATO would be a significant victory for Putin. Sputnik photo via Reuters
It took hours of cajoling from Western leaders and a face-to-face promise from the then president Barack Obama that NATO would appoint a Turk to a leadership position, to satisfy Erdogan.
After a breakdown in relations between Turkey and Israel the following year, Erdogan prevented the alliance from working with the Jewish state for six years.
A few years later, Erdogan delayed for months a NATO plan to strengthen Eastern European countries against Russia, again citing militants. kurdish and demanding that the alliance declare those operating in Syria terrorists.
In 2019, Erdogan sent a gas exploration ship backed by fighter jets near Greek waters, prompting France to send ships in support of Greece, also a NATO member.
Now the Turkish leader returns to obstructionist role and he invokes the Kurds again, as he accuses Sweden and Finland of sympathizing with the Kurdish militants of whom he has become their main enemy.
“These countries have almost become guest houses for terrorist organizations,” he said this month.
“It is not possible that we are in favor.”
Erdogan’s stance is a reminder of a long-standing problem for NATO, which currently has 30 members.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine may have given the alliance a new sense of mission, but NATO has yet to contend with an authoritarian leader willing to use his influence to win political points at home blocking consensus, at least for a while.
It is a situation that works in favor of the president of Russia Vladimir Putin who has become more friendly with Erdogan in recent years.
For the Russian leader, the rejection of the admission of Sweden and Finland to NATO would be a significant victory.
The dilemma would be simpler were it not for the importance of Turkey to the alliance.
The country joined NATO in 1952 after siding with the West against the Soviet Union; Turkey gives the alliance a crucial strategic position at the intersection of Europe and Asia, on both sides of the Middle East and the Black Sea.
It houses a major US air base where US nuclear weapons are stored, and Erdogan has locked Russian warships headed for Ukraine.
But under Erdogan, Turkey has increasingly become a problem to be managed.
As prime minister and then as president, he has alienated his country from Europe while practicing a authoritarian islamist politics and populist, especially since a failed coup attempt in 2016.
It bought an advanced missile system from Russia that NATO officials call a threat to its integrated defense systems, and in 2019 mounted a military incursion to fight Kurds in northern Syria who were helping fight the group. Islamic State supported by the United States.
“In my four years there, it was often 27 against one,” said Ivo Daalder, the US ambassador to NATO during the Obama administration, when the alliance had 28 members.
Erdogan’s objections to the membership of Sweden and Finland have even renewed doubts about whether NATO could be better off without turkey.
An opinion essay this month that was co-authored by Joe Lieberman, a former independent US senator from Connecticut, argued that Erdogan’s Turkey would fail the alliance’s standards for democratic governance in potential new member states.
The essay, published by TheWall Street Journal, warned that Ankara’s policies, including an intimacy with Putin, had undermined NATO’s interests and that the alliance should explore ways to expel to turquia.
“Turkey is a member of NATO, but under Mr. Erdogan it no longer subscribes to the values that underpin this great alliance,” wrote Lieberman and Mark Wallace, executive director of NATO. Turkish Democracy Projecta group critical of Erdogan.
Some members of Congress have said so.
“Turkey under Erdogan should not and cannot be seen as an ally,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, DN.J., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after Turkey’s 2019 incursion into Syria.
But NATO is a military alliance, and Turkey, with the organization’s second-largest army, an advanced defense industry and its crucial geographic position, plays a vital role.
Western officials say Turkey would only cause more trouble as a resentful NATO outsider, though it could fall in line more closely with Russia.
“Turkey has undermined its own image,” said Alper Coskun, a former Turkish diplomat who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But, he added, “it remains a critical member of the alliance.”
Once again, the question is what will calm Erdogan down and secure his support to admit Sweden and Finland.
President Joe Biden he underlined US support for the move when hosting leaders of the two nations at the White House this month and praised a larger NATO as a check against Russian might.
“Biden took an extremely exposed and highly visible position by inviting them to Washington,” said James Jeffrey, the US ambassador to Turkey during the Obama administration.
Most analysts believe that Erdogan will not ultimately block the accession of Sweden and Finland, but instead wants to highlight Turkey’s security concerns and make domestic political gains before elections in his country next year.
Erdogan is primarily concerned about Sweden’s long-standing support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which seeks a independent kurdish state in a territory partially within the borders of Turkey.
The PKK, which has attacked non-military targets and killed civilians in Turkey, is outlawed in that country and is designated a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union, although some governments, including Sweden, view it more sympathy as a Kurdish nationalist movement.
The United States has also backed its affiliated fighters in Syria, the YPG, or People’s Protection Units, which helped fight the Islamic State group and whom Erdogan targeted in his 2019 foray into the country.
The Turkish president wants the YPG to be designated as a terrorist group as well.
Erdogan accuses both Finland and Sweden of harboring supporters of Fethullah Gulena Turkish cleric living in American exile, whom he blames for the 2016 coup.
Turkey is requesting the extradition of about 35 people it says are involved with Kurdish separatists or Gulen.
Erdogan also opposes the Swedish and Finnish arms embargoes against his country, which were imposed after the 2019 incursion into Syria.
Sweden is already discussing lifting the embargo given current events in Ukraine.
Some analysts say the Erdogan government views the PKK the same way Washington viewed al Qaeda 20 years ago, and that the West cannot ignore the concerns if it hopes to do business with Turkey.
Biden administration officials play down the standoff and hope Erdogan will reach a compromise with Finland and Sweden.
Turkish officials met in Ankara with their Finnish and Swedish counterparts for several hours last week.
Julianne Smith, US ambassador to NATO, said “this seems to be an issue they have with Sweden and Finland, so we’ll leave it up to them.”
He added that the United States would provide assistance if necessary.
Appearing with the Finnish Foreign Minister in Washington on Friday, Secretary of State, Anthony BlinkenHe said he was “confident that we will work through this process quickly and that things will move forward with both countries.”
Emre Peker, director for Europe in London at Eurasia Group, a private consulting firm, said he did not think Erdogan was seeking concessions from Washington. He expressed confidence that Turkey could reach an agreement with Sweden and Finland with the mediation of the NATO Secretary General.Jens Stoltenberg.
Erdogan’s top priorities are hearing the security concerns of his country on Kurdish separatists and for arms embargoes to be lifted, Peker said.
Some US analysts are skeptical.
Eric Edelman, a former US ambassador to Turkey and Finland, warned that Erdogan may be trying to curry favor with Putin, or at least ease anger in Moscow over the sale of lethal drones to the Ukrainian military by a private Turkish company. .
“He has a very complicated relationship with Putin that he has to maintain,” Edelman said.
“This is a good way to throw Putin a little bone:
‘I’m still useful to you’”.
Others believe that the Turkish leader wants a reward from Washington. Erdogan is angry that the US denied Turkey access to the F-35 stealth fighter after its 2017 purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system.
Turkey is now pushing to buy upgraded F-16 fighters, but has met stiff resistance in Congress from the likes of Menendez.
Erdogan may also be seeking presidential attention.
He had a friendly relationship with the former president donald trumpbut Biden has kept his distance.
“This is a man who needs to be center stage,” Daalder said.
“This is a way of saying:
‘Hey, I’m still here. You have to pay attention to my problems.’”
Peker believes that an agreement between Turkey and the Nordic countries can be negotiated before a NATO summit in Madrid next month, which would allow the accession protocol to be signed there.
Most likely, some analysts say, Biden will have to wink at Erdogan in Madrid to get his assent, as Obama had to do at a NATO summit in 2009 to secure the appointment of Anders Fogh Rasmussen as general secretary.
In a talk organized by the Council on Foreign Relations last week, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, suggested that the stakes in the Swedish and Finnish membership are the large enough to warrant direct US involvement.
“We have to sit down and we have to come to an agreement,” Smith said.
“And we have to be aggressive about it, like now.”
Michael Crowley reported from Washington and Steven Erlanger from Brussels. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.
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