Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s choice to publicly derail Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession during an active war in Europe in order to wring concessions on the Kurdish issue from prospective allies reveals several important truths about the current Turkish government’s threat prioritization and views of Russia, NATO, and regional politics.
Turkey’s Objections: Security Concerns or Political Theater?
The specific public objections to Sweden’s NATO membership that Turkey has raised shocked its allies. But they align nearly word-for-word with the charges Erdogan’s government has long used to criminalize opposition at home—with little opposition from the West.
On May 13, Erdogan accused Sweden of providing refuge to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), though the group’s inclusion on European Union terror lists means that it is already outlawed there. He also said that the country had “terrorists” in its parliament, a likely reference to the six elected Swedish MPs of Kurdish heritage.
On May 14, Erdogan advisor Ibrahim Kalin laid out demands that offered little in the way of clarification. Turkey was not opposed to NATO membership for Sweden and Finland, he said, but in order for them to join, they would have to “stop allowing PKK outlets, activities, organizations, individuals and other types of presence to…exist in those countries.” Kalin did not refine the list or point to any specific violations of Swedish law.
On May 16, after Swedish leaders offered to send a delegation to Turkey to address the country’s concerns, Erdogan doubled down on his promise to oppose membership and said that delegations should not bother coming. Pro-government media claimed the same day that Sweden and Finland had refused to extradite more than 30 people wanted in Turkey on terror charges related to the PKK and the Gulen movement in the past five years.
These are the same broad and politicized accusations of terrorism that have put tens of thousands of citizens of Turkey behind bars in the past seven years.
In 2018, 34,241 people were held in Turkish prisons on alleged Gulenist links, while 10,286 were held on accusations of links to the PKK. These cases can carry draconian sentences and be based on evidence as flimsy as a social media post, the use of a mobile app, planting green beans, or mentioning a wedding party on the phone. Trials in Turkey are not fair, particularly when defendants are accused of anti-state activity, and the judiciary is highly politicized.
With elections approaching in 2023, Erdogan is using terror charges as a weapon against anyone and everyone who could contribute to the defeat of his Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Nearly six million people in Turkey, predominantly Kurds, vote for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). It is the second-largest opposition party in parliament, and its supporters are slated to be kingmakers in the upcoming elections. In 2021, Turkish prosecutors filed a case to shut the party down and ban more than 400 of its members from politics, arguing that its advocacy for peace, democracy and Kurdish rights constitutes “terrorism” and “separatism.”
Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, who represents the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), won office in a 2019 upset victory that took the city out from under AKP control for the first time since the party’s founding. He is widely considered to be the candidate most likely to be able to beat Erdogan in the 2023 presidential race. Since last year, his municipality has been under investigation for employing “terrorists,” in a convoluted case that relies largely on anonymous witnesses and cites the use of words in the Kurdish language as evidence of PKK activity.
Why is Erdogan really upset?
Erdogan’s grievance with Sweden, like his problems with the domestic subjects of his sweeping terror accusations, is political in nature. Sweden has a thriving and well-integrated Kurdish diaspora, and a government that engages with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and criticizes Turkey’s human rights practices.
Sweden has been a destination for Kurdish refugees, particularly those fleeing conflict in Turkey and Iraq, since the late 20th century. The Kurdish community there is relatively small, concentrated in the capital of Stockholm, but is highly culturally, politically and socially engaged. Sweden is home to several notable Kurdish artists and even a Kurdish soccer team. Pro-Kurdish sentiment is reasonably popular among Swedish politicians and the public, as it is in other European countries with Kurdish populations.
The AANES has had a representative office there since 2016. Sweden’s Defense Minister held a virtual meeting with SDF commander General Mazlum Kobane in 2021, and Foreign Minister Ann Linde has repeatedly met with Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) Executive Committee president Ilham Ahmed. Swedish delegations have visited North and East Syria to repatriate the children of ISIS members. When Turkey invaded North and East Syria in 2019, Sweden imposed an arms embargo, joining several other Western governments that restricted arms sales or levied sanctions in response to brutal scenes of death and displacement.
Why It Matters
There may be no other event in recent years that has revealed so much about the political priorities and worldview of Erdogan’s government.
First, Erdogan has reaffirmed that Turkey views collective Kurdish political activity as the primary threat to its interests. The alleged demands that he has offered Western countries are informative: three are about regulating the political activity of citizens in NATO countries, and three concern access to weapons that will be used in anti-Kurdish military operations.
This single-minded hostility has driven decades of violent conflict and crackdowns on dissent within Turkey that have cost the country trillions of dollars and the lives of tens of thousands of its citizens. It is unsurprising that it would also drive Turkey to make foreign policy choices that appear irrational to states that do not share that threat prioritization.
Notably, this is not the first time that Turkey’s anti-Kurdish hostility has challenged its allies’ efforts to address a conflict of global importance. Turkey’s well-documented hindrance of the international counter-ISIS campaign was driven by its assessment that a thriving Syrian Kurdish political entity on its border was a greater threat than jihadist terrorism.
As a result of this threat prioritization, Turkey allowed extremists to pour through its borders, attacked the SDF forces that defeated ISIS on the ground, displaced hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians, and created a de facto occupied zone ruled by lawless militias that incorporate jihadist fighters into their ranks—a region which has provided a safe haven for not one, but two, leaders of ISIS.
The fact that Erdogan chose to use the NATO accession process to pursue this grievance in public at this particular moment also cuts through misconceptions about his government’s approach to relationships with both the West and Russia.
Turkey does not understand itself as a lesser member of a Western-led or Russian-led bloc. Rather, it sees itself as a power in its own right, benefitting from relationships with the U.S., Europe, NATO, and Russia insofar as those relationships support Turkish regional primacy and domestic political repression. In this framework, NATO is valuable to Erdogan not as a collective defense agreement, but as a mechanism through which Turkey can impose its preferred policies on Syria and Kurdish political organizing onto a large group of states at low cost.
That blocking Sweden and Finland from entering NATO—or even simply causing public discord in NATO when the alliance is desperate to project unity—may benefit Russia is immaterial to Erdogan’s calculation. From the beginning, he has approached the Ukraine crisis as an opportunity to raise Turkey’s regional stature and, by doing so, shore up his popularity at home.
Some actions Ankara has taken to achieve this—like drone sales to Ukraine—tangentially benefit NATO interests. Other actions tangentially benefit Russian interests.The victory that Erdogan wants vis-a-vis Ukraine is not a Russian or Ukrainian victory, but a victory for Turkey’s militaristic foreign policy and Erdogan’s own consolidation of power—both of which are inseparable from the Kurdish issue.
This, too, is a repeat of a pattern that first became apparent in Syria. Turkey has collaborated with both the United States and Russia in order to advance its objectives against the SDF and AANES, and has expressed hostility to both the United States and Russia when those powers have acted in contravention of Turkish objectives.
As long as Turkey pursues a military approach to the Kurdish question, it will continue to assess Kurdish collective organizing on behalf of Kurdish goals as the primary threat to Turkey’s interests. This will continue to bring Turkey into conflict with a wide array of states and actors that seek to work with it. Erdogan’s government has shown no sign of backing away from the most aggressive possible approach to the Kurdish question since its abandonment of peace talks with the PKK seven years ago.
This will facilitate the spread of authoritarianism and conflict. If Western countries meet Turkey’s stated demands, their Kurdish and Turkish communities—and any other citizen who supports them— will be less free to organize and participate in the political life of their countries. Political refugees and dissidents who have not committed any violent crime, but who hold political opinions unacceptable to Erdogan, may be deported back to a country known for unfair trials, abhorrent prison conditions, and torture.
The United States, European countries, and NATO are far from blameless here. On the contrary, they have supported Turkey’s militarized approach to the Kurdish question and hindered prospects for peace with consistent arms sales, security assistance, and legal designations. If they continue to do so, they will reaffirm Erdogan’s perception that the cost of destabilizing anti-Kurdish aggression is low, setting the stage for future instability.
They will also signal to Erdogan that extortion works. Challenging Congressional opposition to a proposed F-16 sale, which have proposed as a way that the Biden administration could resolve the crisis, will reward Erdogan for taking the worst elements of his domestic policy to the international stage.