When Finland and Sweden announced their interest in joining NATO, the two Nordic states were expected to quickly become members of the defense alliance. But joining NATO requires the approval of consensus from all existing members, and Turkey – one of the group’s most strategically important and militarily strong members – is not happy.
The reasons why are complex, sensitive, and often mired in decades of violent history.
So far neutrally, Finland and Sweden have announced plans to renounce that position and join NATO in the wake of Russia’s bloody attack on Ukraine last weekend.
The idea that the Nordic states, which have been the coalition’s official partners since the 1990s, could actually join the group, has rocked Moscow. NATO expansion is something it has previously cited to justify the NATO invasion of Ukraine.
Now, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has the power to determine the future of the NATO alliance – and its strength and size in the face of Russia’s war.
In fact, Erdogan has already blocked NATO’s initial efforts to quickly-track applications from Finland and Sweden, saying their membership would make the alliance a “focal point for representatives of terrorist organizations”.
By 2022, NATO has expanded to three former Soviet states and all former Warsaw Pact countries.
Bryn Bache | CNBC
The clashes sent Western diplomats into a frenzy to sideline Turkey, as Ankara presented a list of complaints to NATO ambassadors about problems with the Nordic states, particularly Sweden.
What are Turkey’s allegations against Sweden and Finland?
When Erdogan speaks of “terrorists” in this context, he is referring to the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK – a Kurdish Marxist separatist movement that has been fighting Turkish forces since the 1980s. It operates mostly in southeastern Turkey and parts of northern Iraq.
The PKK has been classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey as well as 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 has said that Sweden supports and protects PKK members. Sweden denies this, saying it supports other Kurds who are not in the PKK – but the details are more complicated.
Sweden’s foreign ministry declined to comment on Erdogan’s allegations when contacted by CNBC.
An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people have been killed in fighting between the PKK and the Turkish government since 1984, according to the Crisis Group. The PKK has carried out multiple attacks inside Turkey.
Members of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) are conducting operations in Turkey against Operation Peace Spring, the PKK, a terrorist organization listed by Turkey, the United States and the EU, and the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Turkey considers a terrorist group. Al Ain, Syria October 17, 2019.
Turkish Armed Forces | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
When it comes to Finland, Turkey’s opposition to joining NATO appears to be more about cooperation – the country has a much smaller Kurdish population than Sweden, but its foreign policy is the same.
Finland has also banned the PKK as a terrorist organization, but has joined Sweden and other EU countries to halt arms sales to Turkey in 2019 due to Ankara’s military action against the Kurdish group in Syria.
Erdogan is demanding that Turkey hand over a list of those accused of terrorism to Sweden. He called on Sweden and Finland to openly deny PKK and its allies and lift their arms embargo on Turkey.
For former Turkish ambassador Hakki Akil, the Turkish approach is “very simple”.
“If Finland and Sweden want to join a security alliance, they must give up their support for a terrorist organization. [PKK] And do not give them shelter. On the other hand, they have to accept the Turkish request for the extradition of 30 terrorists. [which are] In very specific cases. “
Why are the Kurdish people important to Turkey?
The Kurdish people are often described as the largest ethnic group in the world without a homeland – an estimated 30 million people. Most Sunni Muslims have their own language and customs.
About 20% of Turkey’s 84 million-strong population is Kurdish, with some Kurds holding important positions in Turkish politics and society, although many say they are discriminated against and their political parties face crackdown by the Turkish state.
Spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, the counties where they live have suffered massive persecution, marginalization and even genocide – see Saddam Hussein’s chemical gas attack that killed nearly 200,000 Kurds in Iraq in the late 1980s. Various Kurdish groups have pushed for Kurdish autonomy and statehood for decades, some peacefully and some, like the PKK, through violence.
The Kurds are celebrating the 26th of September, 2017 in Duho, Iraq to show their support for the independence referendum.
Ari Jalal | Reuters
Syrian Kurdish fighters affiliated with the PKK have played a key role in the fight against ISIS, receiving arms support and funding from the United States and Europe, including Sweden. This created huge tensions with Turkey, which then launched attacks on the Kurds in Syria.
“You are talking about people who have been actively fighting Turkey for more than 40 years and have killed thousands of civilians in the process,” Ankara-based international relations expert Muhammad Kokak told CNBC.
“Turkey is not happy about the fact that they have suddenly become good people because they have come to work against ISIS.”
Western governments have welcomed Kurdish fighters as allies, and several EU countries have imposed sanctions on Turkey over its targeting of Kurdish militias in Syria, with each side making a vague distinction between understanding the fighters.
Sweden’s relationship with the Kurdish group
Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, says tensions between Turkey and Sweden are rooted in how each country defines “terrorists”.
“This is not just a matter of Sweden’s liberal policy towards Kurdish refugees and political dissidents and activists. It is also a reflection of different definitions of who and what constitutes intolerable Kurdish extremism,” Ibish said.
“Turkey basically classifies all the Kurdish groups that it strongly dislikes as the PKK front organization. It has many non-PKK Kurdish entities and organizations inside and outside Turkey, but Syria also includes the Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and several Iraqis. The Kurdish parties too. ”
Sweden has a long history of accepting Kurdish refugees and asylum seekers, especially political refugees. Even in the Swedish parliament there are several Kurdish seats.
Although most Kurds living in Sweden – with a population of about 100,000 – have no ties to the PKK, the Swedish government has supported members of other Kurdish organizations, most notably the PYK’s political wing, the PYD’s Syrian branch. .
Sweden says PKK and PYD are different – but Turkey says they are one and the same.
Stockholm Politically and financially, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the SDF, supports a Kurdish-led militia group formed in support of the United States in its fight against ISIS in Syria. Ankara says SDC PKK is dominated by terrorists.
In 2021, the Swedish government announced a 37 376 million increase in funding for Kurdish groups in Syria by 2023, stating that it remains an “active partner” of the Syrian Kurds and that its funding is aimed at “strengthening resilience, human security and freedom from violence.” And promoting “human rights, gender equality and democratic development.”
What will Sweden do?
According to some analysts, with the Swedish election in September, the government is unlikely to make any major concessions to Erdogan that would make it look weak.
Others believe that Erdogan will not block Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership in the end, but will instead seek to improve his popularity at home.
“I suspect that Turkey, especially if it can get some concessions from the Western powers and its NATO allies here and there, will not want to prevent Finland and Sweden from joining the organization in the end,” said Ibis of the Arab Gulf Institute. Ibish. Says
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the fact that the war now focuses on parts of the country that are close to Turkey and Ankara’s deep strategic and even historical interest have reminded many Turks of the value of NATO membership.”
Even then, if Erdogan is not satisfied with the response from Sweden and Finland to his demands, NATO could face a gridlock for some time.