Sweden’s Path to NATO Still has Pitfalls

By Glenn Corn

Glenn Corn is a former Senior Executive in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who worked for 34 years in the U.S. Intelligence, Defense, and Foreign Affairs communities.  He spent over 17 years serving overseas and served as the U.S. President’s Senior Representative on Intelligence and Security issues.  He is an Adjunct Professor at the Institute of World Politics.

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE / OPINION – When the Turkish Parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee approved Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan’s proposal to approve Sweden’s bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) last month, it was an indication that Sweden is one step closer to overcoming the most significant obstacle it has faced in securing membership in the alliance. One step closer, but not there yet. 

The proposal will now be sent to the full parliament for a vote, then back to President Erdogan for his signature.  Without a set date for the vote in parliament, it’s possible that the Turkish government may further delay a decision.  There is a possibility that Ankara could still reject the Swedes. 

While this is not likely, given the fact that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) control the majority share of seats in parliament, Washington, Brussels and Stockholm should avoid taking anything for granted when it comes to their relationships with Ankara.  And everyone should expect to see Moscow continue to use every tool available to try to further delay or derail Sweden’s efforts to become the alliance’s 32nd member.

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For many non-Turks, it’s hard to understand why Ankara has taken so long to agree to Sweden’s membership bid. After all, Sweden is a highly developed, modern democracy that has a well-trained and equipped military and will bring a great deal of good to the alliance. Swedish admission will serve a significant blow to the image and plans of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, whose misguided policies towards Ukraine since February 2022, drove two traditionally neutral countries in Northern Europe directly into NATO’s arms. So, why didn’t the Turks follow the example of other NATO countries and immediately agree to Finland and Sweden’s membership bids when the two countries applied to the organization in May 2022?  And why did Ankara continue to question the value of Swedish membership, even after the Turks approved Finland’s application in April 2023?

The Turks have expressed significant reservations about allowing either Sweden or Finland to join NATO.  Contrary to the claims of some in the West, Ankara’s objections were not linked to some secret agreement Erdogan had with Putin to work against the alliance or help Moscow in its war against Ukraine.  In fact, as any Turk will remind you, Turkiye is aware of the threat posed by Russian territorial expansion, both historically and today. Many of Turkey’s current citizens trace their heritage to areas on the southern periphery of the Russian Empire – like Crimea, the Balkans and regions in the South and North Caucasus where Russian expansionist policies in the past resulted in the large-scale migration of Tatars, Chechens, and other Muslims to what was once the Ottoman Empire. 

Of course, there is no doubt that the Russians continue to use disagreements and mistakes made by one NATO country against another to try to drive a wedge between Ankara and its NATO allies.  The issues that Moscow exploits to accomplish its objective are not created by the Kremlin.  They are problems created by the NATO member states themselves and fanned and used by Russia.

For example, one of the main objections Ankara had to allowing Sweden, and too a much lesser extent Finland, join NATO was because prior to February 2022, both countries were allowing representatives of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to operate freely in their countries.  Turkiye considers the PKK a Terrorist Organization that is responsible for killing large numbers of Turkish citizens since the group’s creation in the late 1970s. (Why is Turkey blocking Sweden from joining NATO?

In the spring of 2022, a senior member of the Turkish cabinet, while discussing Sweden’s desire to join NATO, questioned why his own country (which had joined NATO to counter the expansion of the Soviet Union and its Marxist-Leninist ideology) should agree to allow Sweden in while it was allowing the PKK – founded with the direct support and assistance of the Soviet Union – to undermine stability in Turkiye. 

In his opinion, Turks had sacrificed their lives fighting communist expansion in the Korean conflict and the Turkish state had paid a heavy price for being a member of NATO.  Ankara had historically maintained one of NATO’s largest military contingents and too many Turkish military personnel and civilians had died at the hand of this Marxist-Leninist terrorist group for Ankara to simply agree to allowing Finland or Sweden to join as long as they allowed the PKK to operate from their territory. 

Before Turkiye could agree to allowing either country to join, the Turks felt that any new member of the club had to respect Turkiye’s national security interests.

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Fortunately, the Turks did not outright reject membership of either country and through a great deal of dialogue and action on the part of Helsinki and Stockholm, Turkish concerns about the PKK’s activities in those countries were addressed.

One of Ankara’s second demands from the new applicants was that they also act against members of the Fetullah Gulen Organization (FETO), which is another group that Ankara classifies as a terrorist organization, operating in both Nordic countries. 

It appears that this requirement was more complicated because while the U.S. and some other NATO states classify the PKK as a terrorist organization, they do not consider FETO to be involved in terrorist activities.  While Ankara often demands partner nations expel or extradite suspected FETO members from their territory, legally this is usually impossible because there is a lack of evidence that the accused are guilty of crimes in the countries where they are living.

For example, the head of the Gulen organization himself, Fetullah Gulen, lives in the U.S. and U.S. authorities have denied repeated Turkish requests to have Gulen arrested or extradited to Turkiye for trail because the Turks have not provided credible evidence that Gulen has violated U.S. laws.

Another Turkish demand for its support was that both countries, along with other NATO members states, lift arms embargoes they had placed on doing business with Turkiye. The Turks explained that if NATO wanted Ankara’s support strengthening the security of Europe, Turkiye wanted its NATO partners to stop blocking its efforts to improve its defense capabilities.  Again, thanks to a great deal of diplomatic efforts between Ankara and its other NATO partners and aspiring members, it appears that Ankara’s concerns on the Arms Embargo issue were satisfactorily resolved, with one exception. 

That exception is not in Europe, but in the U.S., where the U.S. Government has yet to approve a request made by Ankara in 2021 to purchase 40 F-16 Fighter Aircraft and an associated modernization package to upgrade the capabilities of the Turkish Air Force. Ankara made the purchase request in the fall of 2021, after the U.S. kicked Turkiye out of the F-35 fighter consortium based on Washington’s objections to Turkiye’s purchase of an S-400 Surface to Air Missile complex from Russia. 

While the Biden Administration has expressed its support for the F-16 deal, Congress has not yet approved the sale, with some key members of President Biden’s own democratic party blocking the deal based on complaints about Turkiye’s Human Rights Record and concerns that Turkiye might use the aircraft to attack another NATO ally, Greece.

With Ankara’s other concerns regarding Swedish and Finnish harboring of PKK and FETO members, and European arms embargos against Turkiye seemingly successfully addressed, the major obstacle to the Turkish parliament’s final vote on Swedish accession appears to be located in Washington.  Thus, last month, Erdogan suggested that the U.S. could secure Turkish support for Sweden’s NATO accession by first agreeing to the sale of the F-16’s and associated modernization package.

Erdogan, who is no doubt tired of U.S. Presidents telling him they support various policies or actions that Ankara wants to see, only to see the U.S. Congress block the execution of those policies or actions, has gone as far as to suggest that the U.S. Congress and Turkish Parliament should vote simultaneously on the F-16 and Swedish accession issues.

Some in the U.S. and Europe are probably asking why Erdogan and his government don’t just take a “leap of faith” and agree to Swedish membership in NATO with the hopes that this positive step by Ankara will help overcome opposition to the F-16 deal in the U.S. Congress. 

To understand the Turks hesitancy on this issue, it is useful to remember that in the past, Ankara was asked by the Carter Administration (in 1980) to take a similar “leap of faith” vis a vis NATO.  At that time, Washington need Turkiye to agree to allow Greece to rejoin NATO’s military wing, after Athens withdrew from that part of NATO in 1974, then reapplied.  Historically, Greece was seen as one of Ankara’s number one enemies amid tensions between the two countries throughout the 1970s. The leadership of the Turkish Republic was, however, convinced to vote in support of Athens’s bid to return to the NATO military wing.  Later, however, many Turks felt that once the Greeks got what they wanted from Ankara, they once again took a hostile attitude towards their eastern neighbor and have often been seen as trying to build anti-Turkish alliances within NATO itself.  As one Turk recently told me, “it was a mistake for us to agree to Washington’s request in 1980, without at least getting something concrete in return for our sacrifice. President Erdogan remembers that history and will not repeat that mistake.” 

So as the U.S. and Turkish legislative bodies now appear to be locked in a game of “chicken”, it is useful to understand some of Ankara’s historic perspective on voting in favor of changes to NATO.

The Turks also don’t need to look much further than the 2016 attempted coup in Turkiye to find reasons to mistrust the U.S.  Many Turkish citizens suspect that the U.S. was behind that coup attempt and Erdogan himself has hinted in public that he suspects that the U.S. either had a hand in the coup attempt or was at least aware of the coup planning and failed to warn him

Turkish suspicions regarding U.S. intentions towards their government were also inflamed during the 2020 U.S. Presidential campaign when then-Democratic candidate Biden was filmed telling a group of New York Times editors that if elected, he would use support to the Turkish political opposition to remove Erdogan, who he called an “autocrat”, from office.  

After taking office in January 2021, The U.S. President waited four months before contacting his Turkish counterpart, which was an act that was interpreted by many Turks as being insulting not only to their President but to Turkiye itself.  In April of the same year, the U.S. President became the first U.S. President to publicly use the term “Armenian Genocide” while referring to the very painful time in Ottoman history, which was another act that some Turks viewed as both hurtful and unfair to their country.  Later the same year, the Biden Administration chose not to invite the Turks to participate in a “Democracy Summit.”  

While there are other actions taken by the U.S. that have been interpreted as “anti-Turkish” in recent years, by far, the biggest bilateral problem in the U.S.–Turkish relationship has been Washington’s continued military and financial support for the Syrian Democratic Forces/Peoples Protection Units (SDF/YPG).

In short, while the U.S. insists that the SDF/YPG are not part of the PKK and are vital partners in U.S. efforts to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Ankara views the SDF/YPG as an extension of the PKK and, thus, sees Washington as funding and training a terrorist organization that is targeting and killing Turkish citizens and working to undermine Turkish stability and territorial integrity.

As many Turks see it, U.S. support for the SDF/YPG is the equivalent of Turkiye supporting the creation of Al-Qa’ida-linked military formations along the U.S.–Mexico border, which they correctly assume would be unacceptable to Americans.  Thus, the U.S. policy of support for the SDF/YPG is highly unpopular among almost all Turkish citizens and is actively used by Washington’s enemies in Moscow and Tehran to drive a wedge between Ankara and other members of NATO. 

Despite Turkiye’s grievances and suspicions towards the U.S, and regardless of the uptick in anti-U.S. rhetoric by the Turkish President in the wake of the October 7 Hamas terrorist attacks against Israel and Israel’s response to those attacks, Erdogan seems to be trying to find a way to get to “yes” on both F-16s for his country, and NATO membership for Sweden.  In a likely effort to address Congressional concerns about perceived Turkish threats to Greece, Erdogan visited Athens for the first time in six years and signaled Ankara’s desire to improve relations with Athens and reduce tensions in the region.

Erdogan’s anti-U.S. rhetoric should be understood in the context of upcoming Turkish municipal elections in 2024 and the Turkish President’s efforts to appeal to voters who, unfortunately, harbor deep suspicions about the U.S. and its policies toward their country.

Ultimately, just as the fate of continued U.S. assistance to Ukraine now rests with the U.S. Congress, it appears that Sweden’s hopes of a near-term admission to NATO are also tied to actions by Congress. 

As many experts have argued, a failure to approve continued aid to Ukraine will hurt both Ukraine and the U.S.’s image and future relationships with European partners.  A failure to secure Ankara’s support for Swedish NATO membership could do the same.  It will be seen as a victory for Vladimir Putin, damage U.S. relations with other NATO partners and send another bad sign to Kyiv about the cohesion of NATO at a time when the Ukrainians need to see unity among NATO states.   

Erdogan has signaled that a “yes” on the F-16 deal will equal a “yes” to Turkish support for Sweden and hopefully, those members of Congress who continue to block the F-16 deal understand how harmful continued obstruction to moving forward will be not just for the U.S. – Turkish bilateral relationship, but for Ukraine and the NATO alliance itself. 

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