Erdogan's objection to Finland and Sweden joining NATO: What does he want? Is US optimism justified?

As one informed Turkish source told Kurdistan 24, "Really, it's whatever—and as much—as he can get out of this."
In this photo made available by the Turkish Presidency, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey, Friday, May 20, 2022. (Photo: Turkish Presidency via AP)
In this photo made available by the Turkish Presidency, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey, Friday, May 20, 2022. (Photo: Turkish Presidency via AP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – State Department Spokesperson Ned Price reiterated on Friday the Biden administration's view that Turkey's objections to Sweden and Finland joining NATO can be overcome.

"We remain confident that Turkey's concerns will be addressed and that we'll be able to reach consensus as an Alliance on the accession process for Finland and Sweden," Price said, "and we look forward to quickly bringing them into [NATO]."

However, some observers are not so sure—or at least they see Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan exacting a high price. Others believe that the Biden administration is simply not doing enough to counter Erdogan's belligerent unilateralism.

How Dispute Grew: Soft US Response to Turkish Obstructionism

The matter first arose some ten days ago, May 13, when Erdogan gave an unusual press conference following Friday prayers in Istanbul. 

Erdogan had not raised the issue before, but he suddenly lobbed a grenade in what had been expected to be a smooth process: the accession of two countries, Sweden and Finland, with a long history of neutrality, into the NATO alliance following Russia's brutal, unprovoked aggression against Ukraine.

In his first statement on the matter, Erdogan was, perhaps, testing the waters. He was relatively soft-spoken, stating, "We don't have a positive opinion" on Sweden and Finland joining NATO, as they are "unfortunately, like a guesthouse of terrorist organizations."

The US response could have been one of outrage: how dare Ankara even think about blocking such an important move? But it was not. Rather, it was conciliatory. The US responded with a promise to work with Ankara to address its concerns. 

Read More: As Erdogan opposes Sweden, Finland joining NATO, he denounces US relaxation of sanctions on Rojava

Thus, as Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said later on Friday, "We're working to clarify, to better understand, Turkey's position," before affirming, "Turkey is a valued NATO ally."

Read More: US expects Turkey to modify opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO

Erdogan Plays Populist Card Amid Economic Difficulties

Erdogan's response was predictable. He doubled down, denouncing Sweden and Finland in yet stronger terms. After the two countries proposed sending envoys to Ankara to discuss Erdogan's concerns, he responded on Monday, May 16, with an insult!

"Are they coming to convince us? Excuse me, but they should not tire themselves," Erdogan said. 

Two days later, he affirmed, "NATO expansion is only meaningful for us in proportion to the respect that will be shown to our sensibilities."

"These two countries, especially Sweden, they are a complete hotbed of terrorism," Erdogan stated the next day. "That's why we are determined to continue this policy and say no to Sweden and Finland joining NATO."

Erdogan's defiance is popular domestically, and he has a particular need for support now. Next year, he is up for re-election, and the Turkish economy is faring poorly, with little prospect of significant change before the 2023 elections.

Inflation in Turkey is higher today than at any time in the past two decades—since 2002, when Erdogan first came to power, while the Turkish lira has fallen sharply against the dollar. Last year, it lost 44% of its value. This year, so far, it has lost over 11 percent.

Earlier this month, Turkey's national statistics agency released its April data on the country's economy. An inflation rate that was already high continued to rise. Turkey's consumer price index for April was 69.97 percent higher than the year before. In March, that figure was 61.14 percent. 

In response to this economic pressure, Erdogan has begun repairing ties with the Gulf Arab states, and he visited Saudi Arabia last week. 

Erdogan Plays Hardball

Yet Erdogan's opportunistic stance at a time of international crisis is prompting renewed criticism in US circles. It is not even clear what Erdogan wants. As one informed Turkish source told Kurdistan 24, "Really, it's whatever—and as much—as he can get out of this."

"Turkey continues to play hardball over Sweden, Finland NATO membership," Amberin Zaman wrote last Monday in Al-Monitor. The Financial Times followed two days later with a report entitled "Turkey's Erdogan plays hardball over Nordics Nato bid," while also on Wednesday, The National Interest carried a report, "Not So Fast: Turkey Plays Hardball on Finland and Sweden's NATO Applications." 

There is, thus, a general consensus: Erdogan is driving a very hard bargain. As former US President Donald Trump described him: "a tough cookie" (adding, "but I get along with him.") However, Erdogan risks alienating important sectors of US public opinion with that stance.

"Does Turkey Still Belong in NATO?" is the title of a Wall Street Journal op-ed, published last week by Joe Lieberman, a former Democratic US senator and Vice Presidential candidate, along with Mark Wallace, a former State Department official.

"For reasons that are political, parochial, and irrelevant to the decision" to admit Finland and Sweden into NATO, Erdogan "has taken a hardline in his efforts to derail" their admission, the two men wrote." This should raise the question of whether Turkey under Mr. Erdogan's leadership belongs in the alliance."

Erdogan's economic mismanagement "has left him in need of Russian economic support," they continued, raising questions about where Erdogan's greatest allegiance lies. 

"While average citizens face soaring costs for basic goods," they stated, Erdogan "continues to dole out gargantuan state contracts to allies, typically through noncompetitive tenders and often for vanity projects."

Failure to Understand Putin, Erdogan

"NATO's greatest strategic failure of the past two decades was to play down Mr. Putin's malign intent," Lieberman and Wallace wrote, and "the alliance runs the risk of repeating the same mistake" with Erdogan.

An editorial on Saturday in the right-leaning tabloid, The New York Post, similarly criticized Erdogan in strong terms, along with the failure of the Biden administration to confront him.

"Erdogan bolstered his image as a petty little tyrant Thursday by declaring that he will reject Finland and Sweden's application to join NATO," the Post said. 

"Worse, the Turkish threat inspired tiny Croatia to also declare opposition, though that's likely just an effort to win some sort of bribe from other members," it continued.

And the Post concluded, "Too bad Biden lacks the chops to compel a 'yes' from Turkey, and so is sending Putin yet another message that the West will never get its act together."

What Does Erdogan Want?

It is difficult to answer that question precisely—and Erdogan himself may not know. Indeed, as one informed Turkish source remarked to Kurdistan 24, "Everything he can get!"

Erdogan has focused his criticisms on the Swedish and Finnish positions toward the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). But as Sweden's Foreign Minister noted in a tweet, Sweden has long identified the PKK as a terrorist organization—since 1986, when Sweden's then-Prime Minister Olaf Palme was killed in a shooting attributed to the PKK.

Subsequent statements, including by Turkey's ambassador to Sweden, suggest that what Erdogan is really targeting is the US-led coalition's partnership with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against ISIS in northeast Syria.

Turkey maintains that the YPG (People's Protection Units), the force at the core of the SDF, is merely the Syrian branch of the PKK. 

The Financial Times spoke with Emre Yunt, Turkey's ambassador to Sweden. The Times quoted Yunt as saying that "severing links with the [YPG] was 'the most important' of Turkey's demands" after "Erdogan stunned his NATO allies" by announcing he would reject NATO membership for the two Nordic countries. 

Yunt criticized the Swedes, in particular, saying, "They are claiming that this group [YPG] is fighting with Daesh [ISIS], but Daesh doesn't exist anymore."

Of course, many parties would dispute that, including the US and other coalition members who remain engaged in fighting the terrorist group.