Ooh, things are getting to be fun! Nothing like watching geopolitical jousting out in the open. Here, we have the US (and NATO) attempting to push around Türkiye, a country that holds far too many cards to meekly accept Western dictates. The immediate contratemps that has just heated up is Türkiye’s threat to block Sweden’s bid to join NATO, which any NATO member can bar. Türkiye demanded that Sweden stop supporting what Türkiye deems to be Kurdish terrorists and made specific requests, including extraditions. It seemed highly unlikely that Sweden would be willing to accede to all of Türkiye’s demands, and Sweden just said so:
Conventional wisdom is that Türkiye will eventually knuckle under and will waive Finland and Sweden in. It would be too monstrously embarrassing and would worsen rifts in the bloc otherwise. But Türkiye will need some sort of bribe to go along. And is has to be visible for the sake of Erdogan depicting that he go something in return for his partial climbdown on his Kurdish terrorist position. But what might that sweetener be?
If you were to read only, say, the likes of the Economist, you’d have the strong impression that Türkiye was a vassal state that doesn’t know its place.
For those of you new to this plot line, NATO offered super duper expedited membership to Sweden and Finland. NATO acted as if the two Nordic states would be voted in quickly. Türkiye almost as quickly said it would refuse to accept their application, but backed right before an end-of-June NATO meeting. From the Guardian:
After a period of intensive negotiations, Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary general, said on Tuesday evening: “I am pleased to announce that we now have an agreement that paves the way for Finland and Sweden to join Nato.”
“Turkey, Finland and Sweden have signed a memorandum that addresses Turkey’s concerns, including around arms exports and the fight against terrorism,” he added….
[Swedish Prime Minister Magdelena] Andersson said she had shown the Turkish leader changes in Sweden’s terrorism legislation set to come into force next month.
“And of course, we will continue our fight against terrorism and as Nato members also do so with closer cooperation with Turkey,” the Swedish premier said.
NATO and EU leaders acted as if everything was settled. But voting on accepting the application and voting to approve membership are two different matters. Türkiye and Hungary have not yet approved the Sweden/Finland ascension (Hungary’s is allegedly because its Parliament hasn’t gotten to it yet, but some commentators contend pro-Russian officials are throwing sand in the gears).
Erdogan held back Türkiye’s approval for Sweden because he wanted to see performance on Sweden’s commitments. One of Edogan’s asks that Sweden agreed to, which at the time struck me as something Sweden either would or could not deliver on, was the extradition of specific individuals. From EUObserver:
Turkey has demanded Sweden extradite 33 Kurdish separatists and people linked to “FETÖ” — Ankara’s name for followers of Fethullah Gülen, a US-based Muslim leader, whom Erdoğan blames for organising a failed coup in 2016.
Sweden has so far extradited two.
In fact, Sweden had signaled that it was unlikely to comply much if at all with the extradition part of the deal. Again from EUObserver:
“The Swedish government must comply with Swedish and international law in extradition matters, which is also made clear in the trilateral agreement,” Sweden said, referring to a three-way accord on Nato enlargement with Finland and Turkey.
The agreement to secure Türkiye’s vote for Sweden blew up over the attempt to extradite a publisher who is part of Fethullah Gülen and Erdogan sees as an important figure in the coup attempt against him. From Associated Press:
Sweden’s top court on Monday rejected an extradition request for a man wanted by Turkey, saying the Scandinavian country does not criminalize the act he is accused of committing.
In a statement, the Swedish Supreme Court said there were “obstacles to extradition because it is a matter of so-called political crimes, i.e. crimes that are directed against the state and that are political in nature.”
The court in Stockholm said there was “a risk of persecution based on the person’s political views” if he were returned to Turkey.
The court did not name the man who was the subject of Turkey’s request. Swedish news agency TT identified him as Bulent Kenes and said the Turkish government wants him in connection with a 2016 coup attempt.
Erdogan has made clear that Kenes was a priority. Again from Associated Press:
Erdogan singled Kenes out last month during a joint news conference with the Swedish prime minister in Ankara.
“There is one member of the (Gulen) terrorist organization in Sweden, whose name I will give: Bulent Kenes,” Erdogan said. “For example, the deportation of this terrorist to Turkey is of great importance to us, and we of course want Sweden to act with more sensitivity (on the issue).”
And in a development that doesn’t seem to have gotten much notice in the press, Erdogan raised his demands after the Kenes ruling. From the Stockholm Center for Freedom, four days after the Supreme Court ruling:
Turkish authorities have expanded the list of people, the majority of them political dissidents, whose extradition is demanded from Sweden, increasing the number from 33 to 42, Turkish Minute reported, citing Radio Sweden.
Sweden and Finland broke with decades of military non-alignment and applied to join NATO in response to Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine. Turkey and Hungary are the only NATO members yet to ratify the Nordic neighbors’ applications.
Turkey has accused Finland and Sweden, in particular, of providing a safe haven for outlawed Kurdish groups it deems “terrorists” as well as some political dissidents and has refrained from ratifying their NATO bids despite an agreement in Madrid in June.
According to Radio Sweden, the Turkish government’s list of people whose extradition is demanded from Sweden includes 16 alleged members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), 12 people with alleged links to the faith-based Gülen movement and seven people from leftist groups in addition to seven people who are accused of such crimes as smuggling.
Oddly, the article does not point out that the PKK is a recognized terrorist organization; the US put PKK on its list the same day it added Hezbollah and Shining Path. One would assume extraditing them plus the accused smugglers would be viable.1
However, Sweden said it is done with catering to Türkiye to get its NATO vote. From the Financial Times:
Sweden has said Turkey is demanding concessions that Stockholm cannot give to approve its application to join Nato as the prime minister insisted the country had done all it could to meet Ankara’s concerns.
Ulf Kristersson, the new centre-right leader, on Sunday threw down the gauntlet to Turkey in the clearest indication yet from Stockholm that it could do no more to help persuade Turkey to drop its opposition to Sweden and neighbouring Finland joining the western military alliance.
“Turkey confirms that we have done what we said we would do. But they also say that they want things that we can’t and won’t give them. So the decision is now with Turkey,” Kristersson told a Swedish defence conference.
Sweden is rubbing salt in Türkiye’s wound by misrepresenting what its Foreign Minister said. From Reuters in Turkey calls for more action from Sweden on extradition for NATO backing, three days after the Supreme Court ruling that blocked Kenes’ extradition:
[Foreign Minister Mevlut] Cavusoglu said Turkey appreciated Sweden’s steps so far. “However, there is no concrete development regarding the extradition of terrorism-related criminals and the freezing of their assets,” he said….
“If Sweden wants to be a NATO ally, we have to see concrete cooperation. The negotiations are carried out in a positive atmosphere, but the denial of extradition of Kenes has intoxicated this atmosphere,” Cavusoglu said at the press meet.
In other words, Türkiye clearly reminded Sweden that it had not delivered on its commitments. Türkiye reminded Sweden that it needed to follow through to get Türkiye’s NATO vote. But Sweden is now trying to present Türkiye as somehow having come around to Sweden’s position.
Where is the counter-offer? At a minimum, it sure looks like 23 people were good candidates for extradition. Using a high-profile single case as a basis for dropping the entire matter looks like bad faith. After all, 2/3 of the attempts so far had succeeded.
This is a very long winded introduction to a key point, that Türkiye has tons of leverage and therefore has and will continue to play the Collective West off against the rest of the world. The only way that stops would be if NATO manages to do an own goal on the order of the anti-Russia economic sanctions and gets Türkiye to hike out of NATO. There’s no process for removing a NATO member2 Türkiye very very much likes the advantage it gets against Russia by being in NATO, so it is extremely unlikely that Türkiye would depart of its own accord.
So Türkiye in NATO looks increasingly like those old pre-nup marriages, where both parties really would like to be done with each other but can’t afford to get divorced.3 Türkiye’s assets include:
Second biggest NATO army, and the biggest in the European theater:
Incirlik Air Base. This is the airbase the US uses for Middle Eastern operations. And reflecting Türkiye’s position, it’s not run on normal US-as-occupier airbase lines. From MilitaryBases.com:
The base is in Turkey, which means that it is operated by both the US and the Turkish governments, unlike other co-bases. Most other military installations are operated by the US government, but under the regulation of the hosting government.
Incirlik has held (as of 2016) and may still hold as many as 50 hydrogen warheads.
Things started to go very pear shaped with the US after the 2016 coup attempt. Aljazeera gives a very good overview. Erdogan is very unhappy that the US has refused to extradite Fethullah Gulen. While Türkiye apparently has not come up with strong enough evidence of Gulen’s personal involvement, it’s not hard to see that a Muslim cleric in the normally not very Muslim-friendly US having a very lavish compound would generate suspicion back home.
This is far from a complete list of dust-ups since then:
Calls in 2016 for Türkiye to be expelled from NATO due to its ouster of Gulen allies (mind you, the purge had started in 2013 but intensified greatly after the coup attempt)
Türkiye ordering Russian S-400 air-defense systems, now twice, leading the US to cancel F-35 sales to Türkiye.4 That might seem like a gift except Türkiye is listed as a funder of the program, which at a minimum means having invested in factories to make some parts. Note that Türkiye signed the deal in 2017. The US cut Türkiye out of the F-35 program the month after Türkiye accepted the first delivery, in 2019. The Trump Administration imposed additional sanctions on Türkiye in December 2020.
The afore-alluded-to 2019 fury when Türkiye launched Operation Spring, against Kurdish (as in American-backed) forces in Syria. Erdogan poured gas on the fire by threatening to stop barring Syrian refugees from entering Europe if he wasn’t allowed to have his way.
Türkiye making some of the right noises about Russia’s conflict in Ukraine but still maintaining and even expanding relations with Russia. Ankara has been explicit: Ukraine and Russia are neighbors and it intends to stay on good terms with both. Türkiye did supply Ukraine with much-touted Bayrakter drones….that wound up big time underperforming. And as we’ll flesh out a bit more below, the Collective West regards Türkiye as not doing its part to support the war against Russia.
However, Türkiye entered into a big economic deal with Russia. The West has tried to block some elements, such as Türkiye banks accepting the Mir card. Türkiye and Russia expect to have work-arounds in place by summer 2023.
The West also can’t be happy at the prospect of Syria and Türkiye teaming up, with Russia helping to broker the deal, to go against “terrorists” which will include pretty much all of the US cat’s paws.
On the Türkiye side, I suspect but can’t prove that one of the reasons for its tart opposition to the Sweden/Finland membership offers was that it was not consulted in advance.
Today, Conor Gallagher provides an important, long-form treatment of a development that Türkiye regards in and of itself as a huge betrayal: the US working with Greece to place missiles on Aegean islands that by treaty were pledged to stay unarmed. The US rationale is that Türkiye has not been an aggressive enough NATO operative, for instance, in its refusal to let warships enter the Black Sea, and more generally, declining to operate as a US/NATO hub in the war, so it is using Greece to get at Moscow. But Türkiye has repeatedly complained that it is also in Greek crosshairs, and Conor and other analysts believe the US moves are meant to
punish pressure Türkiye.
Erdogan has reacted in his typical very impolitic manner, leading to further harrumphing that his words prove he’s not a fit member of civilized society. From the Express in mid-December:
Speaking during a town hall meeting with youths in the northern Turkish city of Samsun on Saturday, Erdogan said Turkey had begun making its own short-range ballistic missiles called Tayfun, which, he said, was “frightening the Greeks.”
”(The Greeks) say ‘It can hit Athens’,” said Erdogan, whose comments were aired late Sunday.
He added: “Of course it will. If you don’t stay calm, if you try to buy things from the United States and other places (to arm) the islands, a country like Turkey … has to do something.”
Let’s return to the headline issue: will this Türkiye threat over Sweden just prove to be a show of bluster, as most of the press has been treating it (as well as NATO itself, which has been inviting Sweden and Finland to meetings and extending other privileges normally afforded only to members)? In light of all of the above, that may not be such a safe bet.
Türkiye, interestingly like India, has been trying to navigated a geopolitically independent, self-interested course. But India is not a key member of a US dominated security alliance.
It is hard to calibrate Türkiye messaging compared to its intent. If Türkiye regards the arming of Greece as a serious security threat, which seems likely, it is logical to assume that Türkiye will continue to withhold its approval of Sweden and Finland until the US winds that program back at least to a degree. It’s a clear leverage point on a matter to which the West has hopelessly committed itself.5
However, the US has likely convinced itself that using Greece to mount a joint threat against Russia and Türkiye is strategically necessary. And since it is becoming hard to paper over that the Ukraine war is not going well (witness, for instance the recent Washington Post op-ed by Condoleeza Rice and Robert Gates, Time is not on Ukraine’s side), the US is likely to engage in displacement: since it isn’t getting what it wants in Ukraine, it is going to make damned sure it gets what it wants elsewhere. That means NATO expansion among other things. The odds appear high that the US would regard Türkiye as intransigent and at a time when it feels it can’t afford even an optical setback, as in further delay in getting the Nordic nations in NATO. But instead of giving Türkiye a sweetener, the US and NATO have been big on sticks. So I would expect things to get worse before they get better on this front. And they may not get better.