Reacting to the ongoing tension within NATO after Sweden and Finland applied to join the alliance, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said that it is important to note that no other NATO member state had suffered more terrorist attacks than Turkiye; and that NATO’s borders with Russia will double in size overnight with the accession of the two countries.

Sweden and Finland applied to join NATO last month in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but their applications are being opposed by Turkiye, which has accused them of supporting terrorist groups. What are Turkiye’s concerns while the Baltic Sea is becoming a NATO-patrolled waterway?

Turkiye has been a member of NATO for over 70 years. It is demanding that the two Nordic countries end their support for the Kurdish groups designated as “terrorists” by Ankara and others, and to lift their bans on the sale of some arms to Turkiye. Ankara insists that such a ban on selling arms to an ally is inappropriate for prospective members of NATO.

It was after Turkiye’s incursion in Syria against the Syrian Kurdish YPG to protect its border from terrorism that Sweden and Finland both imposed a ban on arms sales. Ankara regards the YPG as the Syrian branch of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is deemed a terror group by Ankara the EU and the US. In 2019, Ankara received little international backing for its plan to establish a safe zone in northern Syria for the resettlement of one million Syrians in an area that Turkiye and its Syrian opposition allies seized from the YPG. Turkiye now seeks to take the opportunity to get NATO support for its operations in Syria.

“We are one of the countries that give the most support to the activities of the alliance, but this does not mean that we will unquestioningly say ‘yes’ to every proposal brought before us,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told members of his political party in Ankara last month. “The expansion of NATO is meaningful for us, in proportion to the respect that is shown to our sensitivities.”

Erdogan thus pointed out his country’s concerns over the application of Article 5 of the NATO Charter regarding collective defence. In a clear attempt to turn Article 5 to its own advantage, Turkiye has invited NATO members to uphold it so that an attack on one member is treated as an attack on all.

Barış Seçkin - Anadolu Agency )

A view of NATO Defence College, in Rome, Italy on March 2, 2022. [Barış Seçkin – Anadolu Agency ]

Domestically, Turkiye’s current demands within NATO might serve Erdogan’s political requirements. With the population in general supporting him in his fight with Europe and the US, as happened in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan wants to gain some capital for the 2023 election.

Moreover, the Ukraine war has exposed the anti-Western sentiment among Turkish citizens. From the conservative to the liberal, and the politically Islamist to the secular, most Turks have even tolerated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine simply because of its anti-Western attitude. Nevertheless, Ankara announced that nothing can make Russia’s invasion legitimate, and that Turkiye’s demands are not against Ukrainian civilians. Turkiye’s full membership of NATO and its signature under all the decisions taken by the alliance — relatively good and bad alike — has been ignored. It is obvious, therefore, that Erdogan has decided to utilise for electoral purposes the sentiment that has emerged in Turkiye.

This is not the first time that AK Party governments have attempted to extract concessions from NATO. Erdogan has gone through public “bargaining” with Turkiye’s allies before; during NATO’s operation against Libya in 2011, for example, and in the appointment of former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as NATO Secretary General.

However, the results of these “negotiations” in front of the whole world did not develop as Ankara wanted. Soon after Erdogan asked what NATO was doing in Libya, Turkiye quietly joined the mission and even assumed its command. In the Rasmussen issue, the Turkish president gained nothing but meaningless promises regarding the fight against terrorism.

Unfortunately, it is obvious that mistakes are being made in the bargaining process. For a start, the relationships that Turkiye has with Sweden and Finland respectively are not the same. Finland gave a lot of support to Turkiye’s efforts to join the EU. What’s more, the way that each Nordic state deals with terrorist organisations is different. This is why Erdogan himself said in a phone call with his Finnish counterpart, before the NATO membership process became official, that, “Ankara welcomes Finland’s NATO membership.” If Ankara really wants to negotiate with Sweden over support for terrorism, it would only make it more difficult to include Finland in the discussion.

The second mistake, I believe, has been Turkiye’s decision to negotiate in public, often through the media. Diplomacy is more effective when conducted behind closed doors. Confidentiality prevents the public from witnessing compromises and about-turns at the negotiating table.

The middle ground is easier to find, often allowing both sides to “win”. However, when the bargain is announced loudly, the attitudes of the parties tend to harden, and the difference between the “winner” and the “loser” turns into a source of embarrassment. Indeed, the backward steps taken by the AK Party governments at the negotiating table, both in respect of Libya and in the departure of the former NATO Secretary General, are still being analysed and criticised in the global media.

Furthermore, while Turkiye was opposing the applications for NATO membership from Sweden and Finland, statements from Russia, the main “threat” to the alliance, made the situation of the AK Party government even more difficult. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said that NATO membership for Finland and Sweden “won’t make a big difference” and that Moscow would not react harshly to this expansion of the alliance. It thus appeared that Turkiye was the only obstacle to the move, which even Moscow said could be “possible”. Worse still, there was a perception that Russia, which does not really want Sweden and Finland to join NATO, is trying to achieve its goal through Turkiye, without getting Moscow’s hands dirty. This has already been used by countries trying to put pressure on Ankara.

Erdogan has also caused tension within the US Congress and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been telling the US not to sell F-16 jets to Turkiye, a fellow NATO member.

Erdogan now finds himself in the middle of a battle between NATO and Russia while preparing for next year’s presidential bid. The question now appears to be is the “world leader” able to remain firm or will he be forced to publicly give way to concessions which bring his strongman persona into question?