Between stalling Sweden and Finland’s bids for NATO membership and threatening a fresh military offensive against Kurds in northern Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to be capitalising on the world’s focus on Ukraine to strengthen Ankara’s geopolitical standing – even at the expense of NATO and Western partners. Such moves may be targeting a domestic audience ahead of June 2023 presidential elections, with Erdogan trying to galvanise nationalist sentiment as a worsening economic crisis threatens his popularity at home.
In recent weeks, Erdogan has once again complicated Turkey’s relationship with its NATO allies – stalling Swedish and Finnish plans to join the bloc; threatening another military incursion into northern Syria; refusing to join Western sanctions against Russia; and reviving tensions with perennial rival Greece over the Aegean islands.
The Turkish president seems keen to take advantage of the West’s focus on the Ukraine war, using bellicose rhetoric in defence of Turkey’s interests and imposing his own conditions on top of European and US priorities.
Talks in Brussels on Monday on the latest NATO accession bids led to “clear progress” on some issues, a Finnish presidential aide said. But Turkey threw a spanner into the works – demanding Sweden and Finland take action against the “terrorists” of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) before approving their accession – ahead of next week’s NATO summit in Madrid.
Erdogan is all too aware that Swedish and Finnish accession would be a landmark expansion for the transatlantic alliance, with both nations jettisoning their longstanding Cold War neutrality amid a re-emergent Russian threat.
‘Imposing his agenda’ Ankara sees both countries – and Sweden, especially – as too close to the PKK, which has been waging a guerrilla war in Turkey since 1984 punctuated by periodic ceasefires. A militant insurgency that dreams of an independent Kurdish state uniting southeastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and a small slice of northeastern Iran, the PKK has been designated a terrorist group by both the EU and the United States.
Erdogan says he wants “concrete” and “serious” steps from Sweden and Finland before he allows them into NATO. In effect, he wants them to bargain with him directly to get the green light.