Erdogan plays poker with NATO – we will know soon if he gambled

The Siege of Northern Expansion: Erdogan Is Gambling With NATO – We’ll Know Soon If He Bet

Turkey has gone from being an important mediator between Ukraine and Russia to being a disruptive factor in the Western alliance. With the blockade of NATO expansion in the north, faltering Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking a cocky calculus that could end up being a huge mistake, says Pete Abelt, Turkey project director at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Istanbul.

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When Sweden and Finland expressed their desire to join NATO in mid-May, under the impression of Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine, it seemed only weeks before Scandinavia was finally accepted into the Western alliance. Surprisingly, however, Turkey halted the seemingly confirmed accession with its veto. After all, all 30 member states must agree to the expansion of NATO.

Ankara now sets conditions for this. According to the Turkish interpretation, Finland and Sweden should stop their support for the PKK and associated groups, in particular the People’s Protection Units in Syria, hand over a number of terrorism suspects in Turkey and lift restrictions on arms exports to Turkey.

Erdogan’s blockade of NATO: Turkey pursues a clear goal

The visit of the Swedish-Finnish delegation to Ankara on 25 May was unsuccessful. The Turkish side submitted their demands only in writing. President Erdoğan later expressed his dissatisfaction with the course of the talks and strongly criticized the fact that a high-ranking representative of the Syrian Kurdish Party, the PYD, was allowed to appear on Swedish state television on the same day. Erdogan rejected an offer by NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg to discuss Turkey’s security concerns in Brussels. First of all, they are waiting for a written response from the Swedes and Finns.

Exciting, but you don’t have time now?

Thus, Turkey once again turned from a valuable mediator between Ukraine and Russia to a disruptive factor in the Western alliance. At the same time, no one seriously believed that it had anything against northern expansion in principle. Ankara is using this opportunity to display long-standing security concerns and to demand that the Nordic countries surrender. In fact, no other NATO member country has experienced terrorist attacks like Turkey, Stoltenberg also emphasized in recognition of Turkey’s security needs.

For Erdogan, it is about more than concessions from Sweden and Finland

Of course, opinions differ on the concrete assessment of the various Kurdish and Western groups, and in particular Swedish cooperation with each other. While in Sweden and Finland only the PKK itself is classified as a terrorist organization, Turkey places all organizations with actual or potential links with the PKK at the same level. This is especially true of the People’s Protection Units, which dominates northwest Syria and has been a local partner for the United States in the fight against ISIS. It is also difficult to reconcile ideas about the legality of Turkish extradition requests.

In light of the fact that the Turkish leadership is now using allegations of terrorism in an inflationary way – between 2016 and 2020 only there were 1.6 million such charges – and the rule of law has been greatly undermined, Sweden and Finland cannot comply with requests from Ankara. There is still enough room for negotiation. However, it is possible that it is not only about Sweden and Finland, in Ankara there is hope that the Western allies will make completely different concessions.


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Relations with the United States of America were severely strained by Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S400 missile defense system and the subsequent US arms embargo. Since Joe Biden took office, the two presidents have met only on the sidelines of the NATO and G20 summit.

To vote against the West: Is Erdogan playing too high a role?

After all, Erdogan’s strong behavior toward the outside world is also likely to fuel his uncomfortable domestic political situation. It is clear that Turkey is preparing for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. Although this will not take place until June 2023, rumors of an early election persist. The country is mired in a severe inflationary crisis, mostly home-made, and the alliance of the AKP and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) now receives less than 40 percent of the vote in opinion polls.

Fomenting anti-Western sentiment and aggressive approaches to terrorist threats can also aim to secure nationalist voices.

Whatever the calculations in Ankara, there will be intense negotiations in the coming weeks, especially behind the scenes. Turkey has an opportunity to obtain concessions on its serious security needs, and perhaps also in other areas of negotiation. If it gambles too heavily, it could easily lose the growing recognition of its role in mediating Russia’s war against Ukraine and permanently damage its relationship with NATO allies. By the time of the NATO summit in Madrid at the end of June, it should be clear where the trip is headed.

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