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On Jan. 23, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lambasted Sweden, whose bid to join NATO has been blocked by Ankara, saying that the country should not expect any goodwill from Turkey as long as it fails to “show respect for the religious beliefs of Muslims and Turkish people,” allows the burning of the Quran, and lets “terrorist organizations run amok.” On Jan. 21, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar canceled the planned visit of his Swedish counterpart, Pal Jonson, on Jan. 27. The visit had become “meaningless” after “ugly actions” in Sweden, Akar said.

He was referring to events earlier in January, when left-wing activists from the Rojava Committee of Sweden hanged an effigy of Erdogan in front of the city hall in the Swedish capital of Stockholm. Then, on Jan. 21, Swedish authorities granted a far-right activist permission to hold a protest outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm, where he burned a copy of the Quran. Meanwhile, on the same day, left-wing activists mounted a protest against Turkey and Sweden’s bid to join NATO and expressed their support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is outlawed in Turkey. The protesters, who carried PKK flags, rolled out a banner that stated: “We are all PKK.”

The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the European Union and countries such as the United States and Sweden. Nonetheless, Sweden has been a sanctuary for the PKK, and its cause has been endorsed by leading Swedish politicians. Before he became Sweden’s defense minister, Peter Hultqvist, who left office last October following national elections, participated in a “birthday celebration” of the PKK in 2011.

On Jan. 23, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lambasted Sweden, whose bid to join NATO has been blocked by Ankara, saying that the country should not expect any goodwill from Turkey as long as it fails to “show respect for the religious beliefs of Muslims and Turkish people,” allows the burning of the Quran, and lets “terrorist organizations run amok.” On Jan. 21, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar canceled the planned visit of his Swedish counterpart, Pal Jonson, on Jan. 27. The visit had become “meaningless” after “ugly actions” in Sweden, Akar said.

He was referring to events earlier in January, when left-wing activists from the Rojava Committee of Sweden hanged an effigy of Erdogan in front of the city hall in the Swedish capital of Stockholm. Then, on Jan. 21, Swedish authorities granted a far-right activist permission to hold a protest outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm, where he burned a copy of the Quran. Meanwhile, on the same day, left-wing activists mounted a protest against Turkey and Sweden’s bid to join NATO and expressed their support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is outlawed in Turkey. The protesters, who carried PKK flags, rolled out a banner that stated: “We are all PKK.”

The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the European Union and countries such as the United States and Sweden. Nonetheless, Sweden has been a sanctuary for the PKK, and its cause has been endorsed by leading Swedish politicians. Before he became Sweden’s defense minister, Peter Hultqvist, who left office last October following national elections, participated in a “birthday celebration” of the PKK in 2011.

Several other Swedish politicians, mostly but not only from the left, have similarly taken part in public events organized by PKK sympathizers. The former Social Democratic government of Sweden offered political and financial support to PKK-linked Kurdish groups in northern Syria—the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

To join NATO, Sweden has pledged to sever these ties and amend its laws to make PKK activities on its soil illegal. Indeed, the new conservative Swedish government has been eager to gain Turkey’s trust. It has publicly distanced itself from the PYD and YPG. Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson condemned the hanging of the Erdogan effigy as an “act of sabotage” against Sweden’s NATO bid. He also stated that the burning of the Quran was, although legal, “deeply disrespectful.”

Yet, as Erdogan’s statement makes clear, no Turkish government will ask the Turkish parliament to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership as long as anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim emotions run high in Sweden. While the Swedish government has lived up to its pledges to Turkey in the tripartite agreement that Sweden, Finland, and Turkey signed at the NATO summit in Madrid last June, it now needs to convince the Swedish public that meeting Turkey’s demands does not amount to surrendering to “fascism,” as leftists and liberals in Sweden protest, and to stem the rise of anti-Turkish opinion.

This, however, will not be easy, as other Western countries, in particular the United States, remain committed to the Kurdish militants with whom Sweden has severed ties. As Turkey sees it, the continued U.S. support for the PYD and YPG undermines the argument—which the Swedish government needs to make—that Sweden, by meeting Turkey’s demands, is joining other Western democracies in a united front against terrorism.

Turkey was bound to have issues with Sweden and its pro-Kurdish stance and singled out Sweden (not Finland, with which Turkey has no issue and would ratify were it to pursue the NATO process without Sweden) because of its long-standing commitment to Kurdish aspirations—but it is the continued U.S. support for Kurds in Syria that is Turkey’s main concern.


The fact that Sweden and Finland are the first Western nations to say the Kurdish groups that have carved out a self-governing territory in northern Syria are linked to the PKK and pose a security threat to Turkey represents a diplomatic gain for Ankara. But that was never going to be enough for Turkey. The issue is not what Sweden says or does but what the United States does or fails to do on the ground in Syria that is consequential for Turkey’s national security interests—and which will decide its position on the Nordic enlargement of NATO that the U.S. government is pushing for.

The United States arms and finances the PKK-linked Kurdish militants in Syria who have fought against the Islamic State. Their success against the Islamic State at a time when Turkey was not doing much to fight the terrorist group is one reason why the U.S. government relies on them. However, what represents a national security asset for the United States is something that Turkey considers an existential threat. The establishment of a Kurdish statelet adjacent to its long border with Syria has alerted the security bureaucracy in Ankara to the risk that Turkey could lose control over its own Kurdish region. U.S. backing of the Kurdish statelet has undermined Turkey’s faith in the United States, which has come to be seen by many Turks as a hostile power. It is partly in response to this perceived U.S. hostility that Turkey has developed its ties with Russia as a defensive measure.

Turkish democracy has also suffered. In 2015, Erdogan rescinded the peace deal that the Turkish government had reached with the Kurdish movement after two years of negotiations. Faced with the threat of an emboldened PKK, backed by the United States in Syria, Erdogan chose to embrace the hard-line policies that the military had been calling for and aligned with far-right nationalists.

Washington deems it crucial to preserve the alliance with the Kurdish groups in Syria. This alliance provides the U.S. military with a territorial foothold in Syria, a forward base that may prove useful in a future conflict with Iran. For this reason, the United States is unlikely to budge and accommodate Turkey.

The Biden administration may wager that Turkey will be swayed by the sale of F-16 fighter jets that Turkey badly needs to maintain its air force. Yet not only is the sale meeting stiff resistance in the U.S. Congress, but its realization would—at most—save the U.S.-Turkish relationship from collapse. For one, being allowed to buy the soon-outdated F-16 would not compensate for Turkey’s ejection from the F-35 combat aircraft project after its ill-advised purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system.

The Biden administration may also entertain the notion that it will be able to either pressure or cajole Turkey into accepting Sweden and Finland into NATO after the Turkish presidential election in May. It may hope that Erdogan, if he is reelected, will yield as he no longer will need to appear strong against the United States for electoral needs or, if he loses, that a new Turkish president will be eager to restore the relationship with Washington and do America’s bidding.

Yet this is an excessively optimistic view. It is a mistake to underestimate Turkey’s determination to exploit this opportunity to neutralize what it sees as the principal threat to its national security: the PKK and Kurdish groups with links to the PKK. It would also be a mistake not to appreciate that Turkey’s stance reflects the long-term strategic interests of the Turkish state, which is a broad, nonpartisan view unrelated to electoral concerns. Hence, it will not be affected, one way or the other, by the outcome of the upcoming presidential election.

Alternatively, the United States may opt to play Turkey, by holding forth the prospect of a changed U.S. policy toward the Syrian Kurds with no intention to honor such a pledge. This worked in 1980, when the United States succeeded in securing Turkey’s unconditional acquiescence to Greece’s return to NATO’s integrated military structure (which it had left in 1974). Then, NATO’s supreme allied commander, U.S. Gen. Bernard Rogers, gave the head of the Turkish military junta, Gen. Ahmet Kenan Evren, his word that Turkish military concerns in the Aegean Sea would be accommodated, a promise that was promptly disregarded by the socialist government that came to power in Greece in 1981, which refused to abide by the deal. Turkey is not going to repeat that mistake, Erdogan has assured voters.

Turkey will continue to veto Swedish accession (Finnish accession is only blocked at the moment because the application was made jointly) as long as its main concern has not been addressed—and pro-Kurdish left-wing and anti-Muslim right-wing activists in Sweden will keep providing Turkey with excuses for doing so. But Erdogan’s outrage about these incidents is a sideshow.

Quite simply, for Sweden to join NATO, the United States will have to cease financing and arming the PYD and YPG in Syria.

Unfortunately for Washington, U.S. strategic interests in Northern Europe and the Middle East cannot be reconciled. Washington will have to decide what it cares most about: the survival of the PKK-linked Syrian Kurdish statelet or a strengthened NATO with Sweden as a member. The Biden administration must acknowledge that it is the U.S. refusal to accommodate Turkey’s legitimate security interests that is jeopardizing the unity and strength of NATO.

But the Turkish government needs to recognize that the United States faces a strategic threat, too, and be prepared to help address it. For Washington to reconsider its support for the PYD and YPG, Turkey should demonstrate that it is willing to work with the United States in countering the Iran threat.

Regrettably, U.S. policy toward Turkey is colored by personal antipathies toward its president, which has put such a compromise out of reach. Yet the hard strategic interests of the United States and Turkey coincide to a much larger extent than appearances suggest. Turkey must be fully embraced as a Western ally if NATO is to stand strong and united from the Baltic to the Black Sea.



Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

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