For NATO, Turkey is a disruptive ally

WASHINGTON — When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened this month to block NATO membership for Finland and Sweden, Western ...

WASHINGTON — When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened this month to block NATO membership for Finland and Sweden, Western officials were infuriated — but not shocked.

Within an alliance that operates by consensus, the Turkish strongman has come to be seen as something of a heist artist. In 2009 he blocked Denmark’s appointment of a new NATO chief, complaining that the country was too tolerant of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and too sympathetic to Turkey-based “Kurdish terrorists”. It took hours of cajoling from Western leaders and a face-to-face promise from President Barack Obama that NATO would appoint a Turk to a leadership position to satisfy Mr. Erdogan.

After relations between Turkey and Israel broke down the following year, Erdogan barred the alliance from working with the Jewish state for six years. A few years later, Mr Erdogan delayed for months a NATO plan to fortify Eastern European countries against Russia, again quoting Kurdish militants and demanding that the alliance declare that those operating in Syria are terrorists. In 2020, Mr Erdogan sent a gas exploration vessel backed by fighter jets near Greek waters, forcing France to send ships in support of Greece, also a NATO member.

Today, the Turkish leader returns to his role as an obstructionist and invokes the Kurds again, accusing Sweden and Finland of sympathizing with the Kurdish militants whom he has made his main enemy.

“These countries have almost become havens for terrorist organizations,” he said this month. “It is not possible for us to be in favor.”

Mr. Erdogan’s position recalls a long-standing problem for NATO, which currently has 30 members. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have given the alliance a new sense of mission, but NATO still faces an authoritarian leader willing to use his influence to gain political points at home by blocking the consensus – at least for a time.

This is a situation that plays to the advantage of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who has become closer to Mr. Erdogan in recent years. For the Russian leader, the rejection of the admission of Sweden and Finland into NATO would be an important victory.

The dilemma would be simpler without Turkey’s importance to the alliance. The country joined NATO in 1952 after aligning itself with the West against the Soviet Union; Turkey gives the alliance a crucial strategic position at the intersection of Europe and Asia, straddling the Middle East and the Black Sea. It is home to a major US air base where US nuclear weapons are stored, and Mr Erdogan has blocked Russian warships heading for Ukraine.

But under Mr. Erdogan, Turkey has increasingly become a problem to manage. As prime minister and then as president, he estranged his country from Europe while practicing authoritarian and populist Islamist politics, especially since a failed coup attempt in 2016.

He bought an advanced missile system from Russia that NATO officials say poses a threat to their integrated defense systems, and in 2019 he mounted a military incursion to fight Kurds in northern Syria who were helping to fight against the Islamic State with the support of the United States.

“In my four years there, it was quite often 27 to one,” said Ivo H. Daalder, US ambassador to NATO during the Obama administration, when the alliance had 28 members.

Mr. Erdogan’s objections to Swedish and Finnish membership have even renewed the question of whether NATO would be better off without Turkey.

A opinion writing this month which was co-authored by Joseph I. Lieberman, a former independent US senator from Connecticut, argued that Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey would frustrate alliance standards for democratic governance in the new potential member states. The essay, published by the Wall Street Journal, warned that Ankara’s policies, including complicity with Mr Putin, had undermined NATO interests and that the alliance should explore ways to eject the Turkey.

“Turkey is a member of NATO, but under Mr. Erdogan it no longer subscribes to the values ​​that underpin this great alliance,” Mr. Lieberman and Mark D. Wallace, the director general of the Turkish Democracy Project, wrote. a group critical of Mr. Erdogan.

Some members of Congress have said so. “Turkey under Erdogan should not and cannot be considered an ally,” Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after Turkey’s foray into Syria in 2019.

But NATO is a military alliance, and Turkey, with the organization’s second-largest army, an advanced defense industry and its crucial geographical position, plays a vital role.

Western officials say Turkey would only cause more problems as a resentful NATO outsider – and who could align itself more closely with Russia.

“Turkey has undermined its own image,” said Alper Coskun, a former Turkish diplomat who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But, he added, “it’s still a core member of the alliance.”

Again, the question is what will appease Mr. Erdogan and ensure his support for the admission of Sweden and Finland.

President Biden underlined the support of the United States for this decision when he welcomed the leaders of the two nations in the White House this month and hailed an enlarged NATO as a check on Russian power. “Biden took an extremely exposed, high-profile stance by inviting them to Washington,” said James F. Jeffrey, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey during the Obama administration.

Most analysts believe Mr Erdogan will not ultimately block Sweden and Finland from joining, but wants to highlight Turkey’s own security concerns and make domestic political gains ahead of the election in his country next year.

Mr Erdogan is primarily concerned about Sweden’s longstanding support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which seeks to create an independent Kurdish state in territory partly within Turkey’s borders.

The PKK, which has attacked non-military targets and killed civilians in Turkey, is banned in that country and is designated by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization, although some governments, including Sweden, view more favorably as a Kurdish organization. nationalist movement.

The United States has also backed its affiliated fighters in Syria, the YPG, or People’s Protection Units, which have helped fight Islamic State and which Erdogan attacked during his foray into the country in 2019.

The Turkish president wants the YPG to be designated as a terrorist group as well.

Mr Erdogan accuses both Finland and Sweden of harboring supporters of Fethullah Gulena Turkish cleric living in exile in the United States, whom he blames for the 2016 coup. Turkey is seeking the extradition of around 35 people it says are linked to Kurdish separatists or Mr. Gulen.

Mr Erdogan also opposes the Swedish and Finnish arms embargoes against his country, which were imposed after the 2019 incursion into Syria. Sweden is already discussing lifting the embargo given the current events in Ukraine.

Some analysts say Mr Erdogan’s government sees the PKK as Washington saw al-Qaeda 20 years ago, and the West cannot brush aside concerns if it hopes to do business with Turkey.

Biden administration officials play down the standoff and expect Erdogan to reach a compromise with Finland and Sweden. Turkish officials met in Ankara with their Finnish and Swedish counterparts for several hours last week.

Julianne Smith, the US Ambassador to NATO, said in an interview that “it seems to be a problem they have with Sweden and Finland, so we’ll leave it in their hands.” She added that the United States would provide assistance if needed.

During an appearance in Washington on Friday with Finland’s foreign minister, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said he was “confident that we will get to this process quickly and things will move forward with both countries.”

Emre Peker, London-based director for Europe at Eurasia Group, a private consultancy, said he did not believe Mr Erdogan was looking for concessions in Washington. He said he was confident that Turkey could reach an agreement with Sweden and Finland with the mediation of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

Erdogan’s top priorities are to voice his country’s security concerns about Kurdish separatists and lift arms embargoes, Peker said.

Some US analysts are skeptical. Eric S. Edelman, former US ambassador to Turkey and Finland, has warned that Mr Erdogan may seek to curry favor with Mr Putin – or at least assuage anger in Moscow over the sale of deadly drones to the Ukrainian army by a private. Turkish society.

“He has this very complicated relationship with Putin that he has to have,” Mr Edelman said. “It’s a good way to throw Putin a little bone – ‘I’m still useful to you. “”

Others think the Turkish leader wants a reward from Washington. Mr Erdogan is angry that the United States denied Turkey access to the F-35 stealth fighter after its 2017 purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system. Turkey is now pushing to buy upgraded F-16 fighters, but has faced stiff resistance in Congress from figures like Mr. Menendez.

Mr. Erdogan could also seek presidential attention. He had friendly relations with President Donald J. Trump, but Mr. Biden kept his distance.

“He’s a man who needs to be center stage,” said Mr. Daalder, the former US ambassador to NATO. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Hey, I’m still here. You must pay attention to my problems.

Mr Peker believes that an agreement can be negotiated between Turkey and the Nordic countries before a NATO summit in Madrid next month, which would allow the signing of the accession protocols there.

More likely, some analysts say, Mr Biden will have to nod to Mr Erdogan in Madrid to secure his assent, as Mr Obama had to do at a NATO summit in 2009 to secure the nomination. of Anders Fogh Rasmussen as secretary. general.

To a conference organized by the Council on Foreign Relations last week, Representative Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, suggested that the Swedish and Finnish membership stakes were high enough to warrant direct US involvement.

“We have to sit down and we have to make a deal,” Mr Smith said. “And we have to be aggressive about it, like now.”

Michael Crowley reported from Washington, and Steven Erlanger from Brussels. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

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Newsrust - US Top News: For NATO, Turkey is a disruptive ally
For NATO, Turkey is a disruptive ally
Newsrust - US Top News
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