Sweden’s Accession to NATO is Still Blocked by Turkey

Turkey to Sweden – “Do as requested so we can hasten your NATO membership”
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson meet at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, November 8, 2022. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/PPO/Handout via REUTERS

On Tuesday, 8 November, the Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson traveled all the way to Turkey to meet with Turkish officials and President Tayyip Erdogan in bid to convince Turkey to allow Sweden to join NATO. The Turkish response was Sweden still has “many steps to take” to win their approval.

Sweden and Finland applied to join NATO earlier this year as a consequence of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Their application has already been approved by 28 of NATO’s 30 countries. The two member states who are still have not approved it are Hungary and Turkey. According to Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, things are looking optimistic in regards to Hungary and it expected approval of the two NATO applicants before end of this year.

The Swedish government decided to apply for NATO membership on 16 May 2022.  Subsequently, on 5 July 2022, all NATO member states signed the Accession Protocol for Sweden. With the war continuing in Ukraine, it was a given that the accession would be a speedy one.

To be part of the NATO family, the two Nordic countries would need unanimous approval from all existing NATO member states. However, one voice was still missing, namely, Turkey, which is a NATO member since 1952. The Turkish government was dragging its feet and there were no doubts that behind closed doors the U.S. and European officials became increasingly frustrated with what they saw as Turkish intransigence over an issue that should have been settled months ago. Turkey claimed the delay was due to Sweden and, to a lesser degree, Finland, for ignoring its security concerns.

 

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson meet at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, November 8, 2022. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/PPO/Handout via REUTERS

The ongoing Russian occupation of Ukraine, the raging war and its effect on Europe’s security as whole, did not seem to be a concern of the Turkish officials , whom still enjoys a close relationship with President Putin. The Turkish demands, all revolved around three pressing issues – the Kurds, Turkish dissidents living in Sweden and arms sales.

Turkish officials have a list of demands that Sweden must implement. One of the demands is the lifting of an arms sales embargo imposed on Turkey in 2019, following its military incursion into the Kurdish region of Syria against the “People’s Protection Units” known as YPG, an armed Syrian Kurdish group.

Sweden announced in September that it would lift the embargo, but the Turkish Foreign Minister Meylut Cavusoglu emphasized that Turkey wants irreversible guarantees. He said, “It's important that once these countries accede, no steps back are taken,” he said.

Sweden’s decision to remove restrictions on the defense industry was indeed praised by the Turkish parliament Speaker Mustafa Sentop, who held talks with the Swedish PM Kristersson on Tuesday, 8 November. However, Sentop said groups and individuals that Turkey considers to be terrorists were still able to conduct “propaganda, financing and recruitment activities” in Sweden and that “no progress has been made regarding our extradition requests.”  In a similar tone to Sentop, Cavusoglu said: “Both countries have taken a number of steps, but it is difficult to say that they have fulfilled their commitments at this stage.”

The other “commitments” Cavusoglu is talking about are the thornier disputes centered on Sweden’s embrace of the Kurds. Turkish complains that the Kurdish diaspora in Sweden is replete with links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Another “commitment” is cracking down on individuals Turkey considers to be a threat to its security. The individuals in question are exiled Turkish nationals, many of whom hold Swedish citizenship. These people include Kurdish separatists, Turkish journalists, human rights activists and advocates. Basically, individuals who have critical views on Erdogan’s government are the people Ankara wants to be extradited.

In October 2022, President Erdogan said: “As long as the terrorist organizations are demonstrating on the streets of Sweden, and as long as the terrorists are inside the Swedish parliament, there is not going to be a positive approach from Turkey towards Sweden.”

 

That comment was a seeming reference to Swedish member of the parliament Amineh Kakabaveh, a Kurd from Iran who was a member of a Kurdish militia as a teenager during 1980s when the Mullah regime engaged in a brutal crackdown on Kurds resulting in more than 10,000 Kurds in Iran being murdered. Kakabaveh fled to Sweden and eventually was elected to the Swedish parliament.

 

US President Joe Biden (C) welcomes Finnish President Sauli Niinisto (L) and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson to the White House in Washington, DC, on May 19, 2022. The US on May 18 gave its full support for Sweden and Finland's bids to join NATO, promising to stand by them if threatened by Russia and pressing Turkey to not block their membership. - MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

One of the claims laid against these individuals, especially ethnic Turks, is that they were involved in the failed 2016 coup in Turkey. The Turkish government at the time blamed Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric and businessman who has lived in exile in the U.S since 1999, for plotting the coup with his followers, who include army personnel, police, judiciary and other state institutions. The failed coup resulted in tens of thousands of arrests and at least 125,000 civil servants, military personnel, judges, journalists and teachers being sacked from their jobs for an alleged connection to the coup and Gulen.

Three years later, to be more precise, 21 August 2019, the Turkish Interior Minister Syleyman Soylu said that the United Stated was behind it, he claimed that the United States had managed the coup while Gulen’s people carried it out, adding: “It is blatantly clear the United States is behind July 15. It was Fethullah who carried it out upon their orders (…) and Europe was enthusiastic about it,” he said.

The U.S. State Department released a statement denying any U.S. involvement and repeatedly rejected Turkish demands for Gulen’s extradition, citing a lack of credible evidence from Turkey. Now the Turkish government seems to say that exiled Turks living in Sweden were involved in the failed coup.

Sweden’s Handling of the NATO Accession is Worrying and Acquiescent

The American government’s steadfast refusal to the extradition of Gulen and to bow to Turkish pressure is phenomenal compared to current Swedish government’s overtures to satisfy the Turkish requests

On 5 November, Sweden agreed to make more concessions. Sweden’s Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom announced that the Swedish government will distance itself from YPG as it tries to win Turkish approval.  Billstrom said, “There is too close a connection between these organisations and the PKK (...) for it to be good for the relationship between us and Turkey (…), the primary objective is Sweden’s membership in NATO.”

 

Banners displaying the NATO logo are placed at the entrance of new NATO headquarters during the move to the new building, in Brussels, Belgium April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Not long ago, Sweden, alongside the US and several NATO allies, supported the Syrian Kurdish YPG in the fight against Islamic State. The YPG is an armed militia that spearheaded the campaign against ISIS in Syria, after the Jihadi-terror group seized swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq in 2014, and led terror attacks throughout Europe. YPG received weapons and training from the US-led anti-Isis coalition, of which Swedish troops were part.

It is a small wonder that Morgan Johansson, a former Justice Minister, criticized Prime Minister Kristersson’s government’s handling of NATO accession process as “worrying and acquiescent.”  Johansson sent an email to Channel 4 News expressing his skepticism of the government's handling of the NATO process. He wrote: "The government's handling of the NATO process is both worrying and excruciating. First, this week's announcement about allowing nuclear weapons on Swedish soil, and now the distancing from the Kurds in Syria. Moreover, these controversial steps are taken without any contact with the opposition. Nothing has been anchored in the Riksdag [Swedish Parliament]. The government is acting completely arbitrarily in a way that violates Swedish foreign policy tradition. The YPG/PYD has played an important role in the fight against the terrorist sect IS, and has had strong support from the West, including the United States. The Kurds in Syria deserve a lot of credit for that. That the Swedish government now wants to distance itself from them is a betrayal.”

The news that Swedish government has decided to distance itself from Kurdish groups like YPG and Democratic Union party (PYD), provoked some very strong reactions among ordinary Swedes, politicians and Swedish media who printed strongly worded headlines: Aftonbladet, “Kristersson does not understand what Damage he is Causing.”

On 3 November, Ulrika Hyller, the head of the Swedish Journalists Union said “Turkey can’t be allowed to hold NATO membership hostage any longer.” She also called on the Kristersson government to take all the necessary measures to protect Turkish and Kurdish journalists living in Sweden.

Now, it is important to point out that Sweden is home to around 100,000 Kurds and hence there is widespread sympathy for the Kurdish cause in Sweden.

Majalla spoke to Kurdo Baksi, a Kurdish-Swedish journalist, author and social debater who has lived in Sweden for decades. Mr Baksi called Billstrom’s remarks disrespectful and shares with us his disappointment of the Swedish government’s decision to distance itself from YPG. He adds: “Given that at least 11,000 young Kurds sacrificed their lives for everyone’s safety, Billstrom’s statement feels unpleasant and borders on disrespect.”

 

Addressing the issue that YPG and PYD are just extensions of PKK according to the Turkish government, Baksi says it’s absurd and illogical, “PYD and YPG are independent units. They fight for human rights for Kurds, Arabs, Turkmans, Armenians and Christians living in Rojava, North East Syria. PKK is fighting especially in Turkey. I know 37 Kurdish parties in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. All the Kurdish parties have links to each other. It is normal.”

Baksi continued saying that “The new Swedish government is afraid of Putin and wants to be a member of NATO as soon as possible because historically the Swedes have a Russia-phobia. The last Swedish war was with Russia was in 1809. The current government believes that cutting ties with YPG and PYD will placate Erdogan and they will be a member of NATO in one second.”

Baksi explains to Majalla, that the current government is more nationalistic than previous governments as it gets its “main support from the racist Sweden Democrats, which is the second largest party in the Swedish parliament (…). The new government just looks after its own nationalistic interests and has abandoned Human Rights Values, just so it can gain NATO membership, it is terrible. But thank God, we have an independent judicial system in Sweden, and it’s not up to the Swedish government to deport journalists and opposition figures”.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson review a guard of honour during a welcome ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, November 8, 2022. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/PPO/Handout via REUTERS

Before ending the interview with Kurdo Baksi, Majalla asked, “Is the Swedish society supportive of Kurds?” Baksi replies with a lot of optimism: “Kurds have many friends all over the world, even in Sweden. The Kurdish proverb ‘No friends but the mountains’ is no longer applicable.”

The Swedish government might think that holding diplomatic press conferences in Stockholm and Ankara may further its goal of becoming a NATO member. But in reality, it will not happen until Turkey sees it security concerns addressed. Magnus Falkehed, the journalist from Expressen newspaper, writes will “Sweden join NATO in a couple of weeks or by next summer, or never?”  President Erdogan will defer making any decision until the Turkish general elections which will be held in June 2023. Erdogan needs to appear to his supporters as the tough-on-Kurds leader and try to win as many as possible of the Turkish nationalist voters who are deeply opposed to Kurdish independence.

Majalla, did contact Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson’s office for a comment but none was received.


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