NATO expansion reaches 3-way standoff between Sweden, Turkey, US

ISTANBUL — Sweden’s pending NATO membership appears to be stuck between the uncompromising positions of Ankara, Stockholm and Washington, according to experts and Turkish bureaucratic sources.

As Ankara continues to stick to its guns on the Nordic nation’s bid to join the Atlantic alliance, it’s unclear whether Sweden will become a NATO member in line with Washington’s and the majority of the bloc’s members’ expectations before the alliance’s annual summit in the Lithuanian capital on July 11-12.

Neutral in world affairs since 1815, Sweden applied to join NATO along with its eastern neighbor, Finland, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. Before Stockholm and Helsinki filed their applications in May 2022, many observers expected that the two nations would see a swift acceptance into the alliance. However, there was opposition from Turkey. Ankara has claimed that the two countries — particularly Sweden — are harboring members, recruiters and fundraisers of what it deems terror groups. In addition to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which remains on the terror lists of many European countries and the United States, these groups include the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (PYD), the main US ally in the anti-Islamic State coalition in Syria, as well as the followers of the US-based Sunni preacher Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is accused of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.

After lifting a de facto defense sales embargo against the country — one of a series of demands tabled by Ankara in return for the Nordic expansion of the alliance — Finland became a member in early April. However, Hungary and Turkey are still dragging their feet in a process that requires consensus among all NATO member states.

The Swedish side finds Turkey’s expectations impossible to meet and feels they go beyond a deal that Sweden and Finland had made with Turkey at NATO’s Madrid summit last year under which the Nordic nations pledged to address Ankara’s security concerns. In line with the deal, Sweden passed a new counterterrorism law and amended its constitution and recently cut off its aid to the PYD

Erdogan and his government, in turn, deem demonstrations in Sweden by Kurdish activists as support for the Kurdish groups. Ankara also expects that Sweden should extradite PKK members and Gulenists to Turkey, an unlikely prospect given the state of Turkish rule of law.

According to Paul Levin, the director of the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies, the prospects of Sweden joining the alliance before the annual summit are dim. “The chances of a Swedish membership by Vilnius just got a lot smaller with Erdogan’s recent statement. Sweden is unlikely to change its long tradition of liberal freedom of speech protections,” Levin told Al-Monitor. “So my guess is that it is now largely a question of whether negotiations over F-16s between Ankara and the US Congress can reach a successful conclusion. Congress wants Turkey to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership before approving the sales. Ankara wants the jets before letting Sweden in.”

The United States barred Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program in response to its acquisition of the Russian-made S-400 defense system. In a bid to maintain Turkish air force operations, Turkey announced its intention to use the $1.4 billion Turkey that had given to the United States for the F-35s to purchase upgraded models of F-16s in late 2021. When the issue of Swedish membership in NATO came up in 2022, Congress added Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s bid as a condition for the sale of the F-16s.

The Turkish side finds the precondition unacceptable. A senior official in the Turkish foreign and security policy bureaucracy, who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, reiterated Ankara’s argument that Stockholm did not fulfilled the promises it had made at NATO’s Madrid summit last year including extraditions of alleged PKK members and Gulenists and restriction of their activities in Sweden.

“Linking Sweden’s NATO bid with the success of the Vilnius Summit or Turkey’s bid for F-16s is both unfair and irrelevant,” said the official, adding that despite public impressions, Ankara wishes to see Sweden as a NATO ally sooner rather than later. “We do not agree with the conviction that Sweden has already done what it must. They are making progress. They are on the right track. But they are not there yet. This is not a simple issue of some demonstrators with flags on the streets of Stockholm.”

All three parties have a good reason to hold their positions. 

For the Swedes, there is clearly a point beyond which they could not accommodate the Turks without compromising their own democratic and legal values. The Swedish authorities can’t also afford to risk the country’s domestic security by going after the members of the PYD, the PKK or Gulenists. 

Furthermore, given how the war against Ukraine has weakened Russia and how Finland has already assumed the role of bulwark against Moscow by joining the alliance, Sweden’s sense of urgency to join may dissipate.

For the Turkish side, ratifying Sweden’s application will not a guaranteed way to prevent the US Congress from imposing new conditions regarding the F-16 sale.  Some members of Congress are already pressing for more by demanding Ankara restrict its military activities in the Aegean Sea over contested territorial claims between Turkey and Greece. There is an additional risk of the US Congress imposing new sanctions on Turkey even after the approval of the sale.

For the US side, the concern is what would happen if the administration and Congress approve the F-16 sales to Turkey but Ankara fails to approve Swedish accession. 

Yet the wars in Ukraine and Syria have proven one thing: Having Turkey on one’s side — even if only partially — is much better than facing off against it.

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