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Erdogan’s high price for Sweden, Finland joining NATO  

The Turkish president senses an opportunity to finally settle scores regarding perceived previous slights by NATO powers. 
US President Joe Biden (C) welcomes Finnish President Sauli Niinisto (L) and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson.

Erdogan: Sweden, Finland are hotbeds of terrorism 

US President Joe Biden told Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto on May 19 at the White House that they have the "full, total, complete backing" of the United States in their bids for NATO membership.  

Nonetheless, as of this writing, the bids by Sweden and Finland are stuck.  

All NATO members must agree to expand the alliance.   

And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t agree.   

The statements by Swedish, Finnish, and American officials and diplomats this week contained the expected bromides that the Turkish concerns can be "resolved" in the flurry of meetings and calls underway with Turkish counterparts, as both Jared Szuba and Andrew Wilks report. 

But Erdogan’s own words, which matter most, make a resolution seem a long way off and will require a price as well as the settling of scores for perceived slights over Turkey’s concerns about terrorism. 

"These two countries, especially Sweden, they are a complete hotbed of terrorism," Erdogan said on May 19. "That’s why we are determined to continue this policy and say 'no' to Sweden and Finland joining NATO."

Turkey claims that both countries host Kurdish militants linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which both the United States and Turkey have designated as a terrorist group. 

Sweden and Finland have not agreed to the repatriation of 33 people who Turkey considers terrorists.  

"So you won't give us back terrorists but you ask us for NATO membership?" Erdogan said on May 18. "NATO expansion is only meaningful for us in proportion to the respect that will be shown to our sensitivities."

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on May 19, "This is an issue about concerns that Turkey has raised vis-a-vis Finland and Sweden. This is not a US issue other than it being a US issue in that we want to see it resolved in a way that brings these two members in the Alliance.  And we’re confident that is going to happen."

Erdogan has also expressed frustration that its concerns about Greece’s return to full NATO membership were ignored. 

“They are telling us, give us your demands of Sweden and Finland so we can request them in the future,” said Erdogan. “We experienced this with Greece. We are saying now that Sweden and Finland can’t pull the same trick on us. Why would we make such a grave error?”

The membership bids rekindle Erdogan’s frustration over differences with NATO allies over Turkey’s policies in Syria. Most didn’t support Turkey in its fight against Kurdish militant groups, including the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara also views as a terrorist group closely tied to the PKK.

Sweden and Finland joined others, including the United States, in banning arms exports to Turkey after it launched Operation Peace Spring, its military occupation of parts of northern Syria, working with its own Syrian proxy forces. 

Those who imposed such exports "need not bother to come" until the ban is lifted, said Erdogan. 

The real beef is with Sweden 

Amberin Zaman had the scoop that the diplomacy, especially between Turkey and Sweden, is in "crisis mode."

"Turkey’s real beef is with Sweden," writes Zaman, "a long-time sanctuary for Turkish dissidents of all stripes since 1980 when Turkey’s generals carried out their last hard coup."

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu referred to Sweden’s policies toward Turkey as "provocative" and singled out Sweden’s Foreign Minister Anna Linde for her "so-called feminist policy," reports Zaman, "an overt swipe at Linde’s overt embrace of the Syrian Kurdish leadership, which has strong female representation in keeping with [PKK leader Abdullah] Ocalan’s emphasis on gender equality."

Would US warplanes seal the deal? 

Erdogan’s hard line may be prelude to a deal, as some in Turkey may be wondering how long he can resist the pressure to go along with the NATO consensus.

"Analysts are also concerned that Erdogan has chosen a hazardous course when it is not clear what Turkey’s place will be in the new international order that shapes up following Russia's invasion of Ukraine," writes Semih Idiz.

"Many wonder why Erdogan upped the ante in such a public and abrasive manner when he is so likely to back down in the end in return for some palliative assurances from NATO that will fall far short of meeting his initial demands."

"Could Turkey get a grand bargain over Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership?" asks Barin Kayaoglu. "Such a scenario would involve lessened Western support for the PYD-PKK in exchange for Ankara easing up the pressure on the organization. Adding new weapons sales to Turkey into the mix probably would seal the deal. With some patience and recognition that politics and diplomacy are the art of the possible, the Erdogan government just might get what it wants from NATO."

While the White House signals that the issue is mostly between Turkey and the two aspirants, the path to a resolution still likely goes through Washington, as Erdogan seeks to rebuild ties with the Biden administration. 

"Although not openly linked to the NATO standoff by Turkish officials," writes Wilks, "Ankara may be attempting to use the issue to strengthen its hand in other areas. After it was kicked out of the US-led F-35 fighter jet program in 2019 over its acquisition of Russian-made air defense missiles, Turkey called for Washington to provide modernization kits for its F-16 fighter fleet as well as 40 of the latest version of the warplane."

"What we want from the US,” Cavusoglu said last week, is the removal of arms embargoes and ending support for the YPG in Syria, as Jared Szuba reports. 

"The US imposed limited sanctions on Ankara’s defense industry after Turkey obtained Russia’s S-400 air defense system in 2019," Szuba explains. "Cavusoglu further said his side has received positive signals from members of the US Congress about Ankara’s request to purchase a new batch of F-16 fighter jets and modernization kits. Turkey was expelled from the US F-35 stealth fighter jet program after its purchase of the S-400s, and the Biden administration has sought to compensate Ankara for its financial losses with new F-16s and upgrade to its existing fleet."

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