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[OPINION] Finnish and Swedish NATO applications a pretext for Erdoğan to target the US

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and US President Joe Biden stand together before a meeting about the Iranian nuclear program during the G20 Summit at the Roma Convention Center La Nuvola on October 31, 2021, in Rome, Italy. Brendan Smialowski / AFP

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Finland and Sweden on Wednesday formally applied for NATO membership, breaking decades of military non-alignment following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdoğan, leader of the country that has NATO’s second-largest army, has stated that Turkey will not agree to Finland and Sweden becoming NATO members. His claims these are countries that support terrorist organizations such as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), among other groups. It is, however, plausible that Erdoğan is simply using this as an opportunity to display anger towards US President Joe Biden, who has during his time in office only managed to displease the Erdoğan regime.

“Neither of these countries [Finland and Sweden] has a clear stance towards terrorist organizations. Sweden is already a hotbed of terrorist organizations. They are reportedly coming to Turkey on Monday. Are they coming to convince us? Excuse me, but there’s no need to bother. Above all, we can’t say ‘yes’ to the membership of those who impose sanctions on Turkey in NATO, which is a security organization,” Erdoğan said at a joint press conference with President Abdelmadjid Tebboune of Algeria on Monday.

Each one of NATO’s 30 member countries has a potential veto over who can join as the organization makes all its decisions by consensus, and Erdoğan has vowed to block them from becoming members.

Finland and Sweden have angered Turkey by firstly hosting members of Kurdish militant groups. Adding to this anger, Sweden has suspended arms sales to Turkey since 2019 over Ankara’s military operations in Syria.

Erdoğan has also repeatedly criticized these countries for hosting members of the Gülen movement, which he blames for a failed coup on July 15, 2016. Gülen followers deny any involvement in the coup attempt.

However, Erdoğan is well aware of the fact that these Nordic countries grant asylum to critical groups and individuals from all over the world and have no intention of specifically punishing Turkey.

Turkey is currently in the midst of a dire economic crisis, and Erdoğan is desperately seeking support from major economies.

Turkish media has often reported on major NATO members the United States, Germany, the UK and France providing sophisticated weapons to the PKK and its Syrian branch, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Erdoğan, however, hosted German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Ankara in March.

French President Emmanuel Macron was also seen with his hand on Erdoğan’s shoulder during a NATO summit in Brussels in March despite a recent Turkey-France standoff over oil and gas exploration in disputed eastern Mediterranean waters.

Erdoğan has also, in a surprising move, visited the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, countries he once accused of having financed the July 15 coup attempt.

Erdoğan is likely trying to attract the attention of the Biden administration by opposing Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership.

Ankara’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air defense system triggered US sanctions, and the US government removed Turkey from its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program in 2019, while Washington imposed sanctions targeting Turkey’s Presidency of the Defense Industry (SSB), its chairman and three senior officials in December 2020.

Erdoğan has on several occasions requested that President Biden lift all “unjust” sanctions on Turkey’s defense industry. But Biden excluded Turkey from the Summit for Democracy last December and is not pleased with the Erdoğan administration.

Turkey criticized the US government’s support for PKK-affiliated Kurdish groups in northern Syria and requested that Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, whose views inspired the Gülen movement, be extradited to Turkey. The US has been supporting the YPG, which fought against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and former president Donald Trump warned Turkey against targeting the YPG. Washington also rejected Turkey’s extradition request for Gülen. The US asserts that there is no concrete evidence to suggest that Gülen was behind the coup attempt and also strongly criticizes Turkey’s human rights record. Biden, who took office in January 2021, announced that he would be placing human rights at the center of his foreign policy. Erdoğan had managed to establish a better relationship with Trump, who has business interests in Turkey. It seems, however, that Biden does not want to work closely with the Erdoğan government.

Erdoğan has been trying hard to improve ties with the US, and Afghanistan was a good chance as the United States completed its withdrawal from the country in August of last year and the Taliban took the Afghan capital. Erdoğan proposed guarding the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul after the withdrawal of NATO during his first meeting with President Biden on the sidelines of a NATO summit in June. The Biden administration did not back a Turkish military presence in the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. “I worked well with George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, but I can’t say we started off well with Joe Biden. After 19 years in office, I can’t say that we have reached a good position with the US,” Erdoğan said while openly expressing dissatisfaction with the Biden administration following the meeting.

The increasing US military presence on Greece’s border with Turkey also angered Erdoğan, as he said in November of last year that “Greece, as a whole, has turned into a US military base.” Greece and Turkey are both NATO members, but the two countries have long been at odds over air and sea rights in the Aegean and in the oil and natural gas-rich eastern Mediterranean. “As you know Greece had left NATO. The administration of that time had ensured Greece’s rejoining NATO. Now, I ask my nation watching us at home: Do the preeminent countries within NATO provide Greece with all kinds of support? Yes, they do. Do they set up bases in Greece?” Erdoğan claimed, expressing frustration with NATO members’ support at the joint press conference with Tebboune.

Former foreign affairs spokesman and ambassador to the US Namık Tan revealed that Erdoğan’s real frustration lies not with Finland and Sweden but instead that this is the Turkish leader sending a warning to Washington. Biden’s welcoming of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to the White House on May 16 has likely only annoyed Erdoğan further.

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