Why is Turkey really accusing Sweden of 'supporting terrorists'?

Turkey could benefit a great deal from Sweden and Finland joining Nato, if it plays its cards right

Sweden has been supportive of the SDF, a Syrian militia Turkey views as an offshoot of the PKK, which is designated by many countries as a terrorist group. AFP
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The sharply increased security concerns of Russia’s neighbours in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine came to a head late last week when Finland and Sweden, following weeks of talks with US and European leaders, signalled that they would soon move to join Nato.

Then on Sunday, Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said their applications, which are expected this week, would be fast-tracked by the alliance.

That is assuming Turkey does not stand in the way. “Scandinavian countries are like guesthouses for terrorist organisations,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last Friday in Istanbul. “At this point, it’s impossible for us to be in favour.”

Nato expansion must be unanimous, so with its dissenting vote Ankara, which maintains the bloc’s second-largest army, could essentially cast a veto. This would be a sizeable gift for Moscow, which has vowed to retaliate should Sweden and Finland become members.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly pointed to Nato’s eastward expansion in the late 1990s and early 2000s – adding 10 countries, mainly from the Baltic and Balkans – as the impetus for his Ukraine invasion.

It seems unlikely Turkey would take this a step further and stand in opposition to all of its fellow Nato members

Even as Russia’s military aggression looks set to spur further Nato enlargement, Moscow’s stance remains that the bloc’s encroachment on its borders poses an existential threat and that taking control of Ukraine, or part of it, is needed to ensure its security.

On the weekend, soon after Ukraine’s military forced a Russian retreat from the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, Russia halted electricity exports to Finland, with which it shares an almost 1,400-kilometre border, and warned of a “military-technical” response still to come.

Over the past few months, Turkey’s longtime leader has endeavoured to support Kyiv militarily and maintain friendly ties with his Russian counterpart. It seems unlikely Turkey would now take this a step further and stand in direct opposition to all of its fellow Nato members – though it would not be the first time.

Ever the opportunist, Mr Erdogan is possibly looking to leverage his position to gain concessions.

In his remarks he referred to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in Turkey's south-east for decades and is labelled a terror group by the US and EU, as well as Turkey.

Sweden is generally supportive of its Kurdish immigrants and its government backs the US-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Turkey views as an offshoot of the PKK. In November, Kurdish communities in three Swedish cities held events marking 43 years since the birth of the PKK. The gatherings were organised by the KCK, a Kurdish solidarity group that adheres to the ideology of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan.

Sweden’s relatively friendly stance toward Kurdish separatists is in part an attempt to make up for a past blunder. After then prime minister Olof Palme was assassinated in 1986, authorities quickly blamed the PKK and proceeded to harass, detain and persecute Kurdish groups within Sweden and beyond. Turkey encouraged these efforts with semi-regular leaks in support of the PKK assassination theory, as in 1998 when a captured PKK leader reportedly blamed Ocalan for the killing. As recently as 2014, Sweden threatened to fine a Kurdish football club that expressed public support for Syrian Kurds.

But over the years Swedish prosecutors found the PKK theory less and less likely, and in mid-2020 they essentially cleared the PKK of involvement in Palme’s killing and pointed to a lone, middle-aged graphic designer as the likely assassin.

Soon after, a high-level Swedish delegation visited the SDF leadership in north-eastern Syria, much to Turkey’s chagrin. Then last year, Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist held a video call with SDF leader Mazloum Abdi and expressed his country’s long-term support of the group, which played a key role in the defeat of ISIS. In addition, five Swedish parliamentarians are of Kurdish origin.

Sweden is also known to harbour prominent followers of Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames for a failed 2016 coup. The Stockholm Centre for Freedom and the Nordic Research Monitoring Network – two well-known, Sweden-based outlets that mostly report on Ankara’s alleged rights abuses – are run by presumed Gulenists.

The follow-up comments of top government adviser Ibrahim Kalin on the weekend suggest Mr Erdogan is indeed doing a bit of arm-twisting in the hopes that Sweden ends its open support of PKK allies. On Monday, Sweden said it would send a delegation to Turkey for Nato-related talks.

Even so, Mr Erdogan might also be looking for a more enticing offer. One possibility is that Ankara is hoping for military concessions from the US, such as re-entry into Washington’s F-35 fighter jet production process or F-16 sales, or a major financial commitment from Europe.

As I detailed last week, Turkey is awash in anti-refugee anger this spring, as millions of Turks struggle to put food on the table and pay their bills.

The €6 billion ($6.25bn) the EU gave Ankara to take care of its 4 million Syrian refugees as part of their 2016 deal has now been spent, and Europe has expressed its willingness to renew. Ankara has begun building housing for 1 million Syrians in Turkish-controlled areas just across the border, but last week Mr Erdogan vowed that he would never forcibly send refugees back to their homeland.

This suggests that, despite the ground the opposition has gained in recent months by vowing to send refugees home, the ruling AKP may stick with its open-door, “champion of suffering Muslims everywhere” policy as election campaigns kick into gear.

Such a stance is likely to go down better with Turkish voters if the EU were to hand Ankara, say, $8bn in refugee funding, in exchange for Turkey accepting the Nato entry of “terrorist-supporting” Sweden and Finland. Unlikely, perhaps, but it’s within the realm of possibility.

The real question, however, might be whether Moscow would let that happen. Driven by self-interest and self-preservation, Turkey has smartly walked a geopolitical tightrope for years. But the moment it is finally forced to pick a side may be nigh.

Published: May 16, 2022, 8:01 AM