A triumphant Erdogan could make Turkey a much more demanding Nato member

Ankara is seeking concessions in exchange for withdrawing its objection to Sweden joining the alliance, but the latter has alternatives

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar in the divided capital Nicosia, Cyprus, earlier this month. AP Photo
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Turkey has been sending mixed messages lately, which some might see as a blatant attempt to appeal to all. But Ankara’s desire for policy independence has long been about being able to offer come-hither looks internationally while maintaining a more defensive domestic posture.

On the sidelines of a Nato defence ministers summit last week, the Greek and Turkish defence ministers held talks and agreed to co-operate “based on good neighbourly relations and friendship”, which is a sizable step forward given the recent bilateral history.

Yet this came a day after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced Greek weapons purchases from the US, adding that Ankara’s objective is to “contain our adversaries”. Two days prior, Mr Erdogan visited Nicosia and said the resumption of Cyprus talks will depend on Europe’s recognition of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognised only by Turkey.

In a speech to European Parliament the next day, Republic of Cyprus’s President Nikos Christodoulides described Turkey as a “spoiler” and denounced Ankara’s efforts to pressure Europe by enabling migrant crossings. Neither side seems very neighbourly of late.

In a show of warming relations with Turkey’s other longtime rival, Mr Erdogan at his inauguration shook hands and chatted with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. But the following week, he visited Baku to hail close ties with “sister nation” Azerbaijan and back President Ilham Aliyev on the swift completion of the Zangezur Corridor. As I previously detailed, Armenia has rejected their vision for a rail line through its territory.

Ankara’s desire for policy independence has long been about being able to offer come-hither looks internationally while maintaining a more defensive domestic posture

In a third diplomatic track, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan met US Ambassador Jeff Flake in Ankara on Friday to discuss Turkey's possible approval of Sweden's Nato membership. Mr Erdogan chatted with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on the weekend, vowing to boost EU-Turkey co-operation. And as the lira continued its years-long slide, the appointment of Hafize Gaye Erkan, former managing director at Goldman Sachs, as central bank governor suggested a pivot toward a more orthodox, West-friendly policy.

Yet Turkey’s state-run TRT and pro-government outlets appeal to Mr Erdogan’s conservative base by denouncing America’s embrace of its LGBTQ community, part of a broader Pride Month campaign that includes banning parades and other related events.

There’s more. A new TRT series portrays an Osman Kavala-like figure colluding with Americans to overthrow the Turkish government via mass protests. And Ankara last week levied questionable new fraud charges against Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, who now faces up to seven years in prison with municipal elections looming in March.

As Turkey talks of accommodating western allies, these moves seem to contradict liberal democratic values and the rule of law – particularly given that the Council of Europe has launched infringement proceedings against Turkey for its refusal to release Kavala.

Even as Ankara is in heated talks with Nato allies about approving Sweden’s membership, it reportedly plans to welcome Russian President Vladimir Putin soon. Of course, Ukraine is also waist-deep in talks to join Nato, possibly on an accelerated timetable.

Turkey has long been a crucial Nato member, covering the alliance’s south-eastern flank, but its geographical proximity and Black Sea access have made it even more important as the Russia-Ukraine war has continued. Ankara’s stated reason for opposing Sweden’s membership is that it would like Stockholm to extradite more alleged terrorists and crack down on terror-friendly protests.

Yet it’s likely to seek to leverage Nato’s hope of welcoming Sweden at the upcoming Vilnius summit into further concessions. Reports suggest Washington has already agreed to sell Ankara F-16s in exchange for its acquiescence on Sweden. Ankara may now be hoping for TRNC recognition or, as Ukraine’s offensive retakes bits of territory, resumption of peace talks.

The latter may be a non-starter, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Friday rejected African leaders’ plan for renewed talks, which was presented as Russia fired a volley of missiles at Kyiv. Mr Fidan met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday on the sidelines of a Ukraine recovery conference under way in London, where they reportedly discussed Nato’s expansion, among other things.

Eastern Mediterranean issues might also loom large. Last week’s Nato defence ministers summit ended with no approval of the alliance’s new regional security plan – its first in nearly four decades. One diplomat who attended told a top western news outlet that Turkey had blocked approval out of concern for the wording used for some geographical locations.

Regional nomenclature has recently emerged as a point of contention with Greece (Turkaegean, anyone?), but one wonders if Ankara, now holding up two Nato confirmations, is hoping for a hint of TRNC acceptance. Might there be a way for Nato to acknowledge the existence of TRNC without its member states officially recognising the territory? Turkey may be angling for a positive gesture like a mention on a map or internal security document.

There is some urgency, as Israeli, Greek and Cypriot officials are meeting in Nicosia this week to deepen co-operation in trade and tourism and, more importantly, military and energy concerns. It was not for nothing that Mr Erdogan chose Cyprus as his first international destination after re-election, underscoring Ankara’s desire to secure a seat at the table.

At the July 11-12 Vilnius summit, Nato still aims to introduce its new regional security plan and welcome Sweden as its newest member. If that does happen, Turkey might come away with its long-awaited F-16s, a stronger two-state case for Cyprus, and a renewed commitment to the Nato alliance.

Or Nato could take an alternative path. A prominent British analyst last week outlined how Nato could deny Turkey’s requests, set aside formal admission for Sweden, and instead set up logistical and strategic mechanisms of co-operation to the point that Sweden is made a de facto member of the alliance.

Independence can cut both ways.

Published: June 22, 2023, 5:00 AM