Turkey may blackmail NATO to prevent Finland, Sweden from joining - analysis

Finland and Sweden have not joined NATO in the past, but Russia's invasion of Ukraine has led them to consider it.

 Ibrahim Kalin, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's spokesman and chief foreign policy adviser, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Istanbul, Turkey May 14, 2022.  (photo credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)
Ibrahim Kalin, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's spokesman and chief foreign policy adviser, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Istanbul, Turkey May 14, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)

Turkey’s far-right ruling AKP party is looking to use Ankara’s NATO membership to blackmail the defensive pact into catering to Ankara’s orders. Turkey has long used its membership of NATO as a blank check for human-rights abuses and invasions, often running counter to the values of NATO.

For instance, Turkey is the world’s worst jailer of journalists and has ethnically cleansed Kurdish and other minorities from illegally occupied Afrin, an area of Syria it took over in 2018. Turkey also backs Hamas, a terrorist organization.

However, Turkey now believes it can use its NATO membership to prevent Finland and Sweden from joining, potentially weakening the alliance at a crucial time as Russia has invaded Ukraine.

Russia’s threats have caused Finland and Sweden to rush into NATO’s arms. Previously reticent about joining a military alliance, the two countries are now worried about Russia’s bullying and threats.

Turkey, which also bullies and threatens its neighbors and other NATO countries, such as Greece, tends to side with Russia. While Turkey did sell drones to Ukraine, it also buys the S-400 system from Russia and is not keen on sanctioning Russian oligarchs or companies. Turkey is thus a key partner of Moscow, part of its larger alliance with authoritarian regimes in the world. Ankara has worked with Iran to get around sanctions in the past, for instance.

 NATO Defence Ministers meeting in Brussels (credit: REUTERS/Johanna Geron) NATO Defence Ministers meeting in Brussels (credit: REUTERS/Johanna Geron)

Most of this policy is an outgrowth of the far-right regime in Ankara. In the decades before the AKP, Turkey was more of a NATO ally. However, Turkey historically has always used its NATO membership to justify abuses of human rights at home, often targeting Kurds.

Last week, Turkey’s foreign minister said Sweden and Finland must “stop supporting terrorists in their countries, provide clear security guarantees and lift export bans on Turkey as they seek membership in NATO,” Reuters reported. This is harsh language from Ankara. It is also an ironic claim, considering how Ankara backs Hamas and extremists in Syria.

In recent months, Turkey has been on a charm offensive to try to convince pro-Israel voices in the US that Ankara can work with Israel toward reconciliation. This comes after years of Ankara’s incitement in which it vowed to “liberate” al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem and compared Israel to Nazi Germany.

Now, Ankara, knowing that the US and the West are tired of its extremism and antics, is pretending to be friends with Israel. This is part of an antisemitic trend that is common among the Muslim Brotherhood in which Israel and Jews are seen as a way to influence Washington, with the logic being that working with Israel is a way to get favors in the US administration.

While groups such as Hamas use this theory to spread classic Protocols of the Elders of Zion-style conspiracy, the right-wing pro-government media in Turkey has in the past put out “lists” of Jews in the Biden administration as a way to claim that Jews have outsized influence in the US. Ankara seeks to use this to its benefit.

Ankara’s ruling party was close to the Trump administration. But its backing for Hamas tended to anger some in the Trump White House. Turkey turned to its powerful DC-based lobby to try to get the US to leave Syria. When the US didn’t agree, Turkey invaded Afrin in 2018 and other areas in 2019. When Joe Biden came to power, the Ankara regime threatened more invasions.

The US recently said it would be flexible regarding investment in eastern Syria, the area the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces control. This is also the area where Kurds live. Ankara has in the past vowed to ethnically cleanse all the Kurdish areas along the border to create a “buffer zone” and then resettle the area with Arab Syrian refugees that Ankara has hosted. The goal is to forever change the demographics of Syria, much as Ankara has sought to do in the Sinjar area of Iraq.

In addition, the US Embassy in Syria, which is not actually located in Syria these days, has condemned recent attacks in Syria, apparently a reference to Turkey shelling civilians and backing extremists.

“We are deeply concerned by the recent cross-border attacks from Syria and Turkey and reports of indiscriminate firing on civilian areas,” the US Embassy said. “We call on all parties to de-escalate and support regional stability.”

Turkey now sees a chance to get its Syrian policy back into play. It will use Finland’s and Sweden’s desire for membership to try to wring concessions from the US, EU and NATO. Ankara may ask for a new blank check of invasion and shelling in eastern Syria. It may demand that Kurdish activists and dissidents be deported from Sweden.

Finland wants to join NATO, which means Turkey’s actions could anger the US. The West cares more about Ukraine than Turkey. Turkey may find it has angered Washington one too many times. It will reach out to pro-Israel voices in the US to try one more time to influence the US administration, but it may find that even those voices have less influence in the past and that Ankara’s lobby and the think tanks it funds in the US don’t have that much influence.

This matters because Turkey is using its membership of NATO to undermine NATO while it accuses peaceful European countries of backing “terrorists.” This is the ultimate irony since Ankara has backed extremists.

In addition, it likely foreshadows how Ankara will one day turn against Israel again. Turkey is always willing to use NATO membership to undermine regional security and threaten democracies. Israel, a democracy, could find itself in the crosshairs after Finland and Sweden.