by Antonio Michele Storto
While it is now clear that 2024 will be the year Sweden becomes NATO’s 32nd member, it is far from certain when this will happen. The main stumbling block – apart from Hungary’s wait-and-see attitude – is still the veto Ankara imposed a year and a half ago, determined to play every last card in a series of dossiers it considers indispensable. The Turkish Foreign Affairs Commission gave the green light to Sweden’s membership just after Christmas, but president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made it clear that the plenary vote and subsequent signature needed to complete the game will not come cheap.
At issue – the latest in a long series – is the delivery of forty F-16 ‘Block 70’ jets that Turkey has been requesting from Washington for over a year, together with the 80 kits needed to modernise the aircraft already in its air force’s possession. At the end of December, Erdogan reiterated his dissatisfaction with the timetable put forward by his US counterpart Joe Biden, who promised that the provision would only be approved in Congress once the Turkish veto was fully lifted. “If for him (Biden, ed.) it is Congress, for us it is Parliament that has to decide,” repeated the irritated Turkish President, who wants to reverse the timing of what is actually a barter deal: first the military delivery, immediately after Turkey ratifies Sweden’s NATO membership.
On the negotiating table is once again the future of that galaxy of left-wing Kurdish acronyms, which – between northern Syria and Iraq – are linked by a network of political-military ties to the PKK guerrillas, sworn enemies that Ankara openly wants to destroy. And it is not difficult to predict that the new jets will target Rojava (in Syria) and the mountainous region of Qandil (in Iraq), the two regions bordering southern Turkey that have been involved in Kurdish-led experiments in self-government for more than a decade (three in the case of Iraq).
Since last September, the Turkish Air Force’s bombing campaign against Rojava has taken a dramatic new turn: between Christmas and Boxing Day alone, 48 attacks – practically one every hour – hit energy, agricultural and health infrastructures, killing eight civilians and injuring several others. This is one of the reasons why a handful of US congressmen vetoed the sale of the F-16s, as the Kurdish guerrillas remain Washington’s main allies in the fight against Islamic State in northern Syria. At the beginning of October, the Pentagon was forced to report that it had shot down – in an episode described as “regrettable” – a Turkish armed drone that was continuing to attack Kurdish forces in the area less than 500 metres from the US base, ignoring its repeated requests to stop.
“In reality,” says Alessandro Politi, analyst and director of the NATO Defense College Foundation, “these differences of position between Turkey and the United States can be traced back to around the 1990s: it is a tangle of diverging strategic interests and frictions related precisely to arms transfers. Turkish officials have always complained of unequal treatment compared to other NATO allies, such as Greece. There is therefore a substratum to which these additional tensions are added. Indeed, a section of the US Congress is now hostile to the idea of providing Ankara with more weapons, seeing it as a less reliable ally than in the past. And it is noteworthy that some influential US think tanks have publicly speculated on how Turkey’s expulsion from NATO could theoretically be considered”.
Indeed, Ankara’s alignment with NATO’s interests has repeatedly been conditioned by a series of foreign policy diktats: Sweden and Finland’s application for membership was the occasion to settle a series of bilateral disputes, much of it revolving around the age-old ‘Kurdish problem’.
Since the spring of 2022, Stockholm, accused of becoming a free port for anti-Turkish terrorists and conspirators, has been asked by the Turkish Government to extradite dozens of refugees who it believes are largely linked to Kurdish insurgency or the network of the exiled political-religious leader Fetullah Gulen. They include prominent members of Swedish society such as Amineh Kakabaveh, a Kurdish-Iranian who spent her teenage years in the ranks of the paramilitary Komala and has been a refugee in Sweden since the age of 19. Or Bülent Keneş, former editor-in-chief of Zaman, a daily linked to the Gulenist movement, whose many journalists were forced to emigrate after the failed Coup in 2016.
The overwhelming majority of these requests were rejected by the Swedish Supreme Court, but last spring Stockholm finally gave in on the legislative front, passing an anti-terrorism law that drastically expands the offence of complicity to include those who provide food, shelter, babysitting, car rides and various other forms of support to people believed to be members of terrorist organisations. This law was followed by the lifting of the embargo that Sweden had imposed about arms produced by Turkish companies: in theory, this was the last obstacle to be overcome before Ankara decided to use the dossier to settle a final score with the United States as well.
“In reality,” predicts Politi, “it is reasonable to believe that Ankara and Washington will manage to come closer this time too. With its management of the maritime straits, its policies in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and on the borders with Syria and Iraq, Turkey is only asserting its national interests: it has done so in the Ukrainian and Syrian wars, in the migration crises and on numerous other tables. Today – continue the director of the NATO Defense College Foundation – it is unthinkable that NATO or the United States could give it the cold shoulder. Therefore, The Kurds will be forced to keep a close eye on events. In the best-case scenario, especially if the issue is resolved by next November, they may be able to hope to wring out some guarantees with US mediation. If not, they risk being left to their own devices once again.”
On the cover photos, flags of Sweden, NATO and Turkey ©Vitalii Vodolazskyi/Shutterstock.com