US may have solution to Turkey's opposition to Swedish NATO bid

By Dorian Jones - RFI
Turkey  Press Office of the Presidency of Turkey  AFP
JUL 9, 2023 LISTEN
© Press Office of the Presidency of Turkey / AFP

With Nato leaders due to gather in Vilnius Tuesday for a two day summit, Sweden's membership bid hangs in the balance. Turkish President Recep Erdogan, outraged by the burning of a Koran outside a Stockholm mosque, is resisting international pressure over his opposition to Sweden's bid. The Turkish leader is emboldened by his May election victory, but Washington may hold the key to resolving the impasse.

Last month's public burning of a Koran by protesters outside a Stockholm mosque is the latest obstacle to Sweden's NATO bid. Erdogan slammed the Koran burning and warned  that he would resist pressure over his opposition to Sweden's membership aspiration.

'Provocation and threats'
"I clearly want it to be known that, as Turkey, we will not bow down to the politics of provocation and threats," bellowed Erdogan in a national TV address.

"We will teach the arrogant Western people that it is not freedom of expression to insult the sacred values of Muslims."

Erdogan's May election victory was on a platform of standing up to Turkey's Western allies, likely hardening his negotiating stance with his NATO partners.

"We are likely to see more of the same. President Erdogan, has been emboldened by the vote, having five years of no elections," Asli Aydintasbas, a visiting fellow of the Brookings Institution in Washington, said."Then possibly the price going up in terms of Turkey ratifying Sweden's NATO membership."

Erdogan is calling on Stockholm to ban public displays of support for the Kurdish separatist group the PKK. The group has waged an insurgency against Turkey for four decades and is designated by both the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization. Ankara also wants Sweden to extradite its members to Turkey. But Stockholm insists they've now met Ankara's security demands.

"Sweden is no safe haven for terrorism. We are no safe haven for PKK," said Sweden's chief negotiator, Oscar Stenstrom.

Sweden, PKK and NATO
"We have stepped up our cooperation between our police agencies, the police, and the security service, together with the Turkish counterparts to be much more effective," added Stenstrom.

But Erdogan dismissed such claims and demanded a crackdown by Swedish authorities on PKK activities.

On Thursday, a Swedish court found a man guilty of extorting money on behalf of the PKK. At the same time, Swedish and Turkish diplomats met Thursday with NATO representatives to resolve the impasse. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said progress had been made but that there was still no breakthrough.

US solution
Turkey's aging fleet of American-made F16 fighter jets could be key to resolving the impasse. Turkey wants Washington to approve the sale of new F-16 fighter jets and modernization kits.

"At the end of the day, probably, there will be a common understanding that America will provide the F-16 modernization process as well as the new F-16s,"  Huseyin Bagci, head of the Foreign Policy Institute, an Ankara-based research organization.

"And Turkey, I do not think that Turkey will be willing to stop the NATO's enlargement process," added Bagci. "But at the moment, the more the Swedish membership is postponed, the better for Russia."

President Biden is now voicing support for the Turkish fighter sale. But there could be other obstacles. Erdogan is looking for an invitation to Washington as the price for lifting his veto on Sweden's NATO membership bid,  claims International Relations professor Serhat Guvenc at Istanbul Kadir Has University.

"Erdogan has been in power for more than twenty years, and Biden is the only US president who has refused to meet him in an official capacity, either in the US capital or in the Turkish capital. So probably one of the priorities of Erdogan will be to put an end to this isolation or exclusion from Washington, DC," said Guvenc.

Biden is a critic of Erdogan's human rights record. But Ankara's backing of Sweden's NATO bid would also likely open the door to Stockholm's other remaining opponent, Hungary.

"Regarding Turkey, they are also our allies, and therefore we need to hear their voice," said Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, a close ally of Erdogan.

"Perhaps, since we are closer to them than the other NATO members, we are hearing them with a sharper ear," added Orban.

Erdogan likes to broker deals face-to-face with fellow world leaders in the blaze of the world's media. So any breakthrough was seen as unlikely until the Nato leaders gave for the Vilnius summit, with negotiations likely to go down to the wire and Sweden facing a nervous wait.