Turkey appears to have thrown cold water on a joint bid by Sweden and Finland to become members of the Western NATO alliance.
On Jan. 23, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sweden could “no longer expect” Turkish support for its NATO accession efforts.
As a NATO member, Turkey wields veto power over bids by new countries to join the Western-led bloc.
Erdogan’s remarks came a day after activists staged a contentious rally outside Turkey’s embassy in Stockholm. At the event, a copy of the Koran was set alight by Rasmus Paludan, a right-wing politician known for courting controversy.
Turkey’s foreign ministry called the move an “act of provocation” and canceled a planned visit to Ankara by Sweden’s defense minister.
Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party, which will face hard-fought elections in May, typically enjoys the support of more conservative and religious-minded voters.
“Those who allow such blasphemy outside our embassy can no longer expect our support for their NATO membership,” Erdogan said after attending a Cabinet meeting.
Ankara Slow To Approve
Ending decades of neutrality, Sweden and Finland both applied to join NATO last year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But in order to join, they must first obtain the approval of NATO’s 30 existing members—including Turkey.
However, Ankara has been slow to give its consent, accusing the two Nordic countries of providing a haven to members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Turkey considers the PKK to be a terrorist group, as do Brussels and Washington. For the past 40 years, the PKK has carried out numerous attacks inside Turkey on both civilian and military targets.
“PKK terrorists have killed and injured thousands of Turkish soldiers and civilians over the years,” Abdullah Agar, a prominent Turkish political commentator, told The Epoch Times.
Ankara has also accused Stockholm and Helsinki of harboring followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim scholar based in the United States. Turkey has accused Gulen of standing behind a failed coup against Erdogan in 2016.
“Sweden allows these groups to exploit its hospitality and has failed to curtail their activities,” Agar said. “This has led to mounting public outrage in Turkey.”
On Jan. 12, a pro-PKK demonstration in Stockholm—at which Erdogan was depicted in effigy—drew angry reactions from Turkish officials.
“Words aren’t enough; we need to see action,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at the time. Sweden “must fulfill its obligations.”
Last summer, Turkey, Sweden, and Finland signed a trilateral agreement aimed at addressing Ankara’s “legitimate security concerns.”
The agreement obliged the two Nordic states to take “concrete steps” against terrorist groups that are active on their soil.
According to Agar, both countries have “made some progress” in this regard, but they still refuse to extradite wanted people to Turkey.
While Turkey still has its grievances with Finland, Ankara has consistently seen Sweden as the bigger offender, he said.
“Finland is still harboring terrorist groups,” Agar said. “But it’s not as obvious about it as Sweden, which lets these groups stage rallies in its capital.”
After the Koran-burning incident in Stockholm, Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom reiterated his country’s commitment to the terms of the three-way agreement.
Turkey Suspends Trilateral Talks
Nevertheless, on Jan. 24, Turkey suspended trilateral talks with both countries, the next session of which had been slated for February.
On the same day, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto likewise called for a temporary suspension of talks.
“A time-out is needed before we return to the three-way talks and see where we are when the dust has settled,” Haavisto told Reuters.
“No conclusions should be drawn yet.”
When asked about the issue, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said: “These are ultimately questions that will need to be resolved between Turkey, Finland, and Sweden.
“We obviously want to see those [trilateral] consultations continue, and we want to see those consultations culminate in Finland and Sweden joining the alliance.”
He also made reference to speculation that the recent anti-Turkey provocations in Stockholm were intended to derail Sweden’s NATO bid.
“There is … concern that provocateurs, those who may not want to see Sweden join NATO, are engaging in some of these activities,” Price said.
According to Agar, Turkey’s main grievance isn’t with the two Nordic states but with Washington’s continued support for the YPG, the PKK’s offshoot in Syria.
Since 2016, Turkey has launched three offensives into northern Syria with the stated aim of destroying the YPG, which it says poses a threat to its southern border.
In mid-November 2022, Turkey threatened to launch a fourth offensive after several people were killed in central Istanbul in an attack blamed on the YPG.
Yet despite its close association with the PKK, the YPG is backed by Washington, which uses it as an ostensible bulwark against the ISIS terrorist group in Syria.
The YPG is also a main component of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, an American-backed coalition of dissident groups that now controls much of northeastern Syria.
Anger at Washington
“The real problem isn’t about Sweden or Finland harboring the PKK,” said Agar, a former Turkish Special Forces officer. “It’s about U.S. support for the YPG—which is the PKK by another name.
“The United States trains, funds, arms, and directs these groups. Turkey can’t countenance such actions by its so-called allies.”
He went on to assert that U.S. support for the YPG had led to a “serious crisis of confidence and geopolitical polarization.”
Agar also warned that the issue, if left unresolved, threatens to “permanently fracture” the NATO alliance.
“Even leaders of Turkish political parties have begun broaching the issue of Turkey leaving NATO,” he said. “This was previously unheard of.”
As of the time of writing, the U.S. State Department had yet to respond to The Epoch Times’ request for comment on the issue.
Reuters contributed to this report.