The big announcement that emerged from the NATO Summit in Vilnius last month was that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had agreed to drop his opposition to Sweden joining the military alliance. The Turkish parliament would still have to approve such a move, but it was believed that was more of a formality after US President Joe Biden reportedly promised to sell F-16 fighter bombers to Turkiye and/or an $11-13 billion line of credit from the IMF.
The supposed deal allowed the summit to avoid being labeled as much a failure as the collective West’s proxy war effort in Ukraine. And yet, ever since the agreement was announced there has been virtually no movement towards Swedish accession. In fact, in some ways it looks like the sides are even further apart.
It’s never a good sign in the West when the Russia blame cannons are deployed to explain away complicated situations, but that’s now happening. Stockholm is claiming that Moscow is poisoning minds by “spreading false claims” about the recent Quran burning incidents in Sweden in order to harm its NATO bid. From The Guardian:
The Swedish authorities have accused Russia of trying to influence how Qur’an burnings are viewed around the world through disinformation campaigns written in Arabic. It is believed to be part of an attempt to disrupt Sweden’s Nato membership process, which is still waiting for approval by Turkiye and Hungary.
Sweden’s psychological defence agency, part of the Ministry of Defence, said that the Russian state-controlled media outlets RT and Sputnik had published a series of articles in Arabic, falsely claiming that the Swedish government supported Qur’an burning. Since the end of June, the authorities have logged about a million similar posts in Arabic and other languages. The warning from the agency – a cold war-era body brought back last year to fight foreign disinformation as tensions with Russia escalated – follows another burning in a spate of such desecrations in Sweden.
It’s hard to draw anything from this except that talks remain at a standstill, and a frustrated Sweden is lashing out. For one, Turkiye is not an Arab country, and just around one percent of Turkish citizens speak Arabic. Second, there are no Arab countries holding up Sweden’s accession.
Maybe there are some Arabic speakers who could comment on the content of the articles from RT and Sputnik, but the English versions don’t read as anything out of the ordinary. This one from RT, for example, actually provides the Swedish declaration that “the protests are not formally approved by the government.”
Nonetheless, two leaders of Turkish parties in Erdogan’s ruling coalition have already come out and declared they are now wholly opposed to supporting Sweden’s NATO bid, which would make Erdogan’s job of getting approval through the Turkish parliament harder. And on Wednesday, Turkish Justice Minister Yilmaz Tunc reaffirmed that Ankara is still waiting for Sweden to extradite individuals Turkiye accuses of terrorism. He added ominously that Stockholm’s decisions will weigh heavily on the Turkish Parliament’s discussions in the autumn.While the Quran burnings certainly aren’t lowering Turkiye’s asking price for its accession approval, they are playing into the main issue holding up progress.
Selim Koru makes the strong argument at War on the Rocks that the Turkish leadership is determined to escape the prodigal son parable in which Turkiye is the son who strays from the rich father (the West led by the US). What does that mean in concrete terms?
Well it could mean anything and everything from F-16s (and most importantly military technology transfers) to economic aid, support for Turkish claims in the Mediterranean, an end to US support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Syria, and more. In other words: start viewing Turkiye as a regional player rather than just a broken cog in the Nato machine. Ultimately, that is where Turkiye wants to go. How do the Quran burnings play into this? Koru writes:
Against this backdrop, Erdogan’s political project aspires to turn the East-West relationship upside-down. In other words, he wants Turkiye to set standards for Western countries, judge them on the execution, and reward or punish them accordingly. Sweden’s application to NATO was just such an opportunity. Anyone following the narrative in Turkiye understood that it was now Turkiye’s turn to wave the stick and dangle the carrot, and for Stockholm to act more like Ankara. Hilal Kaplan, a senior journalist who accompanied Erdogan to Madrid in 2022, wrote then that “two powerful European countries like Sweden and Finland have agreed to adjust their terrorism laws in a way that will please Turkiye.” The European Union had once tried to make Turkiye change its anti-terror laws, but today the shoe was on the other foot. “Now we are going to set up a Permanent Joint Mechanism between the three countries to evaluate the changes they are going to make to their terrorism laws, their extradition of terrorists, as well as whether they will continue their informal support to terrorists.”
Sweden tried to play along and make the right noises, but only to a point. It reformed its anti-terror lawsin a way that made life a little more difficult for supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. But Turkiye wanted to see execution and particularly, it seems, Turkish-style crackdowns on street protests, which Sweden wasn’t prepared to do. That is also why the Quran burning became a sticking point. The Madrid agreement didn’t exactly stipulate that the two European countries wouldn’t allow the desecration of holy texts on their territories, but Erdogan probably felt that it was a symbol of Sweden’s insincerity in the whole roleplay.
It’s possible that Turkiye could completely readjust its national priorities. Maybe all it takes is getting Erdogan out of power as the West seems to believe, but that is unlikely. Turkish nationalists were the biggest winners in the recent elections. It’s possible the West begins to accept Ankara’s demand to be treated as more of an equal and give Turkiye more of what it wants, but are there any indications the West is willing to do that or is even capable of considering it? Exactly. So the tense relationship is set to continue for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately for Turkiye, while helping Russia evade sanctions has boosted its economy, the new Cold War is also helping to create major headaches in all directions.
The US just sanctioned Turkish-backed militias in Syria which fight under the banner of the Syrian National Army (SNA). As The Cradle recalls:
The SNA is a coalition of Salafist armed groups formerly known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA worked closely with various Al-Qaeda affiliated groups and enjoyed strong support from the US and other allied countries starting in 2011 as part of the covert CIA effort to topple the Syrian government.
The US Treasury is now sanctioning a group the US once strongly supported.
To Turkiye’s East, the situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan threatens to inflame the region. The US has ramped up military support for Greece since the beginning of the Ukraine war, causing anxiety in Ankara about a potential disadvantage. Things aren’t looking much better in Cyprus, which is split between the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus in the south and the Turkish Republic of Cyprus in the north, which is recognized only by Ankara. The Biden administration, which lifted the 35-year-old ban on the sale of US arms to Cyprus last year, on Friday issued an extension for the upcoming fiscal year. (Cyprus is required to block Russian naval vessels from accessing its ports in order to keep the US arms sale ban lifted.)
Turkiye, however, is afraid it will upset the status quo on the island, which is more hotly contested than ever due to offshore claims for oil and natural gas. On Friday Turkish Cypriots tried to construct a road to the village of Pyla located within the U.N.-patrolled buffer zone. UN forces tried to stop them, and clashes ensued.
The UK, France, the US, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen all quickly condemned the Turkish Cypriots while Ankara condemned the UN forces. Russia vetoed an official statement at the UN.
The situation in the Black Sea is also quickly escalating and drawing Turkiye into deeper waters. Russian forces have relentlessly attacked Ukrainian Black Sea ports since exiting the grain deal in July. They also stopped and inspected a Palau-flagged Turkish freighter that was sailing to the Ukraine port of Izmail, creating a major headache for Erdogan. After a few days of silence, his office released a statement saying that Russia has been “warned to avoid such attempts that escalate tensions in the Black Sea” and that Palau should really be the one to respond to the incident. This was likely a mistake by Erdogan in the long run, according to Fatih Yurtsever, a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces:
Russia’s current actions appear to treat the Black Sea as though it were exclusively its own domain. Asserting the right to halt all commercial vessels bound for Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea’s international waters, ostensibly in order to block the shipment of arms to Ukrainian ports, undermines fundamental tenets of international maritime law, most notably the principle of freedom of navigation. Turkish merchant shipping is also affected by this situation. Some commercial ships in the Turkish Merchant Marine fleet fly the flags of other countries to benefit from certain tax benefits. Therefore, Turkiye took the wrong approach by not reacting immediately to Russia’s boarding of a merchant ship operated by a Turkish company and whose crew is Turkish, in violation of international maritime law, saying that the ship carries the flag of Palau and therefore Palau should react to the unlawfulness first.
…Another prominent aspect of the Şükrü Okan incident is that it reveals that the cooperation mechanisms established between Turkiye and Russia within the scope of Operation Black Sea Harmony, a maritime security operation conducted by the Turkish Navy in the Black Sea, have lost their functionality. The operation began in March 2004 in accordance with UN Security Council Resolutions 1373, 1540 and 1566, which aim to deter terrorism and asymmetric threats in the Black Sea region. Black Sea Harmony is a multinational operation, and the navies of Russia, Ukraine and Romania have joined it. The Turkish Navy coordinates the operation, which is conducted according to international law, and it has been credited with disrupting a number of illegal activities in the Black Sea, such as arms smuggling, human trafficking and drug trafficking.
Therefore, if Russia had intended to prevent illegal arms smuggling or terrorism in the Black Sea, it should have done the following: Before the Russian Navy boarded the Şükrü Okan, it could have obtained information about the ship’s cargo and activities from the Operation Black Sea Harmony Coordination Center and informed the Turkish Navy about the boarding operation.
At the same time, Duvar is now reporting that there are two US warships docked in Turkish waters. They have not passed the Turkish Straits into the Black Sea, which Erdogan has refused to do under the 1936 Montreux Convention since the Ukraine war began.
It would appear Erdogan is once again trying to use each side to his advantage. Purely in economic terms Turkiye needs to nimbly extract concessions from wherever it can in order to climb out of its economic mess. As frustrating as it is for the West (as well as Russia), there’s no reason for Erdogan to stop playing both sides. It’s the most profitable role for Turkiye, which desperately needs all the financial assistance it can find, but Erdogan might soon start pushing up against the law of diminishing returns – if he isn’t already.