Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends the NATO summit at the Alliance's headquarters, in Brussels, on June 14, 2021.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends the NATO summit at the Alliance's headquarters, in Brussels, on June 14, 2021. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

A Swedish Compromise Won’t Solve NATO’s Turkey Problem

As two Nordic nations bid to join, Erdogan’s hostage-taking should force the alliance to reckon with a member that is increasingly a security risk.

Four years ago, during the ISIS wars, Turkey frustrated U.S. commanders by fighting with America’s Western-friendly proxy partners—the Kurd-led Syrian Democratic Forces—and by playing cozy with Russia. During a visit to Syria, a top general told me that despite the Turkish autocrat, his racist views of the Kurds, and his nuclear geopolitics, it’s better in the long run to have Turkey in the NATO alliance than outside it. 

Is NATO still sure about that? Times have changed since Turkey was causing trouble for U.S. special operators in the Syria sandbox. So have the stakes. 

On Wednesday, Sweden and Finland did the once-unthinkable by giving up their semi-neutrality and formally applying for NATO membership. It’s a monumental shift that would bring more than 10 million Swedes, 5 million Finns, and 330,000 square miles of territory under the alliance’s nuclear umbrella and its Article V treaty-level obligation to defend it. Hours later, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan single-handedly blocked NATO from fast-tracking Sweden and Finland’s membership. 

Let’s be clear. Erdogan is holding transatlantic and European security hostage during a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine so that he can continue to buy Russian military arms, play both sides of the field, and carry on his complicated but nearly genocidal approach to the Kurdish people. 

Yet President Joe Biden and nearly every other NATO leader are doing everything they can to sit on their hands, look the other way, swallow their pride, grin and bear it, all in hopes that Erdogan is just throwing a public tantrum for the cameras. Biden said Wednesday that he looks forward to working with “our NATO allies to quickly bring Finland and Sweden into the strongest defensive alliance in history.” A senior defense official told reporters, “There's no effort to put a time component on this. We don't know how long the application process is going to take. The NATO secretary general said yesterday that he did not anticipate this was going to take very long, but that's really between the alliance and these nations, not the United States and these nations.” 

If you could pick your NATO allies today, which countries would you choose? Turkey? Or Sweden and Finland? It will cease to be a hypothetical question if Erdogan sticks by his demand that Sweden expel Kurdish citizens and declare some Kurdish political leaders to be terrorists.

Washington has suffered Erdogan through his direct threat to kill U.S. troops in Syria with an “Ottoman slap;” through a messy coup in 2016, during which Americans lost access to U.S. nuclear weapons and after which Turkey accused U.S. soldiers of trying to kill Erdogan; through his jailing of journalists and political opponents to win elections; through violent attacks on anti-Erdogan protestors outside its embassy in Washington, D.C., through alignment with Russia, and through thwarting the fight against ISIS. But have Washington leaders suffered Erdogan enough to call it quits?

It is true that NATO countries slapped arms embargoes and sanctions on their Turkish ally in 2019 and 2020. But recall the circumstances: Ankara, spurned in its bid to acquire not just advanced Patriot missile batteries but underlying technology not shared with other NATO allies, turned instead to Russia’s S-400 air defense system. The United States then canceled Ankara’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter order, not wanting to allow NATO’s most important fighter jet anywhere near Russian systems that might phone home to Moscow. Only an arms deal, in other words, finally gave NATO members the spine to punish Turkey.

The plight of the Kurds, by contrast, never did. Even after U.S. special operators declared that the SDF were perfect partners for “by, with, through” warfare in the Middle East—a Western-leaning, hungry-to-fight, capable force that espoused democratic values and even promoted women as equals—Donald Trump embraced Erdogan and withdrew U.S. troops from Syria in 2019.

Some called this a betrayal. Others dismissed such objections as naive pearl-clutching. The Turkish people, they argued, had legitimate security concerns about the PKK, a Kurdish group that frequently attacked Turkey. They said the U.S. military relied too heavily on the SDF, whose ties to the PKK meant Washington could not plausibly deny what even then-Central Command Gen. Joe Votel said were Ankara’s legitimate security concerns. And Kurdish human rights or autonomy does not outrank NATO’s nuclear cohesion. “The remedy to the West’s fears over Turkey is to pull it towards the West, not to push it further away,” wrote two scholars.

There have been many commentaries in these pages mulling what could be done to pressure Erdogan or the Turkish public to act more in the West’s favor. Whatever the Trump and Biden administrations have chosen to do so far has not been enough. 

“We're still working with Turkey to clarify so we understand their position,” said the senior defense official on Wednesday, “but again, our focus is on communicating at a staff level with them what security assurances they might need, what capabilities they might feel that they could benefit from, and then being able to flesh out the details of that going forward.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg likes to say that the alliance has always been messy with intra-nation disputes and conflicts, but it has held together and grown stronger for more than 70 years—and has proved its worth anew in countering Vladimir Putin’s push into Ukraine. Sweden and Finland’s fast-track ascension into NATO should be automatic, and ultimately their membership likely will be approved. Stoltenberg said this week that Turkey’s security concerns “need to be addressed. We must stand together at this historic moment.” 

But Stoltenberg and NATO leaders may have to deliver yet another diplomatic masterpiece to pull this off. If he does, it will solve the question about Sweden and Finland in the alliance’s response to the threat from Russia. It still does not solve the tiresome and increasing threat to NATO from Erdogan.