Turkey's NATO spat: Will Erdoğan cross the Rubicon?

We have once again found ourselves in the midst of a crisis that stalls the expansion of NATO - and the new grand design” of the security architecture in Europe and beyond - as the war continues to wage between Ukraine and Russia.

With Turkey causing a roadblock for the alliance and Erdoğan openly threatening to expand his war with Kurdish forces in Syria while insulting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the stakes appear higher for the Biden-Harris administration to clear the way.

As a solid consensus in the West is being built on the notion that nothing will ever be the same” after Russias relentless invasion, and that the war is at its core about democracies versus autocracies, enter Mr. Erdoğan with threats to block Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership unless his demands are met. This development cast into the choreography has caused surprise and is set to stir tensions for weeks, perhaps months, to come.

It is apparent that Mr. Erdoğan and his team are the focal point of frustration and anger. With such a bold move, will he finally cross the Rubicon?   Indications point in that direction, and if so, all roads seem to lead to Washington D.C.

Lets begin with the two Scandinavian NATO candidates. News broke that an angry Erdoğan, in two consecutive statements, lashed out at Sweden and Finland over harbouring terrorists” and having close links to the Peoples Protection Units, or YPG, (Kurdish militia units fighting ISIS and other Jihadist groups in Syria), which it says are part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union for its violent separatist campaign for Kurdish self-rule.

Erdoğan categorically demanded that a group of dissidents in both countries be extradited to Turkey and the countries declare the YPG as terrorists.

I was in Stockholm when the news broke and witnessed first-hand the shock in the Sweden’s capital. Neither the government nor the media seemed prepared for such a blunt move. Then, a rather confused debate ensued. While the government tried to maintain a calculated calm, there were immediate divisions in public discourse.

Apparently disregarding Erdoğans deep motives behind raising the stakes, some people in Stockholm, mainly media figures and some academics, displayed an “understanding” for Turkeys outrage. Reasonable concerns” had to be met, with reason, the arguments went. The holders of such a view argued that there may be an undesired PKK presence within the Kurdish diaspora, implying a green light for reconsidering deportations” and that it was perhaps time also to cut ties with the YPG, whose representatives, as they often did in the United States, paid official visits to Swedish government offices.

But there were also loud voices against this appeasing view, and it came from two directions. First, some expert commentators and diplomats were quick to note that Sweden is a democracy, with unwavering rule of law, and an ages-old respect for human rights, thus Erdoğans demands were simply unacceptable. They concluded that since Erdoğan had personal motives that had to with political desperation at home, the ball was in Bidens court, rather than in Stockholm or in Helsinki, to sort things out.

The second party to the debate were Swedens Kurds, a large minority segment of society, that is politically active and represented by six deputies in parliament across the political spectrum. Unsurprisingly, they were outraged. They defended staunchly the role of YPG units in preserving the defensive line in Syria -- both against jihadists and Assad. They also spoke of the YPGs role in holding thousands of ISIS prisoners (many of whom are from the West, with at least 60 of them Swedish citizens). They called on the Swedish government not to let up.

Things went even further south when the Ambassador of Turkey, in an interview with the Swedish News Agency, TT, responded with a nod to the question of whether or not a Swedish parliamentarian of Iranian Kurdish origin should be deported to Turkey to face trial. Apparently reproached by Ankara, he later denied he had committed the blunder, but this seemed the final catalyst to harden the line against Erdoğan and his demands. With this, the so-called arguments about the reasonable concerns of Turkey” also went straight down the drain.

So-called maximalist Turkish demands were met with reasonable counter concerns” of both the Swedish authorities and the Kurdish community. They highlighted the well-known developments in Turkey, where the rule of law has nearly collapsed. This collapse has been epitomised by the Orwellian trial and lifetime imprisonment of philanthropist Osman Kavala, the case of elected Kurdish politician and presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş, held for nearly six years in jail - and the imminent closure case against the pro-Kurdish HDP, the third largest political group in Turkish parliament. Swedish Kurds originating from Syria also were keen to point to an ongoing Turkish incursion onto Kurdish controlled areas of Syria.

It is obvious that Erdoğans demands will be met by a wall of resistance in Sweden. He may have doubled down on Kurdish aspects to allow both countries into NATO, but his setting the conditions of cutting off ties with the YPG addresses, more directly, the Biden administration, whose strategic support for Kurdish groups in Syria seems unchanged. In other words, Erdoğan is using the two countries as pretexts to challenge Biden. Stockholm and Helsinki understand this tactic and will keep the lines of communication with the palace in Ankara, open knowing what Erdoğan’s real game is.

But there seems to be one potential opening. Along with the demands related to the Kurds, Erdoğan has also asked the two countries to lift arms embargos imposed three years ago when the Turkish Armed Forces entered Kurdish enclaves in Syria. Sweden may go to some lengths to ease the embargo, and Finland may offer some financial carrots to accommodate Turkeys strongman.

NATOs leaders may see the crisis triggered by Erdoğan as one that will drag on, and they may be right. The assessment is that Turkeys president, under constantly increasing pressure in terms of financial management of the country, has no choice but to escalate the crisis further with Western allies. Surging inflation, measuring at 70 percent and rising, and the drying up of the central bank’s foreign currency reserves are seen as harbingers of a perfect economic storm. Accused by some of massive corruption, money laundering, mafiatisation of the state” and broad scale abuses of power, Erdoğan does not have the luxury of leaving power so easily.

Also, Erdoğans self-designed foreign policy scheme has collapsed, leading to one U-turn after another in the Middle East. Turkeys once able and respected diplomatic core has been -- due to loyalty based partisan policies -- replaced by what Namık Tan, a former ambassador of Turkey to the United States, depicted critically as  self-taught” with arrogant, bullying embassy staff – as evidenced in the incident in Stockholm.

Erdoğans latest move against NATO follows a series of confrontations with Germany and Netherlands. He called both Nazis” and declared not long ago that French President Macron as mentally incapable”. Now Mitsotakis has been added to his list of persona non-grata. Apparently infuriated by the red-carpet welcome given to Mitsotakis in Washington last week, Erdoğan announced that the Greek leader “no more” existed for him.

This attitude is  certainly not helpful. Erdoğans pattern of behaviour has led to a profound mistrust of him among Turkey’s allies. The perception is that the Turkish leadership is unpredictable, or, as one diplomat depicted it, a bone of contention”. Erdoğans unrelenting insistence on transferring a practice of dictating terms and conditions, an approach identified with autocrats, into the sphere of democratic allies, pushes the problem into wide macro dimensions, far beyond those of just Sweden and Finland.

It is certain that by tramping on the edges of the Rubicon, Erdoğan, tightly cornered and alienated, needs to be contacted by Joe Biden, in person, in order to show the Turkish electorate that he is a grand player on the world stage, that his tough posturing will have paid off. So far, in the context of rather fruitless mediation” between Putin and Zelensky, his efforts at so-called global leadership have not borne fruit.

Instead, Erdoğan is viewed with suspicion among allies, whether or not his administration is serious about the commitments NATO requires, as war offers a very uncertain future.

Erdoğans expectation is that Biden, in addition to a handshake, unblocks CAATSA sanctions on Turkey and paves the way for his purchase of F-16s. But his position on not giving up on Russian S-400 missile systems and breaches of human rights has cemented almost all of Congresss resolve against appeasing to his demands. The visit by Mitsotakis to D.C. and his historic speech in the Joint Meeting of the Congress may have forged even stronger resistance, making things harder for Biden.

Regardless, the ball is in the White Houses court. But here is a challenge for Biden.

Would it be morally justifiable to appease an autocrat at large within the NATO alliance, while seeking to enhance a democratic bloc against another one: Putin?

Therein lies a historic paradox, which requires to be handled properly.

From the very outset, the Biden-Harris administration has made clear that renewing democracy in the United States and around the world is essential to meeting the unprecedented challenges of our time”.

"This is an urgent matter on all our parts, in my view, because the data were seeing is largely pointing in the wrong direction,” Biden said some months ago.

Bidens dilemma is how to deal with a NATO ally whose leader is busy demolishing what is left of the separation of powers, subordinating the judiciary and devouring the remnants of critical media, and keeping around 50,000 political prisoners (according to HRW) - 12,000 of them Kurds -  behind bars, and shifting to a full-blown autocracy as the democratic world battles Putin.

Erdoğans latest move to block the NATO membership of Sweden and Finland, as well as challenging the West’s de-facto allies in Syria, the PYD/YPG , further highlights this paradox.

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