Turkey is holding NATO hostage, former top alliance official says

Turkey’s government is holding NATO hostage by withholding its approval for the membership of Finland and Sweden, said Stefanie Babst, a former top strategic adviser in NATO and its Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy between 2006 and 2012.

Erdoğan is using his objections to Finland and Sweden joining NATO as a message to his political base that he is a strong leader during a “pretty gruesome” period for his country’s economy, Babst said in an interview with the Swedish state-run broadcaster SVT.

It is now up to NATO to stand up and demonstrate that the situation is not acceptable, she said.

NATO allies “would need to make it clear to President Erdoğan that he is taking Sweden and Finland and all other 30 NATO ally countries hostage -- political hostage -- to his own national policy objectives,” Babst said. “This, I personally think, is absolutely unacceptable given that we are in a fundamental crisis in Europe.”

The alliance’s members need to make it clear at a summit in Spain starting on June 29 that they stand united in the face of Russian aggression, but Erdoğan is threatening that opportunity, Babst said.  

“We are in the midst of a war in the midst of Europe. So, all allies, including Sweden and Finland, as new member countries, should convey at the forthcoming summit in Madrid its full-fledged political cohesion and transatlantic solidarity,” she said. “And he (Erdoğan) holds that hostage and puts this really at risk.”

Turkey is in the middle of a bout of economic instability that has seen the lira slump by 44 percent against the dollar last year and consumer price inflation accelerate to a two-decade high of 70 percent. Erdoğan has refused to raise interest rates to deal with the runaway price increases citing his Islamic values and subsequent opposition to earnings from interest.

Erdoğan claims that Sweden and Finland are not doing enough to combat security threats to Turkey posed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a four-decade war for autonomy against the Turkish military, and an affiliate in northern Syria that has been allied with the United States and other Western countries against Islamic State (ISIS). Erdoğan says Sweden in particular is harbouring terrorists.

“We have seen that he has used this script before. This is a message toward his electoral base at home. He has an election ahead of himself,” Babst said. “The economic situation in Turkey is pretty gruesome. So, he wants to demonstrate leadership.”

Sweden has recognised the PKK as a terrorist organisation and it organises its domestic legislation to deal with alleged terrorist activities, so there is not much room for manoeuvre there, Babst said.

“Perhaps there is more when it comes to Sweden's weapons or arms embargo that it has imposed on Turkey following its 2019 military invasion of northern Syria,” she said. “It remains to be seen as to whether the Turkish government would accept such a concession from Sweden.

"At the end of the day, I'm pretty positive that it will be solved, but there will certainly be a couple of weeks ahead of us filled with crisis diplomacy and some upheaval. So, it won't be an easy ride," Babst said.

Babst, a German national, is a senior associate fellow of the European Leadership Network and a board member of the German Council on Foreign Relations and the Danish Center for War Studies.

Between 2012 and 2020, Babst led NATO’s Strategic Foresight Team advising the NATO Secretary-General and Chairman of the Military Committee on strategic unknowns and potential upcoming crisis situations.

Turkey's government is taking too big of a gamble, risking its position in NATO by blocking Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership for the sake of bolstering its popularity at home, Namık Tan, former Turkish ambassador to the United States, said on Monday.

"In foreign policy, it is not always enough to be right or for the other party to be wrong," Tan said. "Empty rhetoric can help you rally your base domestically but in the foreign policy arena domestic popularity is largely irrelevant."

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