By Abhishek Yadav
In May 2022, Finland and Sweden expressed interest in joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Finland’s application was approved, and the country became a member in April 2023. However, Sweden’s accession faced an obstacle as Turkiye, one of NATO’s 31 members, blocked the process. Turkiye alleged that Sweden was harbouring Kurdish separatists. As a result, Sweden’s membership in NATO remained pending due to this contentious issue raised by Turkiye.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted NATO to reinforce its collective defence. On 10 July 2023, in a joint press statement with Ulf Kristersson, Prime Minister of Sweden and Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan endorsed Swedish accession into NATO. Turkiye has agreed to submit the Accession Protocol concerning Sweden to the Grand National Assembly of Turkiye (GNAT) and collaboratively engage with the Assembly to ensure and facilitate the ratification process.1
Erdogan has achieved many desired outcomes in favour of Turkiye by supporting Sweden’s accession into NATO. He has successfully extracted significant concessions while maximising Turkish national interest. After winning the Turkish presidential election in May 2023, Erdogan has continued his government’s assertive foreign policy. Turkiye is pursuing a multidimensional and multidirectional foreign policy while taking care of its strategic autonomy.2
Hard Bargain with Sweden
The visits of Swedish PM Ulf Kristersson on 8 November 2022 and Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom on 22 December 2022 to Turkiye3 laid a good foundation for further cooperation and strategic partnership between Sweden and Turkiye. Fulfilling the mutually agreed provisions outlined in the Trilateral Memorandum of 2022, involving Sweden, Turkiye and Finland, Sweden has made constitutional amendments. It has substantially enhanced its counter-terrorism cooperation with Turkiye in dealing with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terror group and resumed exporting arms to Turkiye.4
Sweden’s new anti-terrorism law, which went into force on 1 June 2023, aims to address Turkiye’s main demands for ratifying the Nordic country’s NATO membership. The law criminalises membership in terrorist organisations and imposes up to four years in prison for individuals involved in terrorist activities or supporting such organisations. Billstrom highlighted that the law would help assuage Turkiye’s concerns, particularly related to the PKK’s activities in Sweden.5
Under a new bilateral Security Compact between Sweden and Turkiye, the ministerial level meeting will take place annually. During the inaugural meeting of the Security Compact, Sweden will present a roadmap outlining its ongoing efforts to combat terrorism in all its forms. Sweden reaffirmed its stance of not providing support to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Democratic Union Party (PYD), and the organisation referred to as Fethullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO) in Turkiye.6 Moreover, Sweden has committed to actively support endeavours to revitalise Turkiye’s accession process to the EU. This commitment includes advocating for the modernisation of the EU–Turkiye Customs Union as well as promoting visa liberalisation initiatives between Turkiye and the EU.7
Re-Energising Relations with the EU
Before heading to Lithuania to attend the NATO Summit, Erdogan highlighted that Turkiye has been fulfilling the commitments relating to the open door policy of NATO, supporting its expansion. Despite that, he lamented that “Turkiye has for over 50 years been kept waiting at the door of the European Union.”8 Erdogan demanded Turkish membership in the EU and stated “first clear the path to the EU in front of Turkiye and then we will clear the path in front of Sweden, just as we did for Finland”.9 At the NATO Summit, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg supported Turkiye’s ambitions to become a member of the EU.10
The Foreign Affairs Council of the EU held discussions on EU–Turkiye relations, emphasising the need for the EU to re-engage with Turkiye and foster cooperation based on common interests while addressing existing differences. They highlighted the importance of achieving a sustainable de-escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean and finding a solution to the Cyprus question under relevant UN Resolutions for regional stability and security. Additionally, upholding fundamental freedoms and values, as defined in the European Convention of Human Rights, was underscored as essential, given Ankara’s party status to the Convention.11 These positions do indicate that the prospects for Turkish membership in the EU seems bleak as of now.
Advancing Bilateral Relations with the US
Turkiye’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system has caused prolonged tensions with the US and NATO due to concerns about compromising security and interoperability. Both the US and NATO have cautioned Turkiye that the S-400 system is incompatible with NATO’s defence infrastructure, which could potentially expose sensitive information to Russia. Despite these warnings, Turkiye has persisted with the deal, leading to the US taking punitive actions such as suspending Turkiye from the F-35 fighter jet programme in 2019 and imposing sanctions on Turkish entities and officials involved in the S-400 purchase.12
In October 2021, Turkiye requested the US to purchase US$ 20 billion worth of 40 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets, along with approximately 80 modernisation kits for its existing fleet of warplanes.13 In that regard, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently remarked that the US supports Turkiye’s military modernisation. Additionally, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan explicitly hinted towards moving forward with the request of Turkiye to purchase F-16 fighter jets in consultation with Congress.14 However, the congressional concerns relating to Turkish belligerence against Greece and Armenia and the deterioration of the human rights situation in Turkiye15 are likely to be factored in the discussion regarding the F-16 sale.
US President Joe Biden welcomed Erdogan’s readiness to promptly ratify the Accession Protocol for Sweden’s membership into the NATO to GNAT for ratification. He expressed his readiness to collaborate closely with Erdogan and Turkiye in strengthening defence and deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic region.16 At the NATO Summit in Lithuania, Biden and Erdogan exchanged perspectives on defence and economic priorities, underscoring their commitment to strengthen collaboration in these areas.17
Canada and Netherlands Policy Shift
The export of certain drone technology from Canada to Turkiye was suspended in 2020 following the determination that Azerbaijan’s forces had utilised the equipment during the conflict with Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.18 Following Ankara’s endorsement of Sweden’s NATO membership, Canada has decided to resume discussions with Turkiye regarding lifting export controls on drone parts, including optical equipment.19
It may be seen as a potentially significant development for the Turkish defence industry. Canadian PM Justin Trudeau met Erdogan in Lithuania and discussed shared priorities, including collective security, investment and people-to-people ties. He thanked Erdogan for his leadership on the Black Sea Grain Initiative.20
The Netherlands has lifted its arms restrictions against Turkiye, which were imposed in 2019 due to its military actions in Syria. The Dutch government abolished its “presumption of denial policy” regarding arms exports.21 The move by Turkiye to support Sweden’s accession led to a shift in the Dutch position. Despite the policy change, the Netherlands will continue monitoring the use of its goods in conflicts in Northern Syria and Yemen. Previously, the Netherlands mainly exported tank and armoured vehicle parts, fighter plane technology, and attack helicopter components to Turkiye.22
Erdogan has continued his government’s assertive foreign policy that has yielded positive outcomes. While endorsing Sweden’s accession to NATO, Ankara has compelled Sweden to be more accountable vis-à-vis Turkish security concerns. Turkiye has re-energised its efforts to improve relations with the EU. The Netherlands’ decision to lift the arms sanctions on Turkiye is also likely to benefit the Turkish economy and defence sector. Moreover, the resumption of talks with Canada on lifting export controls and the US sending positive signals on approval for F-16 reflects a significant step forward for the Turkish defence economy. Although challenges relating to chronic inflation and weakened Lira persist, Turkiye’s efforts to strengthen defence cooperation and re-establish itself as a key player in NATO demonstrate the positives flowing out of its assertive foreign policy stance.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.
About the author: Mr Abhishek Yadav is a Research Analyst in the West Asia Centre at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi
Source: This article was published by Manohar Parrikar IDSA
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- 22.Ragip Soylu, “The Netherlands Lifts Arms Embargo against Turkey, UAE and Saudi Arabia”, Middle East Eye, 19 July 2023.