Sweden’s NATO Dilemma – OpEd


Sweden believes it has gone very nearly as far as it is possible to go in meeting the demands of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has a casting vote on whether the country’s application to join NATO is successful. 

In May 2022, responding to the threat posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine a few weeks before, Sweden and Finland applied to join NATO.  The move was greeted with some apprehension by Sweden’s Kurdish citizens.  To the Kurdish community NATO meant Turkey, a long-time NATO member – and Turkey had for many years been fighting Kurdish separatists within the country, and also Kurdish Peshmerga forces along the Turco-Syrian and Turco-Iranian borders. 

Erdogan, who held up progress on both applications for months, has insisted that Sweden take effective action against its Kurdish minority as the price for lifting his veto.  Even though the Swedish government decided on June 11 to extradite a Turkish citizen resident in Sweden who had been convicted in 2013 of a drug crime in Turkey, what Sweden has done so far has not satisfied Erdogan.  He recently reversed his objection to Finland’s application, but continues to blackball Sweden.  The matter has turned into a conflict between Sweden’s widely acknowledged humanitarian, tolerant, liberal values, and Erdogan’s determination to crush the movement for Kurdish independence at all costs.

The forthcoming NATO summit, scheduled for July 10, will be dealing with vital issues arising from Russia’s partial and illegal occupation of Ukraine.  The organization as a whole very much hoped that the meeting would see it significantly strengthened by the acquisition of two new members.  That will not now take place.  At a press conference on March 17 with his Finnish counterpart, Erdogan praised Finland’s “authentic and concrete steps” on Turkish security, and withdrew his opposition to its joining NATO.  He continuesd to maintain that Sweden has a way to go before he is satisfied.  On June 9 Erdogan said: “Sweden at the moment is a country that terror organizations use as a playground. In fact, there are terrorists even in this country’s parliament.”
          He was referring to the leading Swedish politician Amineh Kakabaveh, a member of parliament, who grew up in a poor Kurdish home in western Iran. She is a strong advocate for Kurdish self-determination in the Middle East and a fierce critic of Erdogan. 

Kurds represent some 20 percent of Turkey’s 84 million population, and nationalist demands from the more extreme Kurdish elements seem to the Turkish establishment to represent a threat to the integrity of the state. The PKK, founded in 1978, is a political group seeking Kurdish independence and has not been averse to pursuing its political ends by way of armed terrorist attacks within Turkey.  Erdogan has responded by proscribing the PKK as a terrorist organization (a designation now widely adopted internationally), and to combat the PKK and its associate bodies where they are strongest – in northern Syria and Iraq.

Erdogan has made no secret of the fact that he considers Sweden has become a safe haven for members of the PKK.  Although Sweden condemns terrorist activities, it does host those Kurdish bodies known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that in the years 2014-2019 fought alongside the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS – and indeed chased them out of Syria. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), their political wing, is a recognized group in Sweden and has an office in Stockholm.  Many Swedes believe, along with professor Khalid Khayati of Linköping University that “It would be unfair and inhuman to consider that group as a terror organization.”

Erdogan claims that elements of the PKK are being sheltered under the wing of the YPG which, together with the PYD, he describes as a terrorist body, and has been demanding that Sweden withdraw its support from them all and also extradite a list of named individuals to Turkey.  As Mark Almond observes in the London Daily Telegraph on June 16, the problem is that Erdoğan, emboldened by an unprecedented third election victory, is more intent than ever on pursuing policies that challenge not only the West, but the very democratic and human rights principles that the NATO alliance is there to defend. “We can debate the rights and wrongs of Sweden’s asylum policy for Kurds,” writes Almond, “but can any advocate of the rule of law agree to let a foreign government decide whom it should expel from its territory?”

Of all the countries that Kurds fled to during the past turbulent half-century, it was in Sweden that they found the warmest welcome and real freedom from political repression. Sweden is now host to 100,000 Kurds, and the Kurdish community has become well integrated into Swedish society, politically, socially and culturally.

The NATO quandary is of concern to the whole country.  It touches on Sweden’s long-standing willingness to avoid firm positions on controversial issues – in other words, neutrality.  After all, Sweden managed to remain neutral throughout the Second World War.  One observer believes that this moral ambivalence worries many Swedes.  He reckons the question on many Swedes’ minds now is “Are we willing once again to shrug our shoulders at moral issues for the sake of joining NATO?” and he believes the answer of most would be: “If the price for NATO membership is the sacrifice of Kurds, then it’s not worth it.”

A dilemma is a problematic situation with no clear solution.  Do the advantages to Sweden itself, and to the western world, of joining NATO outweigh the generous, open-hearted, democratic instincts of the Swedish people in supporting the Kurds and their efforts to gain independence, or at least autonomy?  If so, Sweden needs to ascertain  just how far Erdogan would have them go in restricting the liberty of their Kurdish minority, and act accordingly.  If not, the Swedes themselves, NATO and the western world will have to be content with the situation as it has always been, with Sweden outside NATO, but collaborating with it as closely as possible.

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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