by James M Dorsey 18 July 2022
US and European acquiescence in Turkey’s long-standing refusal to honour Kurdish ethnic, cultural, and political rights came home to roost when Turkey initially objected to Finnish and Swedish membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Ultimately, Turkey postponed potential conflict in NATO by dropping its initial objection to Finland and Sweden’s application.
Nevertheless, Turkey maintains a sword of Damocles over the process. NATO’s 30 member parliaments have to ratify the two countries’ membership. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that ratification by the Turkish parliament would depend on the Nordic states putting their money where their mouth is and in effect adhering to Turkey’s anti-Kurdish policies.
Even though Turkish ratification will be the ultimate litmus test, NATO appears to have moved on since Turkey allowed Finnish and Swedish membership to move forward. NATO does so at its peril.
What Mr. Erdogan was actually saying was that the issue of Nordic membership had been temporarily resolved, not permanently. The president warned that parliamentary ratification would depend on Sweden and Finland implementing the provisions of a memorandum signed by the two Nordic countries with Turkey on the eve of last month’s NATO summit in Spain. The memorandum persuaded Turkey to lift its initial objections to their membership.
The Turkish sword of Damocles resembles Saudi and Emirati efforts to pressure US President Joe Biden to take greater account of their concerns about Iran and fortify the United States’ commitment to Gulf security during his visit this week to the kingdom. Saudi Arabia and the UAE will likely take heart from Turkey’s initial success in getting its way, particularly considering a US failure in recent years to respond to attacks by Iran and/or their Yemeni Houthi allies on critical oil and other infrastructure in the kingdom and the Emirates.
The Nordic memorandum with Turkey suggests that Finland and Sweden went a long way in meeting Turkish demands. Pressured by NATO, Finland and Sweden promised that they would not support Syrian Kurdish groups that Turkey considers a threat to its national security. These include the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a US-backed Syrian Kurdish group that played a crucial role in defeating the Islamic State,
Turkey’s initial threat to block Nordic membership sparked debates about the country’s controversial place in the North Atlantic defense alliance. The debates died down once Turkey lifted its objection.
However, Turkey’s involvement in the Kurdish issue, whether at home, where Kurds, an ethnic group spread across south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northern Syria, and western Iran, account for up to 20 per cent of the population, or in Iraq or Syria, where Turkey intervenes militarily, will inevitably revive questioning of the country’s place in the alliance.
Turkey’s initial NATO objection already increased the spotlight on Turkey’s long-standing suppression of Kurdish rights and identity under the mum of a fight against terrorism and separatism.
Turkey’s critics assert that Turkish military interventions in Syria aims to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish autonomous region similar to the self-governing Kurdish entity in northern Iraq.
Turkey regularly attacks bases of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq. Alongside the United States and the European Union, Turkey has designated the PKK as a terrorist organisation. The group has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey in which tens of thousands have been killed.
Turkey has also cracked down on the country’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP) after the party won enough seats in the 2015 general election to threaten Mr. Erdogan’s parliamentary majority.
HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas, one of the most high-profile of thousands of politicians, journalists, academics, judges, and civil servants jailed in Turkey in recent years, faces more than 100 mostly terrorism-related charges. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Demirtas’ detention violates “the very core of the concept of a democratic society.”
The Turkish effort to impose its policies on its fellow NATO members spotlighted the Middle East’s ability to act as a disruptive force if its interests are neglected against the backdrop of uncertainty about how committed the United States remains to the region’s security. The US commitment is likely to be clarified during Mr. Biden’s visit this week to the Middle East. Closer Arab Israeli security cooperation could facilitate clarification of the degree of US engagement.
On the positive side, clarification and Turkish ratification of Finnish and Swedish NATO membership would allow the United States and Europe to benefit from Turkish efforts to capitalise on endeavours by Central Asian governments to limit their reliance on Russia and soften the fallout from economic sanctions against the Kremlin because of its invasion of Ukraine.
Turkey has recently expanded its footprint by signing trade and defense agreements, stepping up arms sales, and Mr. Erdogan conducting high-profile meetings with his counterparts in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Mr. Erdogan recently wrapped up a two-day trip to Uzbekistan and left with 10 agreements and a pledge to increase their annual bilateral trade volume to US$10 billion.
Similar trade agreements were concluded during a visit to Turkey by Uzbek President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in May. With China too seeking to benefit from the consequences of the Ukraine war, the United States and Europe would be able to partially compensate for their neglect of a region at the heart of Eurasia that some describe as part of a greater Middle East.
That is particularly true if Turkey succeeds in positioning itself as a viable alternative to Russia on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which ferries goods from western China through Central Asia and Russia to European markets. The sanctions undermine Russia’s role as a key transit node on the BRI.
“The Central Asian states, and Kazakhstan in particular, are seeking greater Turkish engagement because of changes in connectivity patterns across Eurasia,” said Emil Avdaliani a scholar at the European University in Tbilisi and director of Middle East studies at the Georgian think tank Geocase.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has heightened European interest in Central Asia. In a first response, European Union officials said that the EU would become the top investor in the world’s tallest dam in Tajikistan. The move was aimed at helping Central Asia cut its reliance on Russian energy and constitutes part of the EU’s answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
To be sure, playing the Kurdish card benefits Mr. Erdogan domestically, particularly at a time that the Turkish economy is in the doldrums with a 70+ per cent inflation rate.
Mr. “Erdogan always benefits politically when he takes on the Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK) and groups linked to it, like the YPG in Syria… In fact, attacking the PKK and the YPG is a two-for-one. Erdogan is seen to take on genuine terrorists and separatists, and at the same time, he gets to take a swipe at the United States, which taps into the vast reservoir of anti-Americanism in Turkey,” said Middle East scholar Steven A. Cook.
Kurdish rights figure only tangentially in debates about Turkey’s place in NATO even though the country’s policy towards the Kurds has long violated criteria for alliance membership that include “fair treatment of minority populations.”
When Kurdish rights are mentioned, it is primarily as a prop for taking Turkey to task for its slide into authoritarianism. Even so, past US and European failure to stand up for Kurdish rights has complicated the fight against the Islamic State, stymied Kurdish aspirations beyond Turkey’s borders and enabled repression of Kurdish rights in Turkey.
However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was not completely wrong when he accused the United States of making ”a selective and discriminatory move” when it decided in May to exempt from sanctions against Syria regions controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) but not areas controlled by Turkey and its Syrian proxies.
The problem with the US decision was that it was driven by support for its allies in the fight against the Islamic State rather than also a quest to achieve Kurdish rights. The decision complicated the US position during a recent United Nations Security Council debate on maintaining humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas in northern Syria. Mr. Erdogan is expected to discuss Syria at a summit in Tehran next week with his Iranian and Russian counterparts, Ebrahim Raisi and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
The failure to hold Turkey accountable for its repression of Kurdish ethnic and political rights within the framework of the Turkish state has enabled Ankara to establish adoption of Turkish policies as a condition for NATO membership even if they violate NATO membership criteria.
Those policies include defining the peaceful expression of Kurdish identity as terrorism and the rolling back of Kurdish language and cultural rights since the collapse in 2015 of peace talks with the PKK. Turkey lifted the ban on Kurdish languages and the word Kurd in 1991. Until then, Kurds were referred to as ‘mountain Turks.’
The governor of the south-eastern Turkish province of Diyarbakir, widely seen as a hub of Kurdish cultural and political activity, forced this writer under treat of death to leave the region for using the word Kurd rather than mountain Turk in interviews in the 1980s.
Kurdish language programs in universities have dwindled in recent years amid administrative hurdles, while Kurdish parents complain of pressure not to enrol their children in elective Kurdish courses. Most Kurdish-language services and activities created by local administrations were terminated by government-appointed trustees who replaced dozens of Kurdish mayors ousted by Ankara for alleged links to the PKK. Many of the ousted mayors and other leading Kurdish politicians remain behind bars.
The caving into Turkish demands and the failure to take Turkey to task early on for its policy towards the Kurds takes on added significance at a time when NATO casts the war in Ukraine as a battle of values and of democracy versus autocracy that will shape the contours of a 21st-century world order. For his part, Mr. Biden has sought to regain the moral high ground in the wake of the Trump presidency that broke with American liberalism by declaring “America is back” in the struggle for democratic and human rights.
However, Mr. Biden and Europe’s problem is that their credibility rides on cleaning up at home and ensuring that they are seen as sincere rather than hypocritical. That’s a tall order amid assertions of structural racism on both sides of the Atlantic; controversy over gun ownership in the United States; preferential arrangements for Ukrainian refugees as opposed to non-Europeans and non-whites fleeing war, persecution, and destruction; and foreign policies that treat violations of human and political rights differently depending on who commits them.
In the case of the Kurds, meeting Turkish demands regarding perpetrators of political violence is one thing; acquiescing in the criminalization of legitimate Kurdish political and cultural expression is another. That is a tough bargain to drive home in Ankara. However, it would offer a compromise formula that could serve everyone’s interest and help Turkey solve a problem that promises to be one of the Middle East’s multiple exploding powder kegs.
As a result, the Kurdish issue is likely to influence where Turkey will rank as the world moves towards a bi-polar or multi-polar power structure. From that perspective, the battle over perceived Scandinavian, and mainly, Swedish support for Kurdish aspirations involves the degree to which the United States and Europe will continue to kick the can down a road.
The Kurds are not the only issue to cause friction in the relationship between Turkey or Turkiye as the country wants to be known going forward. Turkey, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is attempting to carve out a place of its own as a middle power in a reconfigured 21st century world order by trying to walk a tightrope in their relations with Russia as well as China.
A refusal by the Turkish parliament to ratify Finnish and Swedish NATO membership risks reenergizing a debate about Turkey’s membership in NATO, much like Prime Minister Victor Orban’s opposition to a European embargo of Russian energy has raised questions about Hungary’s place in the EU.
“Does Erdogan’s Turkey Belong in NATO?” asked former US vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman and Mark D. Wallace, a former senator, in an oped in The Wall Street Journal. Unlike Finland and Sweden, the two men noted that Turkey would not meet NATO’s democracy requirements if it were applying for membership today.
“Turkey is a member of NATO, but under Mr. Erdogan, it no longer subscribes to the values that underpin this great alliance. Article 13 of the NATO charter provides a mechanism for members to withdraw. Perhaps it is time to amend Article 13 to establish a procedure for the expulsion of a member nation,” Messrs. Lieberman and Wallace wrote.
The two men implicitly argued that turning the tables on Turkey would force the obstinate NATO member back into line. It was an argument supported by Turkish intellectuals, academics, and journalists, who fled Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic and arbitrary rule. “Giving into Ankara’s demands amounts to letting an autocrat design the security architecture of Europe and shape the future of the Western system,” said journalist, analyst and scholar Cengiz Candar.
A Turkish exit from NATO, which no one really wants or expects, would deal a body blow to the North Atlantic alliance. Nevertheless, while Turkey’s circumstances differ from those of other Middle Eastern players, the country’s NATO dispute suggests that the Ukraine crisis may no longer be a far-from-my-bed show for the region. To be fair, the question never was if but when Ukraine would arrive on the Middle East’s doorstep.
Two centrifugal forces threatened to push Middle Eastern nations off their tightrope: an increasingly bifurcated world populated by a multitude of civilisational leaders in which “you are with us or against us,” and a mounting need for consistency in the US and Europe’s application of international law and upholding of human and political rights standards.
Increasingly, it’s evident that it doesn’t take much to throw straddlers off balance.
In fact, if one fades out the ambient noise, it becomes evident that neither Turkey nor other Middle Eastern states have any intention of fundamentally altering their security relationships with the United States, even if the dynamics in the cases of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are very different. That is likely to be reaffirmed during Mr. Biden’s Middle East tour.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE recognize that there is no alternative to the US security umbrella, whatever doubts they may have about the United States’ commitment to its security. With Mr. Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the question was not how US-Saudi differences would be papered over but at what price and who will pay the bill. That may be a question that will only answered over time in deeds rather than words.
A potential failure of the Vienna talks that aim to revive the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme could fast track the narrowing of the Gulf’s options. The talks stalled as a covert war between Israel and Iran appeared to escalate while Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia that has no formal relations with Israel, were seeking to tighten security cooperation with the Jewish state.
Saudi Arabia has signaled for some time that it would like to formalize its expanding informal relations with Israel but needs a cover to do so. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has not rejected a US proposal for a regional Middle Eastern air defence system that would include the kingdom and Israel.
In the final analysis, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states recognise that the United States is the only real game in town. “The US can still easily build global coalitions when necessary. While Russia will be radioactive, more a predatory pariah than partner,” said former White House director for the Gulf Kirsten Fontenrose.
She warned that “it would be foolish for nations that previously enjoyed beneficial relations with Russia to invite that radioactivity onto themselves now, in the emerging world order where Russia is not the unipolar power it hoped to become, but instead a failed bet.”
An earlier version of this article appeared in Orient.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.