Sat, 25 Mar 2023

By John SolomouNicosia [Cyprus] January 30 (ANI): Last week Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan once again infuriated the West with his statement that he would block Sweden's NATO bid, saying that the reason for this decision was a protest in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm on Saturday, at which Swedish and Danish far-right groups burned the Quran. In an earlier demonstration, Kurds had burned an effigy of Erdogan.

But what are the real reasons for this decision, which has caused great disappointment and anger to the North Atlantic Alliance?Speaking after a cabinet meeting on Monday, President Erdogan said: "Sweden should not expect support from us for NATO. It is clear that those who caused such a disgrace in front of our country's embassy can no longer expect any benevolence from us regarding their application."It should be noted that Saturday's protest -- but not the burning of the Quran by far-right activist Rasmus Paludan -- was given prior approval by Swedish authorities. The Swedish government also criticised the protest and as the country's Foreign Minister, Tobias Billstrom stressed: "Sweden has far-reaching freedom of expression, but it does not imply that the Swedish government, or myself, support the opinions expressed.

Hulusi Akar, Turkey's Defense Minister, announced that he canceled a visit by his Swedish counterpart Pal Jonson to Turkey after "observing that no measures were taken over the... disgusting protests". Ankara also indefinitely postponed a key meeting in Brussels that would have discussed Sweden and Finland's NATO membership.

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sweden and Finland breaking 72 years of neutrality, submitted an official request to join NATO. However, if a country is to join the Alliance, it needs the unanimous agreement of all other member states, which effectively have a veto on the matter.

So far, all members of the Alliance, except for Hungary and Turkey have ratified the Swedish and Finnish NATO memberships in their parliaments. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has objected, citing Sweden's support for Kurdish groups it designates as terrorists.

Erdogan has made it clear that he would block the accession of the two Nordic countries unless Sweden extradites about 130 political refugees, mainly Kurds, to stand trial in Turkey. But Sweden refuses to do so, as it knows that in case of extradition, they will be immediately thrown into jail.

Clearly, the Turkish President wants to turn this issue between Sweden and Turkey into a multilateral problem, involving most NATO countries. In particular, he wants to exercise pressure on the United States from which Ankara wants to be supplied with F-16 fighter jets (a sale that is blocked in Congress) in exchange for unblocking the NATO accession of Sweden and Finland.

Journalist Guney Yildiz, writing in Forbes, points out, "Ankara's prevention of these states' access is a tactical move aimed at balancing its relationship with Russia and using it as leverage against the West to extract concessions. The success of this move is particularly pertinent for President Erdogan in the context of the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkiye (Turkey) in May 2023."The burning of the Quran gave Erdogan an excellent opportunity to project himself as a "defender of the faith" among Muslims all over the world and particularly among religious people in Turkey he wants to vote for him in the difficult elections he is facing on 14 May.

At the same time, he expects to stir the nationalist feelings of voters, as plays the proud nationalist card, presenting himself as the tough Turkish leader who defies international pressure and does not give in to the wishes of foreigners.

By blocking the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO, Erdogan undoubtedly curries favor with Moscow and does not want to see two countries with which it had no territorial disputes and were neutral for so many years become members of an alliance hostile to Russia.

Last June President Putin clearly warned: "If Helsinki and Stockholm allow the deployment of contingents and weaponry of the military alliance in their respective countries, the situation will deteriorate, forcing Moscow to take appropriate countermeasures."Obviously, President Erdogan, by blocking the accession of the two countries to NATO, has leverage on Moscow regarding his plans for a ground operation in Syria, which he repeatedly threatened in the past few months, but has not launched so far.

As the question of a Turkish military incursion in Syria is still on the cards, Erdogan calculates that Moscow will not react forcefully, as it wants Ankara to keep blocking the expansion of NATO.

Some analysts say that if Erdogan continues to block Sweden and Finland's accession to the Alliance, some NATO countries may be tempted to raise the issue of expelling their recalcitrant ally, Turkey, from NATO. They also point out Ankara's acquisition of the S-400 air defence system from Moscow, its refusal to implement the Western sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, its operations in Syria, etc.

However, the charter of NATO has no provision for expelling members, and it would not be in the interests of the West to do so, even if it could.

James Stavrides, former allied commander of NATO, in a recent article wrote: "At some point soon, some NATO members are going to begin asking, "If it is a choice between Sweden/Finland and Turkey, maybe we should look at our options." That would be a mistake. Turkey boasts the second-largest army in NATO, has important facilities including Incirlik Air Base, and hosts NATO's overall land-warfare command in Izmir. NATO needs Turkey to continue being an active and positive member. It also needs to add Finland and Sweden. No one wants to have to choose between them. It's up to Erdogan to ensure that doesn't have to happen." (ANI)

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