Whenever Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan triggers a foreign policy crisis and challenges NATO, the EU or the United States, his outbursts have ulterior domestic political motives. Erdoğan is now loudly announcing that he will veto Sweden and Finland’s applications for membership in NATO. Anyone who knows Erdoğan believes that the main reason for this outburst is an effort to prolong his political life. Why is Erdoğan blackmailing NATO and the US this time?
The new era that began with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to a radical change in the perception of security on the European continent. Sweden, which has maintained its neutrality since the Napoleonic Wars, and Finland, which has preferred to remain neutral since World War II, have applied for membership in NATO. Claiming that both countries support the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and what Turkey considers its Syrian offshoot, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which threaten Turkey’s security, Erdoğan announced that he would veto the membership applications. Turkey rejected the two countries’ request at the North Atlantic Council, halting detailed accession negotiations for the time being. Erdoğan’s stance was met with astonishment by Finnish President Sauli Niinistö.
It did not surprise those who have witnessed Erdoğan’s harsh foreign policy rhetoric and subsequent U-turns. A Russian spokeswoman interrupted a live broadcast and relayed Erdoğan’s speech as breaking news: “I think the tourist season is coming, and Erdoğan needs Russian tourists,” she commented. Erdoğan said in 2009 that Turkey would veto Danish President Rasmussen’s candidacy for NATO secretary-general but later gave in in exchange for two top NATO posts awarded to Turkey. Before the NATO intervention in Libya came to the fore, he had said, “What is NATO doing in Libya?” and then made one of the most significant military contributions to the Libya operation. Erdoğan, who vetoed the NATO Baltic defense plan in 2019, later lifted his veto after Poland and Lithuania announced they would procure TB -2 Bayraktar UCAVs.
Those familiar with Erdogan’s previous U-turns and blackmail tactics interpret Erdogan’s rejection of Sweden and Finland’s membership applications to mean that Erdoğan is negotiating something that serves his hidden agenda and will withdraw his veto if he gets what he wants.
The most crucial point in military operational planning is the correct determination of the enemy’s center of gravity, i.e., from where the enemy derives his power. Success depends on protecting one’s center of gravity and influencing that of the enemy. In an interview with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, the question was asked why Ukraine is not part of NATO. “Democracy is not yet fully established in Ukraine,” he responded. When the journalist asked, “Is Turkey a democratic country?” Stoltenberg said, “Elections are being held in Turkey.”
The source of Erdoğan’s power, namely the public support behind his center of gravity and the holding of elections, gives the international public the impression that “democracy is working in Turkey.” This point should always be considered when analyzing Erdoğan’s political maneuvers. If Erdoğan believes that a measure he takes inside and outside Turkey will bring him votes and help him win elections, he will pursue it.
The presidential election in Turkey is scheduled for 2023. Creating the conditions for Erdoğan to win the election is a top priority. Opinion polls show that public support for Erdoğan has declined due to an economic crisis. Rising oil and food prices due to the war in Ukraine will mean that the economic crisis will soon be felt even more. At the moment Erdoğan does not have the financial resources to create a false economic spring before the election. Therefore, Erdoğan needs to do something to make people forget about the economic situation and rally around a national cause, depriving the opposition parties of an environment to criticize him.
Erdoğan was in a similar situation in the elections of June 7, 2015, when he lost the majority in parliament that would have allowed him to come to power on his own. Following the elections, the country lapsed into a spiral of terror, and the security policies pursued after that convinced people to vote again for his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Similarly, before a constitutional referendum in 2017 and the 2018 presidential election, cross-border military operations in northern Syria and the atmosphere of the fight against terrorism had persuaded people to support Erdoğan politically.
The PKK terrorist organization and the YPG and their activities in northern Syria are at the center of Erdoğan’s rhetoric toward Sweden and Finland. Russia is currently engaged in Ukraine and withdrawing its troops from Syria. Iranian soldiers are settling in areas vacated by Russian soldiers. A campaign currently being waged by Ümit Özdağ, a psychological warfare expert and leader of the Victory Party (ZP), against Syrian refugees is currently creating a negative atmosphere in Turkish society for the refugees. For Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it is not desirable for Iran to expand its influence in Syria. If Erdoğan launches a military operation in northern Syria that will break Iran’s influence, these countries and Israel will support Turkey. Of course, Erdoğan will demand the support of the Gulf countries to construct residences in the security zone in northern Syria to house the Syrians who will leave Turkey. The homes will be built by Turkish contractors close to Erdoğan.
Erdoğan could plan a military operation in northern Syria under the pretext of fighting terrorism, establish a security zone and resettle some of the Syrian refugees in Turkey in the homes Turkey builds there. For this plan to be implemented, Turkey should have the support of the United States.
The reason for Erdoğan’s veto of NATO membership for Sweden and Finland is to get the United States to give the green light for the military operation in northern Syria and to support Turkey diplomatically. After hosting the Finnish president and Swedish prime minister at the White House, US President Joe Biden announced that the two countries would have no problem becoming NATO members. Biden is confident that Erdoğan will withdraw his veto.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows, heads of state, as well as countries whose anti-democratic practices and blackmail policies are ignored by Western nations for the sake of economic interests, cause more significant long-term security problems for Western civilization and the rules-based world order. Had Europe turned to alternative sources of oil and gas after Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, today’s sanctions against Russia would have been more effective.
NATO will adopt a new strategic concept for the next 10 years in June. For the restoration of a rules-based international system and for NATO to assume the protective role of the liberal, democratic and human rights-based world order as a global security organization, it must first reach a consensus on these values and present this to the world with a strong message. The fact that the US, as the de facto head of NATO, is not giving in to the blackmail of autocratic leader Erdoğan this time will be an essential step in this regard. If Erdoğan gets what he wants today and his blackmail is tolerated, he will soon cause more significant security problems, as Putin did in Ukraine.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.