How to close the gap between Turkey and Sweden on NATO enlargement

Turkey’s actions in recent weeks should strike a blow to the widespread perception that Ankara is only trying to disrupt NATO by holding up its enlargement.

On March 30, Turkey’s Parliament voted in favor of ratifying Finland’s accession to NATO, pushing its bid over the finish line after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicated his support two weeks earlier during a visit to Ankara by Finnish President Sauli Niinistö.

The breakthrough caps off a nine-month process since Turkey, Finland, and Sweden signed a trilateral memorandum of understanding (MoU) outlining an agreement on the Nordic countries’ accession last June. This is poised to be the fastest accession process in NATO history, but bringing it to a close will require both Turkey and Sweden to give ground.

Turkey has contributed to all major NATO missions, from the Korean War to the Balkans and Afghanistan. It has been a net provider of security, serving as a bulwark on the Alliance’s Southeastern flank. Along with Norway, it was the only NATO country to share a border with the Soviet Union. And over the last twenty years, it has had to deal with greater conflict and geopolitical instability on its borders, from Iraq to Syria, than any other NATO country.

Furthermore, Turkey has consistently been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of NATO enlargement, including in the Baltics and former Warsaw Pact countries. Turkey even advocated in favor of Ukraine and Georgia’s inclusion in the Alliance at a time when other allies were worried about provoking Russia.

Turkey is no Trojan horse for Russia, as some have argued.

To be sure, Turkey’s relationship with Russia is complex. Its purchase of the Russian S-400 air-defense system in particular set off alarm bells in NATO and cost Turkey its position in the US F-35 fighter jet program. It has also maintained relations with Russia throughout the war in Ukraine and refused to join Western sanctions.

At the same time, it has taken steps to crack down on the transit of Western-sanctioned goods to Russia. Turkey has condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, has provided military support to Ukraine, and refuses to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Furthermore, Turkey finds itself at odds with Russia in several theaters around the region including the South Caucasus, Syria, and Libya.

Turkey’s concerns

Delaying the Nordic countries’ NATO accession, with only Turkey and Hungary still holding out against admitting Sweden, is to Russia’s benefit. However, Turkey’s stance was and continues to be informed by its own defense and security calculations. That is why now that Finland, in Turkey’s perspective, has fulfilled the terms of its agreement, Turkey gave the green light to its inclusion in the Alliance. This calculation is also the reason why Turkey is not ready to greenlight Sweden’s accession yet.

The trilateral memorandum includes important commitments by Finland and Sweden to make regulatory changes to cooperate with Turkey on counterterrorism and against threats to national security and to enable arms exports to Turkey, among other clauses. Accordingly, the memorandum states that “Finland and Sweden will not provide support to” and will “commit to prevent activities of” a set of groups Turkey identifies as terrorist organizations. The MoU specifically identifies the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its offshoots, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the associated People’s Defense Units (YPG), along with FETÖ, the group associated with cleric Fethullah Gülen. Furthermore, the memorandum states that all three countries “unambiguously condemn all terrorist organizations perpetrating attacks against Turkey” and will “investigate and interdict any financing and recruitment activities” of the groups and individuals identified as terrorist organizations and their extensions by Turkey. Additionally, the memorandum says that Finland and Sweden “will address Turkey’s pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects.”

The main issue of contention, which Turkey accused not just Finland and Sweden, but many existing NATO allies of not fully appreciating, involves the PKK, which the United States and European Union (EU) have designated as a terrorist organization.

Turkey has been fighting the PKK for forty years in Turkey and Iraq and has launched three military operations in Northeast Syria against the PYD and YPG, aiming to create a safe zone on its border free of PKK-affiliated elements.

In spite of Turkey’s protestations, the PYD/YPG has been a key partner of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, led by the United States, forming the backbone of the coalition-created Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Despite Turkey’s requests, PYD/YPG is not considered as a terrorist organization by the EU or the United States, although US officials have accepted that the SDF is dominated by the YPG and that the YPG is an offshoot of the PKK. Another group of concern for Turkey is FETÖ, which Turkey has labeled a terrorist organization and accused of plotting a failed coup attempt in 2016. Following the coup attempt, several members of the organization fled to Sweden and received asylum.

Since the beginning of the accession talks, Turkey has signaled that its concerns over pro-PKK activity in Sweden far outweigh its concerns in Finland. Sweden is home to a large and politically active émigré Kurdish community and in segments of that community, PKK membership, fundraising, and propaganda have flourished.

Previously, Sweden openly supported the PYD/YPG, welcoming the head of the PYD Salih Muslim, who was interviewed on state television. The former Swedish minister of foreign affairs welcomed and took a picture with the commander of the YPG’s all-female arm, kept close relations with Syrian Democratic Council—the political wing of the SDF—and was accused by Turkey of financially supporting the PYD/YPG through the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

Sweden’s steps

Since the signing of the trilateral memorandum, Sweden has taken important steps. It resumed arms exports to Turkey, enacted a new anti-terror law in July 2022, and amended its constitution to allow more stringent terrorism laws. Another comprehensive anti-terror bill is currently under discussion in the Swedish Parliament and is scheduled for a vote on May 3. With the new law, legal liability will extend to cover not only violent terrorist acts, but support for a terrorist organization such as providing housing, logistics, or even food. Notably, it would criminalize publicly soliciting or recruiting for travel abroad with the intention of participating in a terrorist organization, thus helping prevent sympathizers from physically joining the PKK or its regional affiliates. Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström also announced that his country has decided to distance itself from the YPG, which is a big win for Turkey.

Yet it is clear that a big gap persists between what Turkey wants and where Sweden stands at the moment. While Sweden contends that it has addressed its obligations under the memorandum, Turkish officials insist on seeing it implemented in the form of legal action.

The MoU is deliberately vague and open to interpretation. While Sweden and Finland aren’t committing to explicitly accept PYD/YPG and FETÖ as terrorist organizations, courts in both countries will have to deal with cases related to ‘terrorist suspects’ from these groups and to their activities relating to recruitment, propaganda, and financing. The new law in Sweden, if passed, won’t enter into force until June. And even then, the investigation, arrest, and judicial process of a designated terrorist can take a significant amount of time, and a conviction is not guaranteed. 

Another important point to make is about the constitutional right to freedom of expression in Sweden. Pro-PKK public demonstrations in Sweden, where PKK flags and posters of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan are displayed, have been heavily publicized. Additionally, incidents of Quran burnings have happened on numerous occasions, including once this January in front of the Turkish Embassy in Sweden, which provoked anger and reaction in Turkey and other Muslim-majority societies. These acts are allowed because of Sweden’s constitutional right of free expression, a principle that Sweden will not bend on.

Likewise, the deportation or extradition process for individuals identified by Turkey may not be easy. Following the last NATO summit Erdogan said that Sweden promised to extradite seventy-three “terrorists” and “had so far extradited only three or four of them.” Regarding deportation or extradition requests, the memorandum makes reference to the European Convention on Extradition, which gives Sweden the right to refuse the extradition of its nationals but at Turkey’s request would need to “submit the case to its competent authorities in order that proceedings may be taken if they are considered appropriate.”

According to Swedish law, “if the person whose extradition is requested opposes extradition, it falls to the Supreme Court to examine whether extradition can be legally granted under the conditions laid down by law.” While for cases where the Supreme Court agrees to extradite, the government has the final word on the decision, if the Supreme Court refuses the extradition, the government has no power to overrule that judgment.

Many of the cases could involve political refugees or asylum seekers protected by the non-refoulement principle of the Refugee Convention or by subsidiary protection, though exemptions for serious (non-political) crimes are allowed. Based on news reports, among the thirty-three names listed by the Turkish media, Stockholm’s Supreme Court has previously rejected the extradition for nineteen, while seven have been granted citizenship despite the extradition request by Turkey.

All of this underscores why it will take time for Turkey to see concrete positive—or negative—results on many of its requests.

Washington’s worries

When Turkey announced its position on the Nordic countries’ NATO accession last year, it took the allies by surprise. Confidence in Turkey sunk to new lows, and its interests and legitimate security concerns were lost in rhetoric. In the highly emotive environment following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, this was completely understandable.

While allied governments and NATO’s leadership publicly emphasize their understanding for Turkey’s position and the need for dialogue, there is a sense of growing impatience. In Washington, the issue comes up in every conversation on Turkey. It’s commonly expressed that Turkey doesn’t appreciate how important the issue is in Washington. This may be true, but Turkey could easily say that its North American and European allies don’t appreciate its sensitivity when it comes to the PKK and YPG.

A sign of the growing pressure in Washington for action on the Nordic countries’ accession was a bipartisan letter in February from the co-chairs of the US Senate NATO Observer Group, Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Thom Tillis (R-NC), along with twenty-seven other colleagues to US President Joe Biden demanding that Congress not consider the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey until it completes the ratification of Sweden’s and Finland’s accession protocols. The letter came amid reports that the Biden administration, which supports the sale for the sake of US and NATO security interests, would formally ask lawmakers for approval of the deal, which it has since held off from doing.

Possibly in a nod to the growing pressure but also in recognition of support from NATO and its aspirant partners following the devastating earthquakes in Turkey in February, Turkey went on a charm offensive in Washington in March, dispatching presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın.

Kalın arrived fresh from the latest round of trilateral talks with Finland and Sweden in Brussels and met with ten senators, including Shaheen and Tillis, in addition to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland.

Turkey’s ratification of Finland’s accession should help ease the concerns of US and European leaders who doubted Turkey’s intentions, but Sweden’s membership can be more challenging and requires compromise. While the condition for Turkey to see progress on the implementation of the memorandum after new laws enter into force in Sweden before giving its green light remains unchanged, the tone has clearly softened.

The timeline for implementation could work in favor of resolution, with the new law—if passed—coming into effect on June 1, soon after what looks to be highly competitive elections in Turkey in May. There will be less pressure against moving forward with Sweden’s accession after the elections, whether or not the current government remains in power. However, sensitivity to issues involving the PKK and YPG are above politics in Turkey.

Outline of a compromise

The addition of Sweden into NATO will strengthen the Alliance. So will addressing Turkey’s security concerns. One should not come at the expense of the other but instead be the basis of compromise, with Sweden recognizing Turkey’s security concerns and Turkey recognizing the genuine contribution Sweden, together with Finland will provide to NATO, especially in terms of strengthening the Alliance’s position in the vulnerable Baltic region.

The recent resumption of dialogue with Sweden after a two-month break following the Quran burning incident in Stockholm is a positive step. These recommendations can help to close the gap of understanding between countries:

  • Turkey and Sweden need to come to an understanding about a list of realistic and legally viable extradition/deportation cases to proceed with. Turkey should be satisfied with the launch of the judicial process for extradition in order to move forward with Sweden’s NATO membership, rather than wait for the ultimate resolution of these cases.
  • Turkey and Sweden should publicly share every step of progress or lack of progress in Sweden’s implementation of the MoU.
  • Until the new anti-terror law enters in force, Sweden should thoroughly investigate incoming asylum applicants to ensure individuals suspected of being members of groups mentioned in the memorandum are denied entry.
  • Turkey needs to understand that in Sweden, joining peaceful demonstrations featuring flags and pictures associated with terror organizations is not considered as “promotion of terrorist organizations” or “as an activity that incites violence against Turkey,” per the language of the MoU. Equally, Sweden needs to understand that while the police can’t intervene in the content of the demonstrations, they can prevent terrorist organizations’ rallies or Quran burning demonstrations from taking place in sensitive areas such as in front of the Turkish Embassy, a neighborhood with a significant Turkish population, or near a mosque.  
  • While Turkey has the right to advance its national security interests in the context of NATO accession, it is in the interest of Turkey to not delay this process. With Finland now officially a NATO member, the case of Sweden becomes even more pressing considering how integrated and interlinked the two countries’ defense plans are.

If Turkey takes a maximalist approach, it’s unlikely Sweden will ever be able to fulfill Turkey’s criteria, bearing in mind international and EU law. Likewise, if Sweden takes the view that its commitments have already been met, it is unlikely to be accepted by Turkey.

One of the most significant achievements of the MoU is the creation of a Permanent Joint Mechanism between Finland, Sweden, and Turkey at all levels of government, “to enhance cooperation on counterterrorism, organized crime, and other common challenges.” In other words, the process of formally becoming allies is just the beginning of a promising security cooperation that should only deepen.

Grady Wilson is associate director at the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY, now based in Washington after living for seven years in Istanbul. Grady graduated from McGill University in 2014. Follow him on Twitter @GradysWilson.

Pınar Dost is the Istanbul-based deputy director of the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY program. She is a historian of international relations who wrote her PhD dissertation on the history of US-Turkey relations at Sciences Po Paris in 2010. Follow her on Twitter @pdosting.

Further reading

Image: Sweden's Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist and Turkey's Defence Minister Hulusi Akar attend North Atlantic Council during a NATO defence ministers meeting, with Finland and Sweden as invitees, at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium October 13, 2022. REUTERS/Yves Herman