Why is Turkey Blocking NATO's Enlargement?

By David L. Phillips
Thursday, May 19, 2022

The application of Sweden and Finland to join NATO is historic. Their membership will broaden the circle of NATO members with a democratic government and send a strong message to Vladimir Putin about Russia’s autocracy and aggression against Ukraine. Turkey is, however, threatening to block NATO enlargement. 

What does Turkey want?
  • NATO Member States should classify the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), and the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO) as threats.
Note: NATO heads of government cannot capriciously order their judiciaries to change positions or strip rights away from their citizens or permanent residents. The SDF is America’s ally in Syria fighting Daesh.
  • The United States should extradite Pennsylvania-based dissident cleric Fethullah Gülen to Turkey.
Note: The Justice Department has repeatedly determined there is not sufficient evidence to warrant Gülen’s extradition.
  • All NATO members, as well as Sweden and Finland, must cease any activity by the PKK, SDF, or FETO on their territories.
Note: A Belgian court ruled that the PKK represents not a terrorist group but rather “a party in a non-international armed conflict.” The State Department views SDF as a distinct and separate organization and provides it with security assistance. 
  • The United States and other NATO bodies must lift all sanctions related to Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia, including sanctions on the Turkish Defense Industry Directorate.
Note: The US Congress passed the Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which cannot be arbitrarily canceled by the Executive Branch.
  • Turkey would receive new U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets and upgrade kits for its existing fleet. It would be able to rejoin the F-35 program from which it was expelled after activating the Russian S-400s.
Note: F-16s have been used by Turkey to attack U.S. allies in Syria, and Iraq and for targeting Armenians. Turkey was banned from the F-35 program because of its security cooperation with Russia, and the potential for leaks of its stealth technology. 
  • The United States would cease preventing Turkey from exporting military products containing Western components.
Note: The sale of some electronics to Turkey was restricted after revelations that Turkey used U.S. computer chips in drones that it deployed against Kurds in North and East Syria, Armenians in Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh), or sold to Ethiopia for use in its genocidal campaign against the Tigrayans.
Erdogan makes outrageous and impossible demands. Turkey’s extortion is part of a pattern of abusing the international system. Turkey violated UN Security Council sanctions on Iraq in the 1980s. In 2015, Turkey flouted restrictions on ISIS by providing weapons, money and logistical assistance to jihadis who constituted ISIS, and facilitated the transfer of 40,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries through Turkey to the frontline in Syria. In October 2019, U.S. attorneys for the Southern District of New York charged Halkbank, a Turkish state-owned bank, with fraud, money laundering, and sanctions offenses related to its participation “in a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran.” 
Kurdish exiles in Sweden, many of whom fled human rights abuses in Turkey, have been integrated as productive and peace-loving members of society. Finland has far fewer Kurds. Blocking Finland’s NATO membership simply confirms that Erdogan is acting at Putin’s behest. 
Turkish officials offer assurances that Turkey will ultimately allow Sweden and Finland to join the Alliance. Turkey will be judged by what it does, not what Turkish officials say. 
Ankara’s approach to Ukraine is deeply worrying. Turkey refuses to impose sanctions on Russia and serves as a safe haven for pro-Putin oligarchs to shelter their superyachts and money. It seeks financial and diplomatic benefits from the conflict. Erdogan recently declared at a conference of his Justice and Development Party, "With the Ukraine crisis, our country has become a rising star in sectors such as finance and tourism. By God's will, we will fulfill our promise to make our country one of the world's top 10 economies by making the best use of opportunities."  
The Biden administration must not give in to Erdogan’s extortion. If Turkey does not approve of NATO policies, it should simply resign from the Alliance and join like-minded Eurasian autocracies in Russia’s Collective Security Treaty. 
Erdogan needs to act more like a statesman, and less like a tyrant. If his thuggish conduct continues, the complete scope of cooperation between Turkey and the U.S. should be reconsidered.
(Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert at the State Department during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations).