Turkey’s blocking of Swedish NATO membership is disappointing but not disastrous. Nonetheless, this would be a good moment to set alliance security ties with Turkey on a businesslike path and remind Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that his allies can only be pushed so far.
We can start by withdrawing US forces from the strategic İncirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. The United States began constructing this massive facility in 1951, initially as a key link in the chain of sites meant to contain the Soviet Union (including as a base for U-2 “spy plane” missions). Over time its purpose evolved, and it has been employed time and again in pursuit of US interests in the Middle East.
But its value is now less than in the past, and President Erdoğan’s behavior in holding up Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership applications, along with other policies like assisting Russian sanctions evasion, suggests it is time for the US to reassess.
How important is it that Sweden and Finland gain NATO membership? It’s a powerful sign of Western resolve in the face of Russia’s renewed aggression. The two countries have long cooperated with NATO on peacekeeping and defense planning, but most Finns and Swedes had seen no compelling need to formalize the relationship. (Thank you, Mr. Putin.) NATO operates by consensus, and it was undeniably disappointing when Erdoğan announced after months of negotiations that he would agree to Finland’s accession but not Sweden’s. (Finland had initially claimed it wouldn’t join alone, but seems to have changed its mind.)
Is Turkey doing Russia’s bidding in vetoing Swedish accession? While the Kremlin benefits, that’s not the Turkish leader’s motivation. Erdoğan and Putin cooperate in some areas and oppose one another in others. Turkey has angered NATO allies by foregoing sanctions against Russia and providing a haven to oligarchs and their assets. Yet it continues to support Ukraine militarily, and to position itself as a broker, e.g. facilitating the resumption of Ukrainian grain exports.
So what is Erdoğan’s game? At the top of Erdoğan’s wish list: Swedish action to curb fund-raising and organizational activity by opponents, including the Kurdish PKK (which Sweden, like the US and EU, designates as a terrorist group) and exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen’s Hizmet organization (widely seen as responsible for the failed 2016 coup attempt), and to extradite alleged operatives. More broadly, Erdoğan saw an opportunity to remind NATO members of Turkey’s veto power. Nobody who has ever negotiated with a disciplined, knowledgeable Turkish diplomat or executive should have been surprised.
Does NATO fail to take Turkish security seriously? To an extent. Belief is widespread in Turkey that NATO/EU members have long done less than their laws permit to suppress terrorist support operations on their soil, and in some cases, this is likely true. Turkish suspicion of the West is a hardy perennial going back to the Republic’s birth in the 1920s when Ataturk pushed European armies out of Anatolia. Turks – including many who don’t much care for Erdoğan – are also troubled by US support for the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the YPG, which has partnered with the US since 2014 to combat ISIS. The Obama administration assured Turkey that the US could simultaneously support Turkey against the PKK, and arm and direct the YPG against ISIS and that the latter relationship would be “temporary, tactical, and transactional.” That alliterative arrangement has now lasted into its third US administration, as Turks feared.
So is Turkey’s position productive? Not if it seeks more concessions from Sweden. Erdoğan may have wrung all he can from Sweden and Finland, and a continued standoff seems both likely and pointless. Erdoğan’s blind spot where Western standards of rule of law are concerned, and a tendency to conflate free speech with support for terrorism, have led him to make impossible demands. Erdoğan appears — either sincerely or willfully — to have interpreted Swedish promises to energize judicial cooperation as a pledge to simply turn over the opponents on Turkey’s extradition wish list. His reported fury over anti-Turkish/anti-Islamic demonstrations in Stockholm recalled the incident during Erdoğan’s 2017 visit to Washington when his security detail brawled with pro-PKK demonstrators (aka the “Battle of Sheridan Circle”), scoring votes and likes at home. Standing up to the West plays well with Erdoğan’s base, at least until the West pushes back. His attitude toward Sweden echoes his stance after the 2016 coup attempt when Turkey demanded the US hand over Gülen — who lives in Pennsylvania — despite the absence of evidence sufficient to meet a US court’s standard for extradition. This led Turkey to hold a number of American citizens on blatantly false charges, until the US tired of quiet diplomacy and instituted sanctions. The risk is that Turkey and Sweden maintain this standoff indefinitely.
How much does it hurt NATO if Sweden doesn’t join? Operationally, not so much. Before Finland and Sweden sought to accede, observers pointed out that there was already close military cooperation with NATO and individual member states, which continues to build. (NATO members Norway and Denmark recently agreed to coordinate air defense with Sweden and Finland, for example.) Politically, Turkey’s actions don’t negate the value of Sweden’s (and Finland’s) new commitment to the alliance and vice versa. The real challenge is in global messaging — Russia, naturally, seeks to use the episode as proof that Western resolve is crumbling and NATO is in disarray. NATO’s consensus decision-making is a feature, not a bug, of a democratic alliance. (This isn’t the Warsaw Pact, comrades.) A Western overreaction would play into the Russian narrative.
So what should NATO – and Washington – do? First, stay calm. The US and other NATO members should continue to seek mutually beneficial defense ties with Turkey, which has the second-largest military in the alliance and a critical geographic position. Ignore calls to retaliate, e.g. by abandoning the effort to rebuild defense industrial cooperation largely suspended in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt and Erdoğan’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 missiles. But that said, after the May elections – whether Erdoğan or his electoral opponent Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu prevails – we should remind Turkey that no member of the alliance is indispensable, except the United States. One way: begin the process of withdrawing US Air Force personnel and assets from İncirlik Air Base in southeast Turkey.
Don’t we need İncirlik? Need is a big word. İncirlik was vital to the US logistic enterprise supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Turkey retains tight control over US use of the facility and today İncirlik appears less important to US operations in, say Syria and the Persian Gulf region than bases in partner countries in the Gulf. NATO allies Greece and Romania have proved eager to host US forces.
How is withdrawing from İncirlik “staying calm?” İncirlik is a perennial flashpoint. There is a history of Turkish governments threatening to suspend US operations in response to US action, going back at least to the 1970s, and continuing under Erdoğan. It would be useful to pursue continued bilateral and NATO defense cooperation with Turkey without the question of İncirlik’s status forever looming over the negotiating table.
Has this worked before? Every country is different, but there is precedent for base closures clearing the way for more balanced cooperation, including continued base access. Consider the Philippines: for decades, Naval Base Subic Bay and Clark Air Base engendered popular resentment; that began to subside with their closure in 1991. This year, the two countries agreed to US forces’ use of Philippine bases to counter China. Through the Cold War and beyond, U.S. relations with NATO ally Iceland were dominated by the status of US forces at Naval Air Station Keflavik, which were solely responsible for the defense of Iceland. Icelandic politicians periodically threatened base closure, but in the end it was the US that decided to withdraw its 3,000 personnel in 2006. NATO developed a sustainable rotational system whereby several allies (including the US) provide forces for the defense of Iceland. A side benefit has been that the US and Iceland are able to focus more on areas of non-defense partnership, such as trade and the environment.
Won’t the Russians try to benefit? Oh, sure, on a propaganda level. I mean, a chatbot could write the talking points – NATO in disarray, Washington fleeing from the Middle East. We can counter that our aim is a balanced, respectful relationship, which should include continued access to Turkish bases, including İncirlik when the sides agree it is necessary. In 2016, Erdoğan’s prime minister Binali Yildirim mused publicly that Turkey would consider letting Russia base forces at İncirlik – a suggestion that even the Russians couldn’t bring themselves to take seriously.
Ambassador Philip Kosnett (Ret.) represented the United States during a Foreign Service career focusing on international security and post-conflict governance. His assignments included Ambassador to Kosovo, Charge d’Affaires in Turkey and Iceland, and Deputy Chief of Mission in Uzbekistan, as well as tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, The Netherlands, and Japan. He now consults, writes, speaks, and designs simulation games on global affairs. He is the editor of “Boots and Suits: Historical Cases and Contemporary Lessons in Military Diplomacy” (Marine Corps University Press, 2023).
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.