Hamza Yalçin says that he fled to Sweden “because he was not a member of NATO” and that made him feel safer. “Also, my friends from Sweden asked me to do it,” he says. “I was against Turkey joining NATO and I am against Sweden. A referendum should have been held,” he adds.
Yalçin received refugee status in Sweden in 1985 and the Nordic country finally granted him nationality in 2006 “as a means of granting him enhanced protection as the circumstances that had justified the granting of asylum persisted.” He is one of the faces behind Turkey’s accusation against Sweden and Finland for alleged support of terrorism, which is hindering their entry into NATO.RELATED
Yalçin says that he was imprisoned in 1979 for his left-wing militancy when he was in the military academy. “I was shot in the back. A few days before, my brother was also arrested and killed in custody. I escaped from prison in March 1980 and came to Sweden in 1985.” Shortly after he returned to his country and was arrested in 1990. “I was tortured and imprisoned until January 1992. They accused me of leading two terrorist organizations: THKP-C Third Way and THKP-C Resistance Movement.” He denies the accusations and, after being acquitted in the first two instances, the Supreme Court sentenced him to death. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. “After six months I went abroad illegally again.”
In Turkey they have not forgotten him and in 2017, while on vacation, he was arrested in Spain based on an Interpol notification presented by Ankara for allegedly insulting the president in his articles and for advocating terrorism. After spending 25 days in jail in Barcelona, he was finally released and Spain rejected his extradition.
The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has gone out of the script marked by the rest of the NATO partners and threatened on Friday to block the access of Sweden and Finland to the Atlantic alliance: “The Scandinavian countries have become a sanctuary and a kind of guest house for the PKK and other terrorist groups. Any candidate needs the vote in favor of all the Member States.
This Thursday, hours after the formal presentation of his request in Brussels, the president has explicitly referred to Sweden: “You are not handing us over to terrorists, but you are asking us to join NATO. NATO is a security alliance and Turkey will not agree to endanger this security.” In fact, the Financial Times has reported that Ankara has already blocked the initial decision to process the applications. Erdogan has also said that the Swedish and Finnish delegations “should not bother” traveling to Turkey.
“Turkey truly believes and has legitimate concerns that there are PKK financing networks in Sweden. Also, Sweden has had public meetings with members of the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK, and Ankara wants at least those meetings not to be held publicly.” says Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the book on Erdogan ‘A sultan in autumn’. “I also think it’s a strategy to try to get NATO members, who already consider the PKK a terrorist organization, to do the same with the YPG.”
The YPG has been one of the main allies of the US in Syria in the fight against ISIS despite continuous denunciations from Ankara. A few days ago, Washington lifted sanctions on regions in the north of the country, many of them controlled by Kurdish forcesin another move that has angered Turkey.
In addition, Erdogan launched an offensive in 2019 against these forces and several European countries, including Sweden and Finland, imposed a embargo on arms sales to Ankara. Another of the reasons that motivate Erdogan’s “no”.
Kerim Has, a Turkish analyst based in Moscow, believes, however, that the issue of terrorism is only a “rhetorical position” to open a negotiation in other areas. “It is well known that there are many Turkish and Kurdish opposition figures in other Western countries and even the US cooperates directly with these Kurdish armed groups in Syria and this does not prevent Erdogan from continuing to support NATO.”
Sweden and Finland, like many European countries, have also given shelter to dozens of members of the Gülen Movement, which Turkey describes as a terrorist organization and accuses of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt. most prominent voices of that movement is Abdullah Bozkurta refugee in Sweden since 2016. Bozkurt was the head of the Ankara branch of the newspaper Today’s Zamanwhich before its closure had the largest circulation in the country, and is the president of the Stockholm Center for Freedom, an NGO dedicated to denouncing Erdogan’s abuses, as well as director of the media NordicMonitorfocused almost exclusively on Turkey.
“I left Turkey in 2016 just as the government started arresting many journalists at once. The day after I left, the police raided my newsroom in Ankara,” he says. “I chose Sweden because of the strong press freedom culture and because I wanted to continue my profession more comfortably.” “I don’t see special treatment in Sweden for members of the Gulen Movement. Yes, there has been a strong Kurdish diaspora for decades and the PKK has been able to find some support, but often Turkey mixes those with legitimate interests in defending human rights with violent groups and puts them all under the PKK label”.
Turkey has the second largest army in NATO, but in recent years it has staged multiple clashes with its partners. Precisely that independence from the rest of the members of the Atlantic alliance and that double game with Russia are what allowed it to position itself in March as a legitimate mediator in a first failed attempt at negotiation.
Although he openly supports Ukraine, to whom he has sent weapons, and condemns the invasion, he has refused to follow its partners in imposing sanctions to Russia and has made statements that are far from the line set by NATO. “We did not think that this war was going to last so long. There are countries in NATO that want it to continue. They want Russia to continue and lose power.” Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu said last month.
Another important point in the role of Turkey in the war occurred at the beginning of the invasion, when Ankara closed the passage through the straits to military ships. In reality, Turkey was applying the 1936 Montreux Convention that regulates maritime traffic through the straits. Article 19 of said treaty maintains that the military ships of a belligerent power should not be given way in case of war.
It is not convenient for Turkey to break the treaty or receive accusations of non-compliance because it gives it great power when it comes to regulating the passage through these important straits that connect the Mediterranean with the Black Sea. Erdogan then said that his government would use “the authority granted by the Montreux Convention in a way that prevents an escalation of the crisis.”
This measure, not used since World War II, has interrupted Russia’s logistics supply line to Syria, has affected its ability to rotate ships in the Mediterranean and has prevented Moscow from bringing more warships to the Black Sea ( unless they are based in the Black Sea, in which case they do have to let you through). However, Yörük Işık, a geopolitical analyst who runs the Bosphorus Observer, a consultancy that studies maritime traffic through the Turkish straits, writes in a Middle East Institute report that the impact has not been such because Russia is using civilian ships, which are allowed to pass, to provide this logistical support to military vessels.
“After the coup attempt in 2016, Erdogan felt alone and it took months for his NATO allies to contact him. Putin went ahead and called Erdogan just a day later and Erdogan’s first visit abroad after the coup was not went to a NATO partner, but to Russia,” recalls Cagaptay, who believes that the attempted coup marked a before and after in Turkey’s relationship with NATO.
“That tie has translated into power-sharing deals in Libya, Syria and the South Caucasus. They still have big differences, and Ukraine is a great example, but Turkey has become an angry member of NATO, often diluting cohesion.” of the alliance and that is exactly what Putin wanted,” he says. “With the exception of the UK, the NATO partners made a fatal mistake by sitting back and allowing Putin to beat them to the deal with Erdogan.”
Kerim Has, however, believes that the relationship between Turkey and NATO has not weakened. “The fact that Erdogan sometimes rhetorically stands with Russia does not mean that he supports him, he is just maneuvering,” he notes. “Turkey is the most effective actor in preventing Russia from fulfilling its objectives in Syria and Libya. It is the actor that stops Putin in Idlib [último bastión rebelde de Siria]; Erdogan’s forces also pushed back Haftar’s troops from Tripoli, Libya, in 2020; and Erdogan has always supported the entry of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO.”
The hottest point in the relationship with NATO so far has been Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles in 2019. In September last year, Erdogan announced that he intended to buy another batch from Moscow. In response to that purchase, the United States prohibited Turkey from acquiring the F-35 fighters, in the manufacture of which it was also going to participate. “I would say that Putin offered Erdogan the missiles on that 2016 visit, but his concessions are not free. Putin allowed Erdogan freedom of movement in Syria, but the price was to buy the S-400s, which has created a permanent fissure.” in the defensive links between the US and Turkey,” says Cagaptay.
Experts believe that one of the things Erdogan is looking for with the veto of Sweden and Finland is to provoke an exchange with Joe Biden and lift the ban on the purchase of the fighters. “He will ask to enter the F-35 project again,” says Engin Büker, a former Turkish army lieutenant colonel and naval intelligence specialist, where he worked at the Office of Defensive Cooperation with the US. He was expelled after the coup accused of being a Gülenist, which he denies.
“The real reason for my arrest was my opposition to Erdogan and the AKP government and my thought that Turkey should not move away from NATO and the Western world. But the most important reason is my work alongside US military personnel as well as my positive opinions and evaluations of the joint operations in Syria and Iraq against ISIS,” says Büker.
Erdogan has carried out a major purge in the army and many of those expelled denounce that it is an elimination of the military closest to NATO. “July 15 is the beginning of the liquidation process of pro-Western soldiers,” says Ersin Demircan, a soldier who was part of the Navy’s Personnel Investigation Department (ATİİİ ŞB) until he was expelled.
“He cannot go against Russia or the West. He tries to stay halfway to convince both parties, but they realize what he is doing. Erdogan will be forced to choose,” says Büker.
Finally, all the analysts consulted agree in highlighting the internal key to this threat from Erdogan. In June of next year elections are called in Turkey and the president needs to mobilize his base, since his popularity has been in a general downward trend since the coup attempt.
“Erdogan knows that the Turks love a good fight with Europe and this is a good thing to mobilize the grassroots,” says Cagaptay.
Has, the Moscow-based Turkish analyst, agrees: “He wants to show the Turkish people that he is a strong and charismatic leader who can oppose, even temporarily, the US. Giving that image to an internal audience is especially important for the 2023 presidential election.”
“He is punching above his weight and attacking Sweden and Finland for internal consumption within Turkey. He wants to motivate his far-right Islamist and nationalist bases with an anti-Western narrative,” Bozkurt also says.