Posted on May 24, 2022

NATO Bid Reignites Sweden’s Dispute With Turkey Over Kurds

Charlie Duxbury, Politico, May 24, 2022

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insists there are “terrorists sitting in parliaments of certain countries” to justify his objection to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, Swedish opposition lawmaker Amineh Kakabaveh has no doubt whom he is talking about.

“Of course Erdoğan meant me,” the independent opposition lawmaker told POLITICO. “For Erdoğan, every supporter and every defender of the Kurds is a terrorist.”

A long-time campaigner for Kurdish rights, she has pushed the Swedish government to increase its cooperation with the PYD, a political affiliate of the YPG Kurdish militia group from the self-governing territory of northern Syria, which has clashed with Turkish forces. Last fall, she withheld her all-important backing for the candidacy of Social Democrat leader Magdalena Andersson to be Sweden’s prime minister until she had secured a commitment of support.

That move did not go unnoticed in Ankara. Last week, Turkish officials said Kakabaveh’s deal was emblematic of a Swedish foreign policy which has long supported Kurdish groups that Ankara regards as terrorists.

Turkey said because of such policies, it would block Andersson’s most consequential decision since becoming Sweden’s leader: to take her country into NATO alongside neighboring Finland in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As one of 30 current members of NATO, Turkey can veto the accession of new entrants. The Swedish and Finnish accessions are now on hold.

Along with Erdoğan’s apparent labelling of Kakabaveh as a terrorist, in comments he later attempted to walk back, Turkey’s Ambassador to Sweden Hakkı Emre Yunt said on Friday that Kakabaveh should be extradited to Turkey.

“Certain lawmakers …work against Turkey in parliament all the time. They press the Swedish government to take a negative stance toward Turkey,” Yunt said.

For NATO, the clash between Turkey and Sweden, and to a lesser extent Finland, which Ankara also accuses of support for terrorists, is an unwelcome sideshow at a time when Russia is attacking Ukraine, a country bordering NATO members. Diplomats and regional experts reckon that Turkey is probably using Sweden as leverage in a broader political campaign in which Erdoğan wants to play to his domestic base and extract international concessions — most notably pressing the U.S. to unblock a major jet fighter purchase.


The clash also risks reopening old wounds between Turkey and other members of the alliance, some of whom have faced off against Ankara in circumstances similar to those now faced by Sweden and Finland. In 2009, Erdoğan tried to block the appointment of former Danish Premier Anders Fogh Rasmussen as NATO secretary-general and a decade later, Turkey also challenged a plan to move troops into eastern NATO member states.

In both cases, Turkey demanded that NATO nations should support its hard line on Kurdish groups.

For Ankara, the YPG and PYD are indistinguishable from the PKK, a militant group that has waged a violent campaign against the Turkish state since the early 1980s and which is classed by Turkey, the EU and U.S. as a terrorist organization.

Unlike Turkey, the EU and U.S. do not regard the PYD or YPG, whose fighters were instrumental in the defeat of Islamist militant group ISIS in Syria in 2019, as terrorists.

Sweden, like a number of other European states, has a fairly large Kurdish community, estimated at around 100,000 people, with politically active members running regular campaigns and protests against the Turkish state.