Skip to content
Commentary | 14 August 2023

Sweden’s NATO membership: The hidden repercussions of Turkey’s backing

Image of Nima Khorrami

Nima Khorrami |Research associate, OSCE Academy and associate researcher, the Arctic Institute

NATO Sweden Terrorism Turkey Euro-Atlantic Security

Although widely expected, news of Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) presents a historic moment for the Nordic nation and a significant setback for the Russian President. But Stockholm’s acceptance will have repercussions for both NATO and Sweden in the months and years ahead, most of which have barely been discussed, let alone understood. Moreover, President Erdogan’s perceived “triumph” in setting the terms of Swedish membership and extracting concessions from the US will embolden him in his fractious relations with his neighbours in the Middle East.

Domestically, Turkish media – at least those close to the ruling AKP party – will portray Sweden’s acceptance as a triumph of Turkish nationalism spearheaded by President Erdogan. At a time when nationalist sentiments are on the rise, such portrayals could have real policy implications for Ankara’s engagement in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Of particular concern is the prospect of an even more stringent Turkish stance on the looming water dispute between Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Blaming Turkey’s aggressive dam building for the more frequent dust and sand storms, Baghdad and Tehran are already frustrated with Ankara’s lacklustre attitude towards transboundary water management. Should disputes intensify or, even worse, the trio opt for more unconventional means, such as sabotage, to settle their dispute, NATO risks being dragged into supporting Turkey as these states tussle over access to water. At a minimum, this would complicate, if not endanger, its current training mission in Iraq.

A more nationalist Turkey would also almost certainly go harder on the Kurds both inside Turkey and in Syria, not least because it has secured a long-term commitment from NATO on counter-terrorism. Turkey would most likely interpret NATO’s commitment to fight against terrorism “in all its forms and manifestations” to include any movement and/or political affiliation that call for a greater degree of autonomy for Kurds. This would place the US and some of its allies in a difficult position in Syria, where they have been arming and training The People’s Defense Units (YPG) forces against both ISIS and the regime of Bashar Al Assad, and would also expose them to the risk of indirectly aiding the Iranian regime which shares near identical views with Turkey on the Kurdish question.

More specifically, due to the close organisational ties between Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Iranian sister entity The Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), any notion of increased intelligence sharing between Sweden and Turkey could directly benefit Tehran should Ankara decide to remain committed to its 2020 deal in which Turkey and Iran agreed to coordinate their efforts to fight armed Kurdish groups in Iraq and beyond. This could also prove problematic for some political parties in Sweden, including the Social Democrats. Given its large and politically active Kurdish population, left-leaning parties could lose a considerable share of votes in future elections, both local and national, should Sweden’s NATO membership begin to be associated with increased political persecution for Kurds in the Middle East.

Equally worrisome is the potential that Swedish membership poses for complicating future NATO expansion plans. Keenly aware of most of the key member states eagerness to have Stockholm in the fold, Mr Erdogan has tactfully used the occasion to secure several key strategic priorities in return for his country’s consent to Sweden’s request to join the Alliance.

As part of the agreement for its guaranteed ratification of Sweden’s request, Turkey has secured active Swedish contribution to, and facilitation of, its EU membership as well as the modernisation of Turkey-EU Customs Union, further easing of EU visa restrictions for Turkish citizens, elimination of all barriers to defence, trade, or investment between Turkey and the EU, and further consolidation of the so-called Security Compact which would require Sweden to withdraw any support for groups deemed as terrorist by Ankara. Equally significant, it has received assurances from the Biden Administration that the President would override Congress should it seek to veto the sale of F16 fighter jets to Ankara. Above all, the deal implicitly guarantees an extended period of Western indifference to the erosion of democratic norms and values in Turkey while also benefiting Turkey geopolitically. Swedish membership will likely compel Moscow to move more resources to the Baltic Sea region and its border with Finland. This, in turn, could lead to a reduction of Russian assets in the Balkan and Central Asia/Caucasus, a scenario that would give Turkey a freer hand in becoming a more prominent security actor in the so-called Southern flank.

Mr Erdogan has single-handedly provided a textbook example for other member states to hold hostage future expansion plans as means for serving their own domestic and regional agendas. Nima Khorrami

Given the above, it is not unreasonable to assert that Mr Erdogan has single-handedly provided a textbook example, albeit a problematic one, for other member states to hold hostage future expansion plans as means for serving their own domestic and regional agendas. Although there has yet to emerge a sign of any NATO state seeking to replicate Turkey’s approach with regard to Ukraine’s request to join the Alliance, the possibility of doing so by some member states if NATO decides to establish an official presence in Asia should not be dismissed.

While there is no doubt that Sweden’s pending NATO membership is both a welcome development and a move in the right direction for enhanced stability in both Northern Europe and the wider Euro-Atlantic zone, how it has come about would most likely pose serious operational and strategic challenges for NATO in regions that fall outside the Alliance’s core. To chart its way through them and maintain its organisational cohesion, radical political reforms regarding expansion and acceptance of new members, especially Ukraine, are necessary.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: Flickr, NATO