Fearing any concession to Kurds in Turkey and its neighbouring countries, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in turn pushes concessions on his NATO allies regarding the treatment of their Kurdish diaspora, journalist Bitte Hammargren wrote in an article published on Mansklig Sakerhet. Before the current push for the criminalisation of Kurds in Sweden and Finland, Erdoğan had forced Czechya to arrest Syrian Kurdish political leader Saleh Muslim, she said. The Turkish president is also using Sweden’s bid to join NATO as his battering ram to push forward his plans to invade northern Syria, and at least Sweden appears to be getting less supportive of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), Hammargren added. However, in the midst of this shift, Syrian Kurdish groups such as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) remain the most important group in the international fight against the jihadist group Islamic State (ISIS).
Hammargren has written about Turkey and the region for years, and worked as the Svenska Dagbladet’s Turkey correspondent for more an a decade.
A translation of the Institute for Foreign Policy senior fellow’s article from Swedish follows. Lightly edited for clarity.
Turkey’s past military operations against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria have gone hand in hand with political attempts to get NATO to label the group as a terrorist organisation. It has failed so far, mainly due to US resistance and knowledge of the YPG’s importance in the war against the IS terrorist group. But now that President Erdoğan is planning a new invasion of northern Syria, he is trying to turn Sweden and Finland into wall breakers to get countries within the NATO defence alliance to increase the pressure against the YPG.
A feeling of forced alienation was felt by many Swedish Kurds this summer when Magdalena Andersson’s socialdemocratic government, together with Finland, entered into a tripartite agreement with Turkey at the NATO summit in Madrid. The two Nordic countries pledged not to support the Syrian Kurdish PYD/YPG, to lift restrictions on arms exports to Turkey and to consider Ankara’s extradition demands. The concessions were aimed at getting Turkish approval of the Nordic countries’ NATO application. But President Erdoğan gives nothing for free. He has instead taken the opportunity to twist the knife a little more. He is skilled at identifying the opponent’s weaknesses and uses them to force further concessions. A corresponding reading of Erdoğan’s leadership style does not seem to have been made in Stockholm or Helsinki, even though it is well known that Turkey has used both hostage diplomacy – towards Germany and the USA for example – and blackmail attempts towards other NATO countries to get them to bow to Turkish priorities. President Erdoğan only gives in to whoever he sees as stronger.
Swedish concessions raise concern
Many Swedes with a background in Turkey and its neighboring countries tell that they were shaken by the previous government’s concessions to Ankara: “Turkey has succeeded in silencing Swedes at all levels, even politicians,” says a Swedish Kurdish source who wishes to remain anonymous but who at the same time describes how “diaspora Kurds” who have lived in Sweden for 30, 40 or even 50 years feel worried and disappointed. “They ask themselves why Sweden makes these concessions to Turkey, instead of standing for a policy,” he says.
This source, who has lived in Sweden for more than a quarter of a century, has over the years begun to see himself as more Swedish than Kurdish. But the June agreement in Madrid disturbed his self-image. “Suddenly it’s as if we weren’t part of this country. Now it feels as if we are ‘just Kurds’ and as if someone is going after us. My children ask me: Dad, are they going to send you to Turkey?”
Previously, Sweden was known for its support for Turkish membership in the EU, at the same time Swedish governments have been clear in their demands that human rights must be respected. Sweden’s parliament also agreed on the decision to stop all arms exports to Turkey after the country’s invasion of northern Syria in 2019. Two years later, Ann Linde, then foreign minister, welcomed Ilham Ahmad, female leader of the Kurdish-dominated regional self-government in northeastern Syria. Linde emphasized that the Kurdish-led self-rule council, SDC, should be included in the talks about Syria’s future and pointed out that Sweden had “a close relationship with the self-rule”. Now that the criticism has fallen silent and the Social Democrats’ contacts with the Syrian Kurdish leaders have cooled, there are many who think they don’t recognise the party.
Billström (Sweden’s foreign minister) describes Turkey as a democracy
Others point out that Fredrik Malm and Gulan Avci from the Liberal Party don’t express open criticism of Ankara as they did before. In the Moderate Party, the foreign policy profiles explained in October 2021 that Turkey does not belong in the EU and that the authoritarian country’s “divide and rule methods” are unacceptable. Now the Moderate led government dismiss all doubts towards Ankara. Foreign Minister Tobias Billström (Moderate Party) describes Turkey as a democracy, unlike the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and Freedom House. Billström also goes a step further than the trilateral agreement from Madrid by describing the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG, the People’s Defence Units, as questionable and wanting the government to distance itself from the organization – unlike the United States, which cooperates militarily with the YPG in northern Syria and will soon be visited by Ilham Ahmed in Washington where she is expected to meet a deputy foreign minister, the US Foreign Ministry and members of Congress.
If Sweden, which has traditionally shown openness to Kurdish issues, changes course, other European countries may do the same. But what worries Kurds in Sweden and the Middle East is turned into hope in Ankara. After the Swedish turnaround, President Erdoğan’s chances of getting individual NATO countries to follow Billström’s example by withdrawing from the YPG increase – even though the militia gave more than 10,000 lives in the fight against the terrorist group IS and has been guarding the camps with tens of thousands of suspected jihadists and their family members.
“Sweden’s approach is amateurish”
A diplomatic source from a NATO country, who has followed how Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson has tried to appease President Erdoğan, calls the Swedish approach in the negotiations “amateur”. Turkish observers I have spoken to are surprised that Sweden has allowed itself to be “humiliated” by practically standing with cap in hand in Ankara and beg for a yes to Swedish NATO membership.
Erdoğan, a master of political dramaturgy and ruling techniques, used Kristersson’s visit to Ankara to present himself as the nation’s strong leader. The dramaturgy was to show a Swedish prime minister who had to humble himself before a proud, regional power like Turkey. But the autocrat in Ankara did not want to offer the Swedish apprentice in foreign policy any guarantees for a ratification of the NATO application. Instead, Erdoğan managed to turn Kristersson’s visit into a spectacle in which he himself played the lead role as the grim father of the house, sided by an honor guard in costumes from Turkish rule through the ages. It has been a long time since Erdogan fielded soldiers in such uniforms during a foreign visit, Turkish observers note, but towards Sweden he took cthe opportunity. It was part of the dramaturgy.
Unlike other NATO countries, Turkey does not distinguish between the YPG and the PKK, who are also labeled terrorists by the surrounding world. At the same time, the question of who is a terrorist is in many cases stretchable, also in Turkey. Until the mid-2010s, Salih Muslim, former leader of the YPG’s political wing PYD (Democratic Union Party), traveled to Turkey to negotiate. That was before Turkey labeled him and the YPG/PYD terrorists. Salih Muslim, who studied chemical engineering in Istanbul as a youth, is fluent in Turkish. This facilitated the negotiations.
Spectacular evacuation of historic grave
A spectacular round of negotiations concerned the evacuation of a historic burial site in northern Syria, the mausoleum of the patriarch of the Ottoman Empire, the 13th century Süleyman Shah. The site, located a few miles south of the border, was regarded by Turkey as sovereign Turkish territory following a 1921 agreement between Turkey and the then French Mandate Power in Syria. But in early 2015, the mausoleum and its Turkish guard were threatened by IS jihadists. To move the soldiers and remains to a safer place near the border, Turkish military needed free leave. That required them to come to terms with the YPG, which was then at war with IS. The link to the YPG became Salih Muslim. And the operation, called Operation Shah Euphrates, succeeded.
During a February night in 2015, a Turkish military convoy with 57 tanks, 37 other armored vehicles and 572 soldiers crossed the border into Syria at the city of Kobanî to evacuate 38 Turkish soldiers and move the remains of Süleyman Shah. The Turkish army leadership denied quiet diplomacy with the YPG, but Turkish journalists highlighted Salih Muslim’s role as a negotiator, calling him the “unsung hero” of the operation.
However, the attitude of the Turkish state hardened after the YPG, with the support of the US, was able to capture more and more territory from IS to finally take their last outpost in Syria in 2019.
“Having first been in Turkey as their guest, it was not very nice to be called a terrorist by the same country,” Salih Muslim commented on the Turkish turnaround when I interviewed him in Stockholm a few years ago.
In European capitals, he has been a frequent visitor. Turkey has been refused when they requested his extradition. But in February 2016, it almost happened, when the Syrian Kurdish leader visited Prague. Following Ankara’s extradition request, he was arrested in his hotel room by Czech security services and taken handcuffed to a court”. A plane was ready to take him from Prague, but the US stopped it,” says a well-informed source. The release led Turkey to threaten its NATO ally the Czech Republic with a “day of reckoning” – an attitude that every European country that does not bow to Erdogan must consider.
Erdogan fears concessions to Syrian Kurds
Under better circumstances, the United States might have been able to persuade Turkey to hold constructive talks with its Kurdish neighbors. Turkey has learned to live with the recognised Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq – which has become a significant export market for Turkish companies and a link for oil exports to the Turkish Mediterranean coast. If Ankara can live with a federal solution in northern Iraq, it should also be possible in the future in northern Syria – if one day it is possible to break the Assad regime’s and Russia’s resistance to this. But the bottom line is that any thought of a recognised federation in Syria would have a contagion effect in Turkey, where the Kurds are far more numerous. That is why President Erdogan fears any concession to Syrian Kurds.
At the same time, there is a perception within the NATO system, not least in Washington, that Turkey is a NATO member which only chooses the issues that suit the country. Turkey refuses to participate in the sanctions against Russia. And in 2020, Turkey tried to stop the alliance’s defence plans for the Baltics and Poland unless NATO designated the YPG as terrorists. That didn’t happen. The US resisted the blackmail that time. Similarly, Turkey first tried to stop the appointment of Anders Fogh Rasmussen as NATO’s Secretary General in 2009. Even then, Turkey had to give in.
But now that NATO is preoccupied with Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, Erdogan is trying to use Sweden as a battering ram within the defence alliance – which suits his plans for a new invasion of northern Syria.