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STOCKHOLM – When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insists that there are “terrorists sitting in the parliaments of certain countries” to justify his objection to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, the Swedish opposition MP Amineh Kakabaveh doesn’t doubt who he is talking about.
“Of course Erdoğan was talking about me,” the independent opposition MP told POLITICO. “For Erdoğan, every supporter and defender of the Kurds is a terrorist.”
A long-time Kurdish rights activist, she has pushed the Swedish government to increase cooperation with the PYD, a political affiliate of the Kurdish YPG militia in the autonomous territory of northern Syria, which has clashed with Turkish forces. Last fall, she withheld her all-important endorsement of Social Democrat leader Magdalena Andersson’s candidacy for Swedish prime minister until she secured a pledge of support.
This decision did not go unnoticed in Ankara. Last week, Turkish officials said the Kakabaveh deal was emblematic of a Swedish foreign policy that has long backed Kurdish groups that Ankara views as terrorists.
Turkey has said that because of such policies it will block Andersson’s most important decision since becoming Sweden’s leader: to bring her country into NATO alongside neighboring Finland at the following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As one of the 30 current members of NATO, Turkey can veto the accession of new entrants. Swedish and Finnish memberships are now pending.
In the same way Erdoğan’s apparent labeling of Kakabaveh as a terrorist, in comments he later tried to reverse, Turkish Ambassador to Sweden Hakkı Emre Yunt said on Friday that Kakabaveh should be extradited to Turkey.
“Some legislators… work against Turkey all the time in parliament. They urge the Swedish government to take a negative stance towards Turkey,” Yunt said.
For NATO, the clash between Turkey and Sweden, and to a lesser extent Finland, which Ankara also accuses of supporting terrorists, is an unwelcome secondary spectacle at a time when Russia is attacking Ukraine, a country bordering NATO members. Diplomats and regional experts say Turkey is likely to use Sweden as leverage in a wider political campaign in which Erdoğan wants to play on his home base and extract international concessions – including pressing the US to unlock a major purchase of fighter jets.
This strategy pushes back the schedule. Sweden and Finland had hoped for early membership of the alliance, which would give them recourse to NATO’s mutual defense policy and give new depth to the alliance’s northeastern defenses.
Hopes for such a fast track are now fading. On Sunday, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said it could take “several weeks” to reach an agreement with Turkey.
The clash also risks reopening old wounds between Turkey and other members of the alliance, some of whom have faced Ankara in circumstances similar to those currently facing Sweden and Finland. In 2009, Erdoğan tried to block the appointment of former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as NATO Secretary General and a decade later Turkey also challenged a plan to move troops to NATO member states. is NATO.
In both cases, Turkey demanded that NATO countries support its hard line towards Kurdish groups.
For Ankara, the YPG and PYD are indistinguishable from the PKK, a militant group which has waged a violent campaign against the Turkish state since the early 1980s and which is classified by Turkey, the EU and the United States as a terrorist organization.
Unlike Turkey, the EU and US do not consider the PYD or YPG, whose fighters were instrumental in defeating the Islamist militant group ISIS in Syria in 2019, as terrorists.
Sweden, like a number of other European states, has a sizable Kurdish community, estimated at around 100,000 people, with politically active members regularly leading campaigns and protests against the Turkish state.
In some cases, the fluid nature of affiliations within some pro-Kurdish organizations appears to have made it difficult for authorities in Sweden and other European countries to know where support for legal groups like the YPG ends and where support begins. to the PKK terrorist.
For example, PKK flags have appeared at wider pro-Kurdish protests in Stockholm.
Sweden’s history with the PKK goes back decades and includes high-profile episodes. In 1984 Sweden became the first country after Turkey to declare the PKK a terrorist organization, while in 1986 the group was suspected of involvement in the murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in a closely watched investigation that was then discarded.
After that ?
We don’t know what happens next. Ankara’s demands on Sunday evening were that Sweden should classify the YPG as terrorists and cut its ties with the group.
Turkey is also seeking the extradition of 33 people to Turkey from Sweden and Finland who it says are supporters of terrorism. Sweden is also under pressure to drop its membership in a Western arms embargo in place against Turkey since it launched an attack on YPG forces in Syria in 2019.
Swedish Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö spoke with Erdoğan by telephone on Saturday but little progress has been made, according to statements by the three governments.
İlnur Çevik, an adviser to Erdoğan told Swedish TV channel SVT on Sunday that the parties had so far only “agreed not to agree”.
Çevik said there “isn’t much Turkey can do” about the US and other NATO countries not viewing the YPG as terrorists, but Ankara thinks that she can at least now force a change in the policies of Sweden and Finland.
“Here there is something we can do and the Turkish people are asking us to do it”, said Cevik.
The coming days and weeks should test the negotiating skills of the Swedes and Finns. Experts say Turkey is unlikely to back down in the short term with Erdoğan facing elections next year and apparently keen to exert international influence.
But Sweden and Finland are also seen as highly unlikely to respond to Turkish extradition requests to Turkey, given that Sweden in particular has long sought to play a role as an international human rights guarantor.
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde criticized “disinformation” any suggestion that Stockholm supports terrorism and noted that Sweden was the first country after Turkey to designate the PKK as a terrorist group. After meeting a group she referred to as “Kurds from Iran who live in Sweden” in 2020, Linde tweeted that “Sweden defends human rights and democracy, especially for the Kurds. The oppression to which many are subjected in their country of origin is unacceptable.
A unilateral redesignation of the YPG as terrorists by Stockholm or Finland also seems unlikely, with Sweden having previously condemned Turkish incursions into Syria against the group.
Indeed, the agreement between the Social Democrats and opposition MP Kakabaveh said that “freedom fighters who have fought or sympathized with the YPG or the PYD should be labeled as terrorists by certain state actors is unacceptable. “.
For his part, Kakabaveh has already threatened to withdraw his support for the Swedish government in future votes if he does not meet his commitments under his agreement.
Born in an ethnically Kurdish region of Iran, she fought for the peshmerga militia as a teenager before fleeing to Sweden. She said Stockholm needed to do more to resist Erdoğan’s attempts to oppress Kurdish groups.
“Turkey does not want Kurds from any country to have their rights,” she said.