Turkish President Erdogan is attracting international attention because of his threat to veto Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership. With his criticism of the northern Europeans and other western states, he is forcing his allies to think about Turkish security interests in the conflict with the PKK – and perhaps also to make concessions to Ankara. That would be a success that Erdogan could translate into votes.
It is unlikely that the Turkish head of state simply can no longer stand the fact that other countries are too lax in their dealings with the PKK. In recent years he has had no problem deepening his relations with Russia, including buying weapons worth billions, although Moscow – unlike Europe – does not even classify the PKK as a terrorist group, let alone fights it.
It is more likely that Erdogan will see the NATO dispute as an opportunity to impress voters at home in order to get out of the polling low before the elections in a year’s time. Erdogan wants to present himself as David in the fight against the Western Goliath, wrote Erdogan-critical journalist Mehmet Yilmaz on Wednesday. Britain has already lifted all restrictions on arms exports to Ankara.
Erdogan’s government is demanding written guarantees from Finland and Sweden, whose negotiators held initial talks with the Turkish side in Ankara on Wednesday, that they will keep more distance from the PKK and its Syrian offshoot YPG in the future. Such a declaration would be understood in Turkey as an admission that the Nordic states have in fact previously helped Turkey’s enemies of the state. That would also be a gain in prestige for Erdogan.
The head of state has also started a new row with the USA by announcing another military intervention against the YPG in Syria: The YPG is Washington’s partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. The threat of a new invasion of Syria increases Erdogan’s stake in the game for foreign policy election campaign capital.
However, the Turkish head of state is walking a fine line. He is conducting the dispute publicly in order to score points with the home audience, but in so doing snubs his allies. Erdogan doesn’t care that he doesn’t make himself popular in Europe and the USA. But if he doesn’t find a timely solution to the argument he’s started, he risks more than just a momentary upset. If the Turkish president misses the right moment to give in, Turkey will lose its reputation as an ally. It then stands as an unreliable and opportunistic state that cannot be trusted at all. In the event of a real crisis, Turkey could then be alone.