Why We Can’t Let Turkey’s Authoritarian Leader Bully NATO

Russia abuses Ukraine while Turkey blisters Ukraine. These two tiny but important Nordic countries, which are trying to be part of NATO’s security alliance NATO for a safer future, receive belligerent treatment.

It should come as no surprise that Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is putting his own interests ahead of both human lives and the interests of the people of Turkey by thuggishly opposing Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership.

As someone at the top of Erdogan’s wanted list, I can’t stress enough that NATO should not agree to any such demands.

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Prominent among them is that Sweden and Finland end their support for Kurdish groups in their territory with alleged ties to the PKK, the Turkish acronym for the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, a separatist group that has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984. While both Sweden and Finland acknowledge the PKK’s terrorist status, it seems that this is not sufficient.

Erdogan urges the authorities to release at least 33 persons he says have links to the PKK and Fethullah Gulen. Gulen denies that Erdogan is behind the unsuccessful coup attempt in 2016. According to news reports, Erdogan’s targets include respected publishers, journalists, and activists. These are considered protected individuals, so turning them over would be a violation of international law and could lead to them being tortured.

Furthermore, Erdogan wants both NATO applicants to lift the arms ban on Ankara that they (and several other European nations) adopted in 2019 when Turkey invaded Syria—not to fight ISIS but to kill the Kurds who were fighting ISIS.

As usual, the Turkish President bullied diplomats from Finland and Sweden to avoid coming to Istanbul to discuss their application for membership.

These childish gestures aim to unite Turks, and distract attention from Erdogan’s failing leadership. Erdogan will be facing close elections between now and mid-2023. His country is in ruin: The economy has collapsed and human rights are being eroded. People can’t find employment. He needs to direct the public’s attention elsewhere and claim once again that the downturn is caused by the “outside powers” who are attacking Turkish economy to punish his government for its patriotic stance.

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He is causing real problems in the world by his actions. Membership in NATO requires a unanimous “yes” vote by all 30 members. Erdogan is risking the security and long-term stability of millions by throwing his weight around. Erdogan will be emboldened to accept concessions from NATO, but lives could also be at risk for the future as Erdogan continues to gain strength.

Turkey has more to NATO than NATO has to deal with the Turkey headache. The country’s strategic importance should not be an excuse for appeasing its authoritarian leader. Doing so will allow him to continue to destroy what is left of Turkey’s democracy, help Russia and Iran circumvent Western sanctions, provide a safe haven to religious extremists, and otherwise undermine the principles of democratic security the alliance was formed to protect. This bully must be stopped by the U.S., along with 29 members.

One way to do so: Hold Erdogan and his loyalists to account for human rights violations under the Global Magnitsky Act, and require the State Department to provide a detailed account of Erdogan’s net worth and income—along with that of his family members. How’s that for a counteroffer?

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