In the Middle Ages, holding a knight to ransom was standard practice on the battlefield; it is still routine in international relations today. For example, last December Russia traded basketball player Brittney Griner to the United States in exchange for an arms dealer, Viktor Bout. In September, Iran released five Americans accused of espionage in return for nearly $6 billion in oil revenue frozen in a South Korean bank. The fate of some 240 hostages taken by Hamas in its attack on Israel on October 7 plays a key role in the outcome of the conflict.
Five years ago, Nate Schenkkan, project director at Freedom House, noted that hostage-taking had become a feature of Turkey’s foreign policy. The most prominent example is the American pastor Andrew Brunson, who, together with his wife, ran a small Christian church in Izmir.
Brunson was arrested in 2016, three months after the attempted coup in Turkey, on suspicion of being “a threat to national security.” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made Turkey’s intentions plain. Concerning Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania resident who was accused of being behind the attempted coup, Erdogan told the Americans: “You have another pastor in your hands. Give us that pastor, and we will do what we can in the judiciary to give you this one.”
However, Erdogan’s project backfired. With one eye on his support from the evangelicals, President Donald Trump’s reaction was uncompromising. Sanctions were imposed on two leading Turkish ministers, which caused the Turkish lira and Turkey’s benchmark ten-year bond to hit a record low. In that year, the lira, already groggy, fell almost 40 percent against the U.S. dollar. Consequently, pastor Brunson was released.
Now, a new opportunity has arisen. As a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership in May last year, but Turkey and Hungary blocked their membership process. Turkey’s initial objection was that they housed terrorist organizations, namely supporters of the Kurdish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Gülen movement.
This was quickly elevated by Erdogan’s foreign policy advisor and spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin, to “a matter of national security.” After Erdogan’s electoral victory in May, Kalin has been appointed head of the MIT, Turkey’s national security organization, in a government reshuffle.
After the NATO summit in Madrid in June last year, Finland and Sweden agreed in a trilateral memorandum with Turkey to extend their full support to Ankara against threats to Turkish national security and end their arms embargo. Consequently, in March this year, the Turkish parliament formally approved Finland’s membership, as did Hungary’s parliament.
However, Turkey still has a bone to pick with Sweden. Turkey initially demanded the extradition of eleven PKK members and ten Gulenists from Sweden, but after the Madrid summit, the number ballooned to seventy-three. After an effigy of Erdogan was strung up outside Stockholm town hall in January this year, Erdogan increased the number to 130.
After the Quran-burning incident in January, Erdogan made it clear, “If you do not show respect to the religious beliefs of the Republic of Türkiye or Muslims, you will not receive any support for NATO [membership] from us.”
In an attempt to smooth the path for Sweden’s membership, NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg brokered a bilateral Security Compact between Turkey and Sweden at the NATO summit in Vilnius in July. Accordingly, Sweden reiterated it would not provide support to the YPG/YPD (the PKK’s Syrian counterpart) and the Gulenists.
In addition, Sweden agreed to step up its economic cooperation with Turkey and actively support efforts to “reinvigorate” Turkey’s EU accession process. The sword of Damocles hanging over Sweden’s head is that its NATO membership is dependent on ratification by the Turkish parliament, where it has stalled.
Turkey’s Vice President Cevdet Yilmaz has told the Financial Times that Sweden must take further “concrete steps” against terrorism to secure Ankara’s support for its NATO bid. But the prospects of that happening are slim. Sweden’s Supreme Court has blocked the extradition of members of the Gülen movement, which is a key demand by Turkey for it to back Sweden’s NATO membership.
Nevertheless, U.S. president Joe Biden has offered Turkey a deal. The Biden administration will proceed with a $20 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey as Turkish officials apparently agreed in Vilnius to withdraw their objections to Sweden’s NATO membership. The rub is that the sale has to be approved by Congress, which is not positively inclined, particularly after Erdogan’s vocal support for Hamas.
Erdogan has made no bones about it. As he stated, “They are linking Sweden to the F-16s. … In turn, we say if you have a Congress, we have a parliament.”
Now push has come to shove, and the question is: who will blink first?
Robert Ellis is a Turkey analyst and commentator. He is also an international advisor at RIEAS (Research Institute for European and American Studies) in Athens.
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