Finland and Sweden: Nato membership on hold

A bazaar mentality

Why is Erdoğan blocking Finland and Sweden from Nato membership? It is all about carpets and donkey dung, writes Esen Uslu

When hippies were flocking in to Istanbul on their way to Kathmandu half a century ago, shoulder bags made out of old carpets in a style inspired by the traditional donkey saddlebags of the Middle East became very fashionable.

As the rising demand quickly diminished the stock of old carpets, shrewd peddlers found ways to produce antique carpets cheaply. It generally involved dipping a new carpet into a pool of donkey manure for a few days to get the colours to fade and make the texture tatty. Sustained by this new industry of making new ‘antique’ carpets, the peddlers offered bargain-price shoulder bags to hapless tourists for years - a classical example of the traditional trading practices of the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. That in time developed into the current, highly-skilled ‘basement industry’ of supplying imitations of Louis Vuitton or Hermès handbags and similar luxury brands cheaply to be peddled in tourist hotspots. The ‘donkey dung’ connection is also not lost: it occupies an impeccable position in politicians’ speeches today.

So, when Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg - who was interviewed by a German TV channel a couple of days ago regarding Turkey’s opposition to Nato’s expansion into Finland and Sweden - said that Erdoğan had a “bazaar mentality”, he was not off the mark.

Turkey became a Nato member in the early days of the cold war, when it was striving to find a place under the security umbrella provided by the US. The initial price it paid was the sending of a Turkish brigade to the Korean War (1950-53). Since then, Turkey’s relationship with the USA and Nato has had its ups and downs.

When the US offered to install Jupiter ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads to Nato countries, Britain, Italy and Turkey accepted the offer. A secret agreement was struck to build five missile sites in Turkey, which were completed in 1963, but they were traded off in exchange for Soviet missiles following the Cuban missile crisis without asking the Turkish government. All this was kept secret until the 70s, and even today very few people are aware of the danger to which the whole saga exposed the country. It reduced Turkey’s position from an ally to a discardable bargaining chip in the great-power game.

Another sticking point of Turkey’s relationship with the US and Nato came with the Cyprus crisis. The tensions resulted in Greece withdrawing its military units from Nato forces in 1964, when Turkey threatened to invade the island. In 1974, when Turkish forces actually did so, Greece withdrew its forces from the Nato military command; and, when Athens later attempted to return to the Nato fold, Turkey vehemently rejected the idea and blocked any such move until 1980.

After the invasion of Cyprus, the US imposed an arms embargo on Turkey, which retaliated by closing down 21 US bases on its territory - excluding two, which were designated as Nato facilities. Eventually the US arms embargo ended in 1978, and the bases reopened.

During the 1980s and 90s Turkey’s relations with Greece and Cyprus continued to cast a shadow over its alliance with the US and Nato. In 1996 Turkey and Greece came close to a full-blown war, but the US and Nato eventually stepped back from involvement. The only support for Greece came from Russia. Eventually the European Union insisted that Greece’s borders were EU borders and should not be violated.

Since 2014, when the Ukraine crisis began to cause major problems in the Black Sea region, the US persuaded Greece to open a new facility at the port of Alexandroupoli (Dedeağaç) on the Aegean Sea close to the Turkish border, and a rail link to the Black Sea coast was upgraded, creating a more rapid deployment channel. As Turkey may refuse any such deployment through the Turkish straits on the basis of the Montreux Convention, the creation of a new channel parallel to the Turkish straits became very important. When the Russia-Ukraine war started, Turkey implemented the Montreux Convention strictly and did not allow any Nato warship of non-littoral countries to transit the straits.

We are now seeing the culmination of this new rapprochement between Greece and the US in the shape of a new defence agreement. When Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, visited Washington earlier this week, he was warmly greeted by president Joe Biden and even addressed the US Congress on May 16 - an honour never bestowed on the Turkish president. Mitsotakis complained about Turkey’s expansionism in the eastern Mediterranean, and asked the US government to block the upgrading of Turkish fighter jets.


Turkey’s relations with the US and Nato have been severely tested since the invasion of Iraq and intervention in Syria, which created an unexpected imbalance between Turkey and the Kurds. In 2003 Turkey wavered until the last minute and rejected a proposal to open a northern front against Iraq, leaving US troops on ships sailing towards Turkey in limbo. In response the US arrested 11 members of Turkish armed forces in Sulaymaniyah. They were eventually released, but the incident caused more anti-American feeling.

When Turkey invaded parts of Syria, nine European countries, including Turkey’s allies in Nato, imposed controls over arms sales, while the US continued to support Kurdish freedom fighters in their struggle against Islamic State in Syria. In the eyes of Turkey, supporting Kurdish forces in Syria is tantamount to supporting the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in Turkey. Kobanê was defended successfully by the Kurdish fighters against the onslaught of IS. Meanwhile, US intervention forced the Turkish armed forces to pull back.

Both the US and European countries refused to supply Turkey with an air defence system and so it purchased S400 missiles from Russia and the relationship between the US and Turkey soured further. In response Turkey was booted out of the F-35 fighter programme, which had been expected to provide a major impetus to the Turkish arms industry and strengthen its airforce.

Against this background Turkey adopted a position of sitting on the fence between Russia and the western alliance, once the war in Ukraine began. It is a very precarious position, but results from several constraints.

Turkey imports its gas supplies from Russia, mostly coming via undersea pipelines. On the other hand, it exports its agricultural produce to both Russia and Ukraine, and like many other countries imports grain and vegetable oil from Ukraine. Turkey used to cooperate with Ukraine in the manufacture of turboprop engines for its burgeoning aircraft and drone industry, and was planning to develop turbofan engines together for the next generation of heavier and faster drones.

On the other hand, Turkey wants Russia to remain in Syria and maintain its agreed position on the ceasefire line between Turkish-occupied and Islamist-controlled zones. Currently the Syrian advanced line provides Turkey with a stable zone of occupation, which is being prepared for eventual annexation.

Turkey also favours the American presence in Syria - minus its support to Kurdish freedom fighters. Several times Turkey has offered further cooperation with US forces if they drop their Kurdish ally. Meanwhile, the Iraqi Kurdish regional government under Masrour Barzani is quite accommodating to Turkish demands, and is prepared to fill in any vacuum created by the defeat and dissolution of the Kurdish YPG (People’s Defence Units).

In 2019 when Turkey was poised to invade northern Syria, Donald Trump sent an infamous letter to stop Erdoğan, ending with the phrase “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”. That did not make him a favourite of the Turkish government. In the same letter Trump referred to a YPG commander as “general Mazloum”, but, if Turkey goes ahead with the invasion, “I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy - and I will”.

So, when Turkey states its objection to the enlargement of Nato into Finland and Sweden, it is actually part of its attempts to gain concessions in many spheres. It has tried its hand using the Russian card against the west in the past, but that did not produce the expected results.

Now there is another opportunity to ‘peddle the old carpet’ of Turkey’s geopolitical position in order to garner support for Erdoğan internally, as well as promoting the Turkish state’s avowed aims of expanding its sphere of influence, annexing more land in northern Mesopotamia and suppressing the Kurdish freedom movement. But, now that the ante has been upped, it will be interesting to see whether this tactic works - or backfires.