After Turkey received delegations from Sweden and Finland on Wednesday for talks on their NATO membership applications, Turkey continues to object to the admission of the two Nordic countries. It accuses both countries, but particularly Sweden, of harbouring terrorists on their lands and providing armaments to the People’s Defense Units (YPG), which Turkey considers as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and thus designates it as a terrorist organisation. Although the US and the EU consider the PKK a terror organisation, they regard the YPG as a separate organisation and do not include it on their terror lists.
Turkey’s ulterior motive in objecting to Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO is probably to get certain concessions from NATO countries regarding its defence industry, rather than preventing Sweden’s or Finland’s alleged support of terrorism. These concessions include US approval for the modernisation of Turkey’s F-16s and the lifting of all official and informal arms embargos imposed by NATO member countries. Negotiations are already ongoing behind closed doors. However, since Turkey has raised terrorism-related arguments publicly, these allegations also need to be addressed by European public officials.
Accusations of terrorism is quite pervasive in Turkish political discourse. President Tayyip Erdoğan routinely claims that members of the opposition are in alliance with various terror organisations. Aside from politics, Turkey’s legal system contains an unacceptably vague and extremely broad definition of terrorism. Civil society activism, participating in political demonstrations or even writing a tweet can lead to terrorism complaints. Just between 2016 and 2020, 1.6 million people in Turkey were investigated after being accused of terrorism. In a country of 80 million people, this number alone testifies to the fact that terrorism is an ill-defined concept in the Turkish legal system and is routinely used to suppress political opposition and silence critics.
The European Union does not accept Turkey’s definition of terror and instead is demanding a clear approach to terrorism that would be in line with democratic principles. Until that point, not only Sweden but all European countries should continue to ignore Turkish demands for the extradition of “terrorists”.
Turkey’s second objection – focussing on the YPG-PKK connection – constitutes a grey zone due to the ambiguous nature of the relationship between the YPG and the PKK. The YPG is clearly linked with the PKK in terms of ideology, and there is a certain level of exchange between the two organisations in terms of personnel and munitions. However, the YPG remains a separate organisation with its own command structure and priorities. Furthermore, the YPG has been very careful not to launch any attacks against Turkey.
In fact, Turkey’s own approach to the YPG during the early 2010s reflected this ambiguity, even though Turkey defined the YPG as a terrorist organisation. For instance, in 2013 and 2014, Turkey invited Salih Muslim, then head of the YPG’s political branch, to Ankara on several occasions for diplomatic negotiations. Even the idea of the YPG opening a branch in Ankara was discussed during these meetings. In 2015, Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) conducted a small-scale military operation in Northern Syria in which the YPG claimed to participate and support the TAF. Although Turkey rejected the claims of a joint operation, they admitted that Turkey informed the YPG ahead of the operation. As late as the summer of 2015, sources close to government circles claimed that Turkey was considering the YPG as a potential partner in Northern Syria. All these formal and informal communications and negotiations point to the fact that Turkey did not consider the YPG and the PKK to be on the same ground back then.
Turkey’s actions towards the YPG became harsher only after Erdoğan enacted a dramatic shift in his domestic politics following the June 2015 elections. Failing to secure Kurdish support for his long-cherished desire to switch to a presidential system, which would have concentrated all power in his hands, Erdoğan went from being a peacemaker with the Kurds to an aggressive Turkish nationalist. Only after this policy shift did Ankara start to target YPG forces in Syria and seriously object to Western support for the YPG.
Moreover, Western support for the YPG crystallised in 2014 during the war against the “Islamic State” (IS) and was partly the result of Turkey’s unwillingness to fight against the IS. In that context, the YPG appeared as the most capable and reliable ally for the US-led Western coalition. Thus, it was Turkey’s miscalculations and unstable policies that opened the way for the YPG’s dominance in northeastern Syria and the enduring YPG-US alliance.
Given this context, Europe should not accept Turkey’s categorical and unconditional description of the YPG as a terror organisation. First of all, relations between the PKK and the YPG are not definitively uniform. Second, unlike the PKK, the YPG does not constitute a direct security threat to Turkey, as it has refrained from targeting Turkish territory. Third, such a declaration would further complicate the solution to the Kurdish question, as it would deny legitimacy to the most strongly organised Kurdish group in Syria. However, the EU may negotiate with Turkey in order to develop well-defined parameters to better assess the PKK-YPG relationship and to determine whether, and at what point, these relations would suffice in describing the YPG as a terror organisation. Here, the EU can move closer to some of Turkey’s arguments, such as Turkey’s demand for the prevention of logistical connections and arms transfers between the YPG and the PKK.
All in all, Europe and NATO should be ready to address Turkey’s concerns while pushing Turkey to be clearer about its arguments and demands. Public displays and effective communication of this position remain important in order not to alienate the Turkish public.