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In Bid to Join NATO, Sweden and Finland Back Turkish Repression of Kurds

NATO’s July summit betrayed the Kurdish people. The left must stand with both Ukraine and the Kurds — and against NATO.

Syrian Kurds celebrate the Nowruz New Year festival in the countryside of al-Qahtaniyah in Syria's northeastern Hasakah province, close to the border with Turkey, on March 21, 2023.

As Ukrainians face a brutal and ongoing Russian siege, NATO’s July summit has endangered and betrayed Kurdish people, cruelly trading the fate of one occupied and repressed group for another.

The most celebrated news out of the summit was the fact that the last hurdles had been removed to Sweden joining the alliance, with Finland having joined just months before. But these two states are admitted on the basis that they are breaking with their historical practice of providing safe haven for Kurds — particularly those fleeing Turkey’s repression.

The Kurdish people have been rooted in Kurdistan for centuries, a region that stretches across the Middle East and overlaps with the contemporary nation-states of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The creation of those states and the drawing of their borders have been part of a history of violence against the Kurds — which continues to this day. Turkey has waged violent campaigns within and beyond its borders against Kurdish communities and organizations, such as the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) — which exists throughout Kurdistan — and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is based in Syria.

Finland and Sweden have historically been countries to which Kurdish refugees and asylum seekers have fled.

Historically, both Nordic states had policies of neutrality and opted not to join NATO when it was created in 1949. Both established cooperative relations with NATO in the 1990s when they entered the European Union, but they formally remained non-NATO states. The Russian assault on Ukraine, however, pushed public opinion in both Scandinavian states decidedly in favor of joining NATO. When both countries began the process of applying for membership in 2022, they received a warm welcome from the majority of NATO member states — with two holdouts: Hungary and Turkey.

For his part, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán — one of the key leaders in the global trend toward far right authoritarianism — took Hungary’s ability to act as a gatekeeper to the alliance as an opportunity to fire back at criticism of his anti-democratic regime from the Nordic states. Although he quickly signaled that he would not hold up Finland’s and Sweden’s acceptance into NATO.

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however, dug in his heels in opposition. Calling Finland and Sweden “guesthouses for terrorist organizations,” Erdogan seized the opportunity of Turkey’s outsized power in NATO’s expansion to attack Kurds — both those residing in the Middle East and Kurdish asylum seekers in the Scandinavian countries. In a series of tripartite meetings between Turkey, Finland and Sweden, Ankara demanded the end of a Finnish arms embargo that had been imposed on Turkey in 2019, after the latter’s operations against Kurds in Syria.

We cannot accept a prescription to “stand” with Ukraine that involves betraying the Kurds.

Moreover, as a memorandum produced by the talks outlines, the three states agreed to a set of measures in the name of “fighting terrorism.” These included Finland and Sweden affirming the notion that the PKK is a terrorist organization, that the states would not provide any support to the PYD, and that they would remove barriers to trading weapons with Turkey. Both Finland and Sweden expanded domestic “counterterrorism” legislation, and both agreed to deport and extradite people who Turkey designated as “terror suspects.”

In December 2022, Sweden followed through, extraditing a Kurdish man named Mahmut Tat for his alleged ties to the PKK. A Turkish court tried and convicted Tat in absentia, before he had even arrived on Turkish soil. He was sent to prison immediately after landing in Istanbul. Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ called the extradition a “good start” on Sweden’s part.

In January 2023, Finland lifted its arms embargo on Turkey, permitting a Finnish company to sell steel to Turkish weapons manufacturers.

By March, Turkey had cleared the way for Finland to join the alliance, and it did so in April.

As the July NATO summit approached, Erdoğan also got the European Union to open a discussion about “re-energizing” EU-Turkey relations. Turkey applied for membership to the EU back in 1987 but has yet to be accepted, despite the fact that Turkey has agreed since 2016 to act as the European Union’s fortified barrier with the Middle East and as a holding cell for refugees and asylum seekers pursuing entry to Europe.

The United States, for its part in the current negotiations, leaned on Turkey to admit Sweden to NATO, with the Biden administration making it a condition for the sale of F-16 fighter aircraft to Ankara.

Having secured Sweden’s collaboration against Kurds and a revisiting of Turkey’s EU application, Erdoğan gave the green light for Sweden’s membership in NATO, providing for celebratory headlines out of the summit in Lithuania.

These deals to sell weapons between different NATO states and extradite Kurdish asylum seekers to one of their persecuting states — all in the pursuit of the crude national interests of NATO members — stand in stark contrast with the flowery language of “international law” and “democratic values” that the U.S. and NATO states profess.

This dark reality illustrates the tightrope that people on the left must walk in those countries. We are compelled to extend solidarity to Ukrainians — who deserve to know that they are not alone in facing an indefensible invasion that has killed many, wounded and displaced many more, and has been disastrous for their society. But we are compelled to pursue forms of solidarity that are distinct, independent and critical of the cynical actions that the U.S. and its allies take in the name of “standing with Ukraine.”

As internationalists, we have to appreciate the dire threats that Ukrainians under attack are facing — as well as those threats facing many invaded, occupied, and abused nations and peoples. We cannot accept a prescription to “stand” with Ukraine that involves betraying the Kurds.

War tends to narrow the space for conversation and political possibilities. It presents a situation that forces people to take sides — and inevitably it is the more powerful, wealthiest and best armed forces who get to set the terms of discussion. In this context, the vulnerable are left out of the conversation and exposed to danger. We have seen this throughout the war in Ukraine — from LGBTQ Ukrainians who have faced special barriers in fleeing Russian violence, to African international students who found themselves stuck between Russia’s invasion and European racism and borders, to impoverished Russians bearing the brunt of Western sanctions. Now, the recent NATO summit sacrifices Kurdish people as NATO states pursue greater power.

We cannot accept this narrow, militarized framework. This world, where many, many groups of people have been suffering for a long time, is becoming even more dangerous. Multiple world powers are each pursuing their own, violent projects and alternatively collaborating with and vying for power against each other. They are doing so all while acquiring more devastating weapons.

In this situation, we face the challenge of carving out solidarity on our own terms. These terms must be grounded in a rejection of military aggression by any world power, and respect for the dignity of all people.

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