NATO chief sure spat over Sweden, Finland will be resolved

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Turkish Presidency

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his ruling party supporters in Ankara, Turkey, late Wednesday, May 18, 2022. Erdogan continued his opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, stating Ankara would say "no" to their bid. Speaking to a group of Turkish youth, Turkish President accused the two countries and especially Sweden of being "a focus of terror, home to terror." (Turkish Presidency via AP Photo)

ISTANBUL – Turkey's leader flatly opposes having Sweden and Finland join NATO, but the military alliance's chief said Thursday he was confident the standoff would be resolved and the two Nordic nations would have their membership requests approved soon.

Turkey’s approval of Finland and Sweden's application to join the Western military alliance is crucial because NATO makes decisions by consensus. Each of its 30 member countries has the power to veto a membership bid.

“We have told our relevant friends we would say ‘no’ to Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO, and we will continue on our path like this,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Turkish youths in a video for Commemoration of Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day, a national holiday.

Ankara is objecting to their membership over security concerns, accusing them of supporting outlawed groups that Turkey deems existential threats, as well as their restrictions on weapons exports to Turkey.

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during a Thursday visit to Denmark's capital, Copenhagen, he was ”confident that we will come to a quick decision to welcome both Sweden and Finland to join the NATO family.”

“We are addressing the concerns that Turkey has expressed, because when an important ally (like) Turkey raises security concerns, raises issues, then of course the only way to deal with that is to sit down and find common ground,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Copenhagen, Denmark.

U.S. President Joe Biden met the leaders of Sweden and Finland on Thursday in Washington and expressed full support for their membership.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said his government was open to discussing Turkey’s concerns.

“As NATO allies, we will commit to Turkey‘s security, just as Turkey will commit to our security. We take terrorism seriously,” he said.

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said her government was reaching out to Turkey and other NATO nations “to sort out any issues.”

Finland and Sweden officially applied to join the world’s biggest security organization on Wednesday. A first meeting of NATO ambassadors to discuss their applications failed to reach a consensus. For the moment, no new meeting of NATO ambassadors is yet planned.

Erdogan says Turkey's objections stem from its security concerns and grievances with Sweden's — and to a lesser degree Finland’s — perceived support of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and an armed group in Syria that Turkey sees as an extension of the PKK. Turkey's conflict with the PKK has killed tens of thousands of people since 1984.

Asked whether Finland might get admitted before Sweden, Stoltenberg replied: “We handled this as one process, and we are working with this as one process.”

In his remarks made available Thursday, Erdogan branded the two prospective NATO members and especially Sweden as “a focus of terror, home to terror.” He accused them of giving financial and weapons support to the armed groups, and claimed the countries' alleged links to terror organizations meant they should not be part of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Erdogan's ruling party spokesman, Omer Celik, said Thursday they had proof that Swedish weapons were showing up in PKK hands, while also warning the United States and France for “giving to the group that kills my country's citizens.” If NATO is to expand, Celik argued, then potential members must “cut off their support to terror groups.”

Turkish officials, including the president, also have pointed to arms restrictions on Turkey as a reason for Ankara’s opposition to the two countries becoming part of NATO.

Several European countries, including Sweden and Finland, restricted arms exports to Turkey following the country’s cross-border operation into northeast Syria in 2019 with the stated goal of clearing the border area of Kurdish militants.

Turkey says the Syrian Kurdish People’s Defense Units, or YPG, is directly linked to the PKK. American support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, which mainly consists of YPG fighters, to combat the Islamic State group has been infuriating Ankara.

Turkey also accuses Sweden and Finland of harboring followers of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Muslim cleric whom the Turkish government blames for 2016 military coup attempt. Gulen has denied any links to the coup attempt.

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Olsen reported from Copenhagen, Denmark. Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.