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nato, kurds, foreign policy

NATO is Bargaining with Kurdish Lives

The accession of Sweden and Finland into the military alliance hinges on Turkish animosity toward the Kurds.

Words: Samuel Gardner-Bird
Pictures: Levi Meir Clancy

On June 28, Sweden, Finland, and Turkey struck a deal that would allow the Nordic nations to enter the NATO accession process, ending decades of neutrality. President Joe Biden touted the breakthrough at the NATO summit in Madrid and praised Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for his efforts to reach an agreement and establish a grain corridor out of Ukraine. This appears to be a major victory for an alliance ostensibly based on core democratic values, human rights, and sovereignty.

Sweden and Finland’s decision to enter the NATO accession process upended their traditional logic of nonalignment, policies which were developed to avoid a confrontation with Russia. But after the shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, joining the alliance suddenly seemed like a good deal. Finland in particular has reasonable security concerns: it shares an 800-mile-long border with Russia, it ceded swaths of land to Moscow during World War II, and its neutrality during the Cold War was largely imposed through the threat of Soviet force.

A key sticking point though, were stipulations that Turkey placed on the countries before agreeing to vote them in. Turkey’s additions include an agreement that Sweden and Finland will cooperate on matters of counterterrorism, particularly related to the activities of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG), two affiliated militant Kurdish groups; the former is listed as a terrorist group by the United States, EU, and Turkey.

Sweden and Finland’s support for Syrian Kurdish groups was at the heart of Turkey’s threatened veto on NATO membership for the two nations.

This could possibly include the extradition of Kurdish individuals living in Finland and Sweden who are considered terrorists by Turkish officials. The two nations have also ended an arms embargo on Turkey, imposed after the Turkish offensive against Syrian Kurds in 2019. This element of the deal has been sharply criticized by Finnish and Swedish Kurds, who argue that it could lead to the erosion of human rights and constitutes “shameful concessions” to the autocratic rule of Ankara.

This is not the first time the Kurds have felt victimized by NATO policies, and particularly bullied by Turkey. For decades, NATO, primarily led by the United States, have allowed the Kurds to be massacred, bombed, and displaced — supposedly with the aim of furthering more important strategic interests.


Since the founding of the modern Turkish state, Ankara has rejected the notion of a separate Kurdish identity and gone to extraordinary lengths to extinguish any ideas of Kurdish autonomy. For decades, governments in Ankara have criminalized the Kurdish language and culture. It is only recently that Turkish politicians would admit there are Kurds living in Turkey.

Despite Turkey’s current role as a vital partner in countering Russia’s invasion, the war Turkey’s security forces have pursued against Kurdistan is eerily reminiscent of the Russian tactics that NATO is trying to deter in Ukraine. Ankara’s traditional view that Turkish Kurds are not a distinct minority group is shared by President Vladimir Putin, albeit in different terms, who suggested that Ukraine was a Bolshevik aberration and that Ukrainians are actually one with the Russian people.

In 2019, after a phone call with Erdoğan, then-President Donald Trump abruptly decided to withdraw US troops from northern Syria. Trump cast the decision in the rhetoric of “America First,” stating that he was living up to his promise to end “endless war.” But the subsequent attempt by Vice President Mike Pence to strike a ceasefire between Turkey and the YPG demonstrated that Trump’s transactional diplomacy often led to more bloodshed. There was an immediate outcry denouncing the abandonment of Kurdish allies who had fought in the US coalition against ISIS. Emmanuel Macron famously stated that NATO was suffering from “brain death,” in response to the lack of planning between the United States and Turkey. President Joe Biden, campaigning for the Democratic nomination at the time, lambasted Trump for the pullout, saying he “sold them out.”

Following US withdrawal, the Syrian YPG faced the Turkish operation alone, without the support of the Americans who had relied on them to defeat the Islamic State. A US diplomat on the ground noted that the United States had stood and watched as Turkish-backed Islamist forces attempted the “ethnic cleansing” of Kurdish areas in northern Syria.

Trump’s policy deserved the reaction it got. But now in 2022, another potential abandonment of the Kurds in Madrid is receiving scant attention from the same press and politicians who excoriated Trump’s withdrawal.


Turkey became a vital country for the United States during the Cold War, serving as a bulwark in the global fight against communism. The country occupies a crucial geography, straddling the border between Europe and Asia, and it controls access to the Black Sea through the Bosphorus Straits.

In recent years, Turkey became a reluctant partner in the fight against Islamic State, allowing the US-led coalition to launch strikes from Turkish areas. This came despite reports that Turkey was arming Syrian Islamist rebel groups in 2013. Although Turkey has not been a reliable partner, its current diplomatic leverage is afforded by its ability to veto Sweden and Finland’s bid to join NATO.

The articles concerning Kurds in the NATO accession plan for Sweden and Finland conflate the YPG and the PKK but the two groups are distinct. Turkey has blurred this distinction. The PKK, Turkey’s main domestic adversary, is an organization that has waged a brutal conflict with Turkish security forces since its founding in 1978. Originally formed by Abdullah Ocalan in Turkey as a Marxist-Leninist movement to establish an independent Kurdistan, the PKK began launching costly attacks in the 1980s against Turkish security forces and government figures in southeastern Turkey. The group has also been responsible for thousands of civilian deaths, largely through bomb attacks on Turkish metropolitan areas.

In the 1990s, Turkey’s campaign against the PKK reached a fever pitch as hundreds of villages were destroyed and millions of Turkish Kurds were displaced. At that time, Turkey became one of the largest recipients of US military aid despite its prosecution of a devastating counterinsurgency war against Kurdish majority areas in Turkey. This is not shocking, the US has often delivered large sums of foreign aid to some of the world’s worst human rights abusers. US officials argued that supplying weapons shipments gave them the ability to change Turkey’s behavior and negotiate ceasefires, a power that was rarely wielded. The war has continued to ratchet up in recent years and the International Crisis Group estimates that over 6,000 people have died in the conflict since 2015.

Whether it’s the Treaty of Sevres, a summit in Madrid, or a phone call in the Oval Office; the future of the Kurds is always on the bargaining table.

The Syrian YPG is a sister organization of the Turkish PKK, but the group has not been labeled as terrorists by any nation except Turkey. Both the YPG and its political wing, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), have been the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The Kurdish YPG were a critical element of the Syrian Democratic Forces who fought the Islamic State in northern Syria, and formed a close partnership with the US during counterterror operations.

Sweden has offered hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to the PYD and has publicly stated that it is unrelated to the activities of the PKK. Ankara disagrees. Turkey’s opposition to the YPG has several roots, including their support of Islamist groups in Syria and the YPG’s affiliation with the PKK. Sweden has become a refuge for Kurds seeking asylum, with a population of nearly 100,000 Swedish Kurds. It is important to note that the vast majority of Kurds living in Sweden have no ties to the PKK.

Sweden and Finland’s support for Syrian Kurdish groups was at the heart of Turkey’s threatened veto on NATO membership for the two nations. The extradition of several hundred terrorist suspects and squeezing out a deal on an arms embargo was apparently worth jeaporadizing the whole accession process.


Did Ankara deserve these concessions? After all, Turkey has been a volatile ally for the US in recent years. Erdoğan suffers from a plummeting economy and has been delicately balancing its membership in NATO and its relations with Russia. This deal underscores his need to gain diplomatic wins to bolster his domestic support. Given Turkey’s precarious economy and the US willingness to provide billions of dollars in aid to support Ukraine, was another incentive possible?

It is typical, and often the right policy, for the US to conduct its international relationships in a transactional manner. This is the cold logic necessary in a dangerous international environment. But it is worth questioning what these concessions are worth and to remember what the sacrifices are for.

Sweden and Finland possess advanced militaries and have been in the business of territorial defense for a long time. There is no doubt that they will add value to the alliance and demonstrate to Moscow that costs will be imposed for its illegal invasion. But should it have come at the expense of Kurdish groups who are fighting for their own autonomy? Not all Kurdish groups are the same and they don’t all want the same thing, they have their own long history of civil conflicts. But millions of Kurds — in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran — live without the protection of a state and are subject to incursions and reprisals at the mercy of the whims of the countries where they live.


The history of the US abandoning the Kurds in the name of greater interests is a long and tragic one. It includes shameful episodes in which the US provided Saddam Hussein’s forces with intelligence, with the full awareness that they were using chemical weapons against Iranian troops — a brutal tactic that was utilized to massacre thousands of innocent Kurds during the Anfal campaign. Only a few years later, President George HW Bush called on the Iraqi people to rise up, only to stand down when Hussein’s forces crushed the rebellion. This bitter history is hard to ignore in light of the recent agreement.

While NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept states that, “we want to live in a world where sovereignty, territorial integrity, human rights and international law are respected and where each country can choose its own path, free from aggression, coercion or subversion.” Its flippant disregard for Kurdish sovereignty and rights shows a thinly veiled hypocrisy. Although Kurdistan is not a sovereign nation, the Kurdish groups living in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran do not have the chance to choose their own future. Their lack of a place at the bargaining table does not afford them the right to live free from the threat of repression.

Fortunately, the text of the agreement is vague on the details for Sweden and Finland’s cooperation with Turkey. Turkey has renewed its efforts to have Sweden and Finland extradite dozens of suspects, but officials have made it clear that extraditions will only be processed according to local and international law. It may be too soon to call the deal a win for Turkey and perhaps the situation will not meaningfully change, but these qualifications are a poor consolation for a people who have been repeatedly abandoned by great powers.

Perhaps the worst part of the deal is not found in the text at all. Rather, it is the implicit acceptance of Erdoğan’s designs for the Kurds of Turkey and Syria. The agreement might be a signal that NATO nations will look the other way when Turkish forces begin another offensive. Erdoğan has already spoken publicly about his desire for new operations against YPG territory in Syria.

If so, this would be the thanks for Syrian groups who bore the brunt of the Islamic State’s advance. This would be the fate of a people who fought because Western nations were no longer willing to deploy significant ground forces. While the US is not expected to fight to establish a sovereign Kurdistan, it has some moral obligation to the armed groups that helped drive out one of the US’s primary adversaries in the past decade.

If another Turkish offensive begins and NATO nations stand down, it will be a sign that the Kurds are only good as long as they share the right enemy. It will be a repeat of 2019, when the United States didn’t do enough to stop the Turkish incursion into Syria. If no Turkish attack proceeds and the new members of NATO do not comply with the autocratic overreach of Erdoğan, then this article can be cast aside as unnecessary fear-mongering.

But one thing remains clear. Whether it’s the Treaty of Sevres, a summit in Madrid, or a phone call in the Oval Office; the future of the Kurds is always on the bargaining table.

Samuel Gardner-Bird graduated from Tufts University with a bachelor’s degree in international relations. He is also a former Young Global Professional with the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Samuel Gardner-Bird

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