It was criticized as underpowered by its political opponents, dismissed as unenforceable by experts, and ultimately could do little to improve its political fortunes in the run-up to the major elections slated for a year.
But Turkey’s agreement to allow Sweden and Finland to join NATO in exchange for concessions generated positive press and accolades from government supporters and sympathetic media, a rare island of good news for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan amid a sea of economic problems.
“Turkey got what it wanted,” declared the staunch pro-government A Haber TV.
The memorandum of understanding signed on Tuesday is likely to cool hostility towards Turkey in Washington and other capitals at a time when Western powers struggle to present unity in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
President Joe Biden and other NATO leaders had urged Turkey, Sweden and Finland to put the matter to rest before the summit got underway. Turkey felt the pressure, as did Sweden, whose historical sympathy for ethnic Kurds was seen as the main stumbling block to admitting the country and Finland into the alliance.
“It was a diplomatic breakthrough,” said Minna Alaner, a specialist in Northern Europe at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “Erdogan needed a win and he got something that he could present as such.”
The Turkish leader had threatened to halt plans to admit Sweden and Finland to NATO, arguing the two countries were not doing enough to fight what he described as terrorism. His administration had required the two countries to extradite terrorist suspects and admit past mistakes.
Erdogan also demanded that Finland and Sweden lift an arms embargo imposed on Turkey in 2019 and distance themselves from Kurdish nationalist groups present in Scandinavia before being allowed to join the alliance.
They agreed. But Stockholm and Finland probably should have dropped the arms embargo had they joined NATO anyway.
“Going forward, defense exports from Finland and Sweden will be conducted in accordance with the Alliance’s solidarity,” the memorandum said.
Erdogan had also wanted a long-coveted tete-a-tete with US President Joe Biden, which he got on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid, and further appeared to be making a deal to purchase US F-16 fighter jets.
But the US was already on track to sell the fighter jets. Both the Pentagon and the White House had pushed for a deal following Ankara’s removal from NATO’s program to deploy next-generation F-35 fighter jets over Turkey’s purchase of Russian anti-aircraft batteries. The Russian weapons violated US sanctions.
The agreement, which contains no enforcement provisions, offers no guarantees that the Scandinavian countries would do anything other than what they say they have already done to curb the activities of Kurdish-led militant organizations and those of a banned Islamic religious sect led by exiled clerics. Fethulleh Gülen, who is accused of being behind an attempted coup in 2016.
Yet the memorandum contained some language that appeared to be making concessions to Turkey, including pledges to fight not only the activities of the already banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but also its Syrian branches, which are part of the coalition of forces fighting IS. .
Turkish media praised the agreement as ensuring the Scandinavian countries’ “full cooperation” against Kurdish groups, boasting that the memorandum referred to “FETO,” a controversial term used by government supporters to describe Gülen’s move.
It included a commitment to intensify the review of judicial cases against individuals whom Turkey seeks to extradite, albeit without any explicit commitment to expedite or continue extraditions.
“In the end, Turkey got what it could get under these circumstances,” said Sinan Ulger, a Turkey specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s a good deal because any party can go home and claim they have what they want.”
The deal could also allay allegations that Turkey made Moscow’s request by fomenting discord within NATO at a time when Russia is waging war on Ukraine and President Vladmir Putin and his enforcers are making daily threats against the rest of Europe.
“I don’t think there was any attempt to please Russia,” said Toni Alaranta, a Turkey specialist at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki. “Turkey has been trying this balancing act between Russia and the west for a while, but that doesn’t mean Putin and Erdogan had some sort of deal. The relationship between Russia and Turkey is just as complex and ambiguous as between Turkey and the West.”
Sweden and Finland have been working closely with NATO for decades in joint military exercises and in security arenas such as intelligence services. That coordination has intensified after the 2014 Russian attack on eastern Ukraine, and has become even more evident since Moscow’s ongoing war against Ukraine. The two Scandinavian countries have long integrated their defense strategies and operations with NATO, regardless of formal membership.
“They have both been able to work the closest possible to membership since the 1990s,” said Ms Alander. “It was clear that Turkey cannot and will not stop Finland and Sweden from joining. Time was on the side of Finland and Sweden, because the blocking strategy wouldn’t work after a while.”
The deal was criticized by some of Erdogan’s opponents, who accused him of turning a corner under Western pressure. Opposition voices on social media condemned his “withdrawal” and “inconsistency”, while several lawmakers accused Mr Erdogan of posing for weeks before embracing a toothless deal.
Pollsters say that Erdogan’s perceived tough stance on NATO enlargement issues and claim that he has succeeded in making concessions has somewhat bolstered his support, which has fallen behind several key opposition figures in repeated investigations. But few believe it will make a difference in election time, which could happen next year.
“Overall, these kinds of foreign policy successes are short-lived in a country with a very turbulent news cycle,” said Mr Ulgen.
“The main problem domestically isn’t about foreign policy, it’s the economy. That is far more important than foreign policy actions. Erdogan may get a boost, but it will be limited and short-lived.”