Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

NATO’s Expansion and the Middle East’s Political Balance of Power

NATO's expansion toward the Russian borders sets the Middle East to experience heightened international polarization between NATO and Moscow.

NATO’s Expansion
Turkey’s Defence Minister Yasar Guler attends the meeting of Ministers of Defence of the North Atlantic Council at the Nato headquarters in Brussels. JOHN THYS / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

In March 2024, Sweden officially became the 32nd member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This milestone followed the withdrawal of reservations from Turkiye and Hungary.

The development marked the conclusion of almost two years of intricate negotiations, during which Sweden sought to address concerns raised by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The membership application, initially submitted in 2022, had undergone substantial efforts to align with the interests and positions of all involved parties.

NATO Expansion and the Middle East’s Balance of Power

For Sweden, this milestone marked a crucial turning point, signaling the end of two centuries of a non-aligned policy that the country had maintained in times of both war and peace. While Sweden had entered into limited security or defense partnerships with other European countries since 2009, it had never taken a step that might provoke concerns – potentially leading to hostility – from Russia, such as joining NATO.

At the same time, this event also marked a significant turning point for NATO. This move, which came on the heels of Finland’s accession to the alliance in April 2023, means all the Baltic Sea countries are now NATO members, except Russia.

As such, many view NATO’s expansion into the Scandinavian Peninsula as a resounding failure of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies, especially considering that one of Putin’s primary objectives in invading Ukraine was to prevent it from joining NATO.

However, this operation inadvertently pushed more countries toward the NATO fold, in fear of the Kremlin’s expansionist ambitions.

These events were not disconnected from the political balance of power in the Middle East. Certain Middle Eastern dynamics played a role in shaping the course of NATO’s expansion, particularly those tied to Turkiye’s uncertain position regarding Finland, and later Sweden, joining the alliance.

Furthermore, it became evident that the alliance’s expansion would influence Russia’s positions when it comes to specific issues in the Middle East, particularly those related to Iran and the ongoing conflicts in several Arab countries.

Erdogan and Bargaining to Achieve Regional Gains

It is no secret that any new country’s accession to NATO requires the consensus of the member states, as outlined in Article Five of the NATO Charter. This collective responsibility among NATO countries for the security of new members’ territories upon joining grants each member, including Turkiye, the authority to wield veto power that can influence, delay or impose specific conditions on the membership of any country.

Turkiye exercised this right by objecting to the potential entry of Finland and Sweden into the alliance following their applications in May 2022. Initial speculations linked Erdogan’s decision to his amicable relations with the Kremlin, a connection maintained even in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine. Some premature analyses suggested Erdogan’s strategic use of security arguments to align with Putin, hindering NATO expansion, ostensibly driven by specific economic interests shared between Russia and Turkiye.

However, unfolding events quickly revealed that Erdogan’s primary objective was not to obstruct Sweden’s and Finland’s accession to NATO, but rather to negotiate favorable terms with both countries and his Western NATO partners. Once these negotiations yielded the desired gains, Turkiye approved Finland’s accession in March 2023, followed by the approval of Sweden’s application in January 2024.

Erdogan strategically wielded the NATO card to exert pressure on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, considered by Turkish authorities as the primary force behind the Syrian Democratic Forces. In return for approving NATO membership, Erdogan sought specific measures from Finland and Sweden to ensure a prohibition on weapons exports to the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Furthermore, he demanded restrictions on activities deemed affiliated with “terrorist organizations,” particularly alluding to the movements of Kurdish separatist activists in their territories.

Based on Turkish terms, the three countries (Turkiye, Finland and Sweden) established a tripartite framework to oversee the implementation of these conditions and secure Ankara’s endorsement of the two membership applications.

In compliance, Sweden was compelled to establish a mechanism for transferring wanted security personnel to Turkish authorities upon revealing incriminating evidence, along with adopting legislation and constitutional amendments expanding counter-terrorism mechanisms to meet Ankara’s standards.

Similarly, Finland cooperated in extraditing wanted security personnel to Ankara and committed to preventing the activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party on its soil, extending to affiliated organizations and individuals involved in fundraising, mobilizing supporters and propaganda.

Finland’s quicker adherence to Erdogan’s requests, owing to fewer constitutional or legal impediments, explains Turkiye’s swifter approval of Finland’s NATO membership request.

The Role of the American Aircraft Deal

In the initial stages of negotiating Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO, Erdogan did not set any conditions on Turkiye’s approval concerning the United States.

However, over time, it grew apparent that the U.S. administration deliberately delayed agreeing to Ankara’s request to acquire 40 F-16 fighter jets and upgrade Turkiye’s existing 79 fighter aircraft. This delay seemed strategic, as the Biden administration appeared to be using the arms deal as leverage to exert pressure on Erdogan regarding NATO’s expansion.

In response, the Turkish president reciprocated by linking the approval of Sweden’s request to progress on the arms deal sought by Turkiye from the United States.

Consequently, a mere three days after the Turkish Parliament agreed to Sweden’s request, the U.S. government agreed to the sale of F-16 aircraft and modernization systems to Turkiye. This sequence of events underscores a clear trade-off between the two issues.

Through this exchange, Erdogan managed to avoid committing to any obligations or imposing restrictions on the use of acquired American weapons, particularly concerning Turkiye’s military operations in northern Syria.

Repercussions on Conflicts in the Region

NATO’s expansion toward the Russian borders vis-a-vis Finland, extending into broader areas of the Baltic Sea through the inclusion of Sweden, is expected to mount pressure on Moscow in its ongoing confrontation with Western countries. It is worth noting that the intensity of this conflict has peaked since 2022, coinciding with the start of the war in Ukraine.

As a consequence, there’s a likelihood that Putin will seek increased cooperation with anti-Western allies in the Middle East, especially in arms deals, to bolster Russia’s capabilities amid sanctions.

Putin’s previous use of Iranian military assets such as drones, ballistic missiles and shells may become more prevalent in the face of growing strategic pressures. This could lead to concessions in areas where Russia and Iran have competing interest, such as in Syria, as observed in recent developments in the country’s east with the expansion of Iranian-backed militias with implicit Russian approval.

Simultaneously, Putin may strengthen alliances with Islamic groups, such as Hamas and the Houthis, opposed to Western influence in the Middle East, with the aim of exerting counter-pressure against the United States.

In January 2024, Putin held discussions with delegations from the Hamas and Houthi movements, addressing the escalating military situation in the region. These actions by the Russian regime suggest a clear intent to interfere in sensitive political balances in the region.

As a result, the Middle East is poised to experience heightened international polarization between NATO and Moscow, particularly intensified after the recent expansion of the alliance. The only potential mitigating factor or prevention of further escalation is the initiation of substantial negotiations to find peaceful resolutions to the ongoing war in Ukraine.

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