STOCKHOLM -- Sweden on Tuesday denied that it was providing any “financial assistance or military support” to Kurdish groups or entities in Syria — claims that Turkey's using to back its opposition to Sweden's and neighboring Finland's historic bids to join NATO.
The denial came as delegations from Sweden and Finland were expected in the Turkish capital, Ankara, for talks with Turkish officials on Wednesday to try and overcome Turkey's objections to their NATO bids.
Turkey is citing the Nordic countries' perceived support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and other groups Turkey labels as terrorists, as well as arms exports restrictions imposed against Ankara following its incursion into Syria in 2019.
“Sweden is a major humanitarian donor to the Syria crisis through global allocations to humanitarian actors," Foreign Minister Ann Linde told the Aftonbladet newspaper.
“Cooperation in northeastern Syria is carried out primarily through the United Nations and international organizations," she said. "Sweden does not provide targeted support to Syrian Kurds or to the political or military structures in northeastern Syria, but the population in these areas is, of course, taking part in these aid projects.”
Turkey has listed five “concrete assurances” it is demanding from Sweden, including what it said was “termination of political support for terrorism,” an “elimination of the source of terrorism financing,” and the “cessation of arms support” to the banned PKK and a Syrian Kurdish militia group affiliated with it. The demands also called for the lifting of arms sanctions against Turkey and global cooperation against terrorism.
Listed as a terror group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union — of which Sweden and Finland are members — the PKK has waged an insurgency against Turkey since 1984. Tens of thousands of people have died in the conflict.
Turkey said in a tweet posted by the presidential communications directorate that it has been requesting the extradition of Kurdish militants and other suspects since 2017, but hasn't received a positive response from Stockholm.
Among other things, Ankara claimed that Sweden had decided to provide $376 million to support the Kurdish militants in 2023 and that it had provided military equipment to them, including anti-tank weapons and drones.
On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey would launch a new military operation in Syria to secure Turkey’s southern border.
The Swedish and Finnish delegations are scheduled to discuss Turkey's objections with Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesman of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal on Wednesday. The Swedish delegation would be headed by state secretary Oscar Stenström while Jukka Salovaara, the foreign ministry undersecretary, would lead the Finnish delegation.
At the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said that “we understand that Turkey has some of their own security concerns vis-à-vis terrorism and so forth.”
“We think that we have good answers for those because we are also part of the fight against the terrorism. So, we think that this issue can be settled,” Haavisto said.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at Davos that NATO will do “what we always do” and “that is to sit down and address concerns when allies express concerns.”
He says he’s confident the military alliance will be able to “solve these issues and to agree and then to welcome Finland and Sweden as full-fledged members of our alliance.” All 30 current NATO countries must agree to open the door to new members.
Stoltenberg said he spoke to Erdogan, and the president raised the same issues as he had done publicly – “that’s about terrorism, it’s about concerns about the PKK, and also of course the need for Turkey to acquire the weapons they deem that they need.”
“Part of the solution is also to recognize that despite the fact that there are different views ... among NATO allies on issues related to Turkey, we also have to recognize that Turkey is an important ally. Turkey is the ally that has suffered most terrorist attacks — far more than any other NATO allied country,” he said.
Sweden has welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East in recent decades, including ethnic Kurds from Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
After being firmly against NATO membership for decades, public opinion in both countries shifted following Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, with record levels of support for joining the alliance.
Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Lorne Cook in Brussels and Courtney Bonnell at Davos contributed to this report.