Real rapprochement between the US and Turkey may have to wait the result of Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had his first face-to-face meeting with US President Joe Biden on June 14 on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels. Since Washington and Ankara have been at loggerheads over a long list of foreign and security policy issues, Turkish officials saw the long-anticipated encounter as an opportunity to get bilateral relations back on track. The summit, however, has provided yet another reminder that there are no quick fixes to the problems between these NATO members.
The Biden-Erdogan relationship got off to a rocky start even before Biden took office. “He is an autocrat,” Biden told the New York Times editorial board in December 2019, drawing a strongly-worded condemnation from one of the Turkish president’s senior aides.
After taking office this past January, Biden gave his Turkish counterpart the cold shoulder by not calling him for three months, only to reach out on April 23 to inform him that he was going to recognise the Armenian genocide the next day, to the great disappointment of the Turkish government.
On the Turkish end, the NATO summit could not have come at a worse time.
Ankara drew the ire of its allies in late May for using its veto power to water down the alliance’s official condemnation of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who illegally forced down a passenger plane to arrest Roman Protasevich, a dissident journalist on board. This incident followed earlier episodes of the Turkish government playing a spoiler role within NATO to soften rhetoric and action against Russian aggression targeting members of the alliance.
For a Turkey that has long leveraged its geostrategic location in NATO’s southeastern flank, this was a low point in its standing in the eyes not only of the United States but also of the other 28 member states.
Erdogan adopted a tough posture domestically in the run-up to his meeting with Biden.
He criticised the US president on Turkey’s state broadcaster for recognising the Armenian genocide, warning that, “those who corner the Republic of Turkey will lose a precious friend.”
But once in Brussels, the Turkish president chose to keep things cordial. Hoping to return to the personalised and transactional bilateral relations that characterised the Trump presidency, Erdogan preferred a one-on-one meeting without the presence of any diplomats or note-takers from either side, with the exception of an unofficial translator. This approach drew criticism from the Turkish opposition for Erdogan’s breach of state conventions and diplomatic protocol.
Erdogan hoped that the photos and reports of a cordial meeting with Biden would provide a much-needed boost to Turkey’s struggling markets. The country has been suffering from an unprecedented capital flight as Ankara’s collision course with Washington and other NATO allies continues to spook global investors.
Turkey’s pro-government outlets indeed carried in their headlines the only comment Biden had made following the summit: that he had a “very good meeting.”
When journalists asked Erdogan whether he raised his grievances concerning Biden’s recognition of the Armenian genocide during the meeting, the Turkish president responded, “Thank God, it didn’t come up.”
The Afghanistan gambit
Erdogan is a shrewd operator and has a good instinct for how to gain leverage over his counterparts. He was keenly aware that Biden’s April announcement to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan by September has posed significant challenges for Washington, including the frustration of NATO allies.
In the run up to the Biden meeting, the Turkish president hoped to capitalise on this by offering to guard and run Kabul’s airport following the US withdrawal. Although this proposal suffered a blow following the Taliban’s announcement, just four days before the Biden-Erdogan summit, that Turkey should also withdraw its troops from the country, Erdogan upgraded his offer during the summit to include security cooperation with Hungary and Pakistan in Afghanistan. The Turkish president also emphasised the need for “diplomatic, logistic and financial support” from the US.
Erdogan’s Afghanistan gambit appears to have worked. Three days after the Biden-Erdogan meeting, in a rare recent case of Washington and Ankara seeing eye-to-eye, US National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan said, “We are feeling good about where we are in terms of the planning with the Turks on this issue.”
Although the Afghanistan deal-in-the-making promises the Turkish president a rare opportunity to gain some leverage over Biden, there is a long list of issues that remains unresolved and will continue to haunt bilateral relations, including Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 air defence system from Russia. “There was not a resolution of the issue,” said Sullivan.
The S-400 deadlock
In the run up to the Biden-Erdogan meeting, Ankara tried to ease tensions over the S-400 crisis.
The Trump administration imposed sanctions last December pursuant to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, CAATSA, which targets significant transactions with the Russian defence or intelligence sectors. The sanctions include a ban on US export licenses applied against Turkey’s defence procurement agency as well as visa restrictions and an asset freeze on four of the agency’s principal executive officers, including its president.
In April, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s warning that significant transactions with Russian defence entities could trigger CAATSA sanctions “separate from and in addition to the sanctions that have already been imposed” sent a clear message that the dispute over Ankara’s acquisition of the S-400s is far from resolved.
Turkey tried to defuse tensions in late May by announcing that it was going to send home Russian missile experts overseeing the S-400s. This overture, quickly denied by Russian officials, did not generate any interest in Washington, where US officials have repeatedly expressed their unequivocal opposition to the presence of a Russian air defence system on Turkish soil.
US policy analysts see the Biden administration’s handling of the S-400 issue as an important precedent that also serves as a crucial signal to other US allies and partners. Therefore, there is no reason to expect Biden to reverse US policy at a time when there is bipartisan consensus to push back against Russian challenges to the transatlantic alliance and its values.
No return to the Trump era
Given the breadth of US-Turkish disagreements, Turkey watchers do not hold out much hope of a return to a trust-based relationship between Turkey and the US anytime soon. Erdogan hopes that a transactional relationship, the kind he hopes to establish through the Afghanistan deal, will earn him enough credit and goodwill to shield him from the Biden administration’s critical rhetoric and punitive action.
Whether Ankara and Washington succeed in moving forward in Afghanistan or not, however, there is no possibility of a return to the Trump era of interpersonal relations and horse-trading. Biden is likely to remain committed to maintaining bilateral relations through institutional channels and calling out Ankara for its transgressions in domestic, foreign, and security policy.
Ultimately, US-Turkish disagreements reflect the substantial divergences in values and interests between the Erdogan government and the US policy establishment across the aisle. At this juncture, there don’t seem to be any quick fixes that can result from transactional deals cut by heads of states.
While the Turkish president seems content with the appearance of calm in bilateral relations as he struggles to put out economic fires at home, the Biden administration continues to eye Turkey’s 2023 presidential-cum-parliamentary elections to see whether an opposition victory can start to heal US-Turkish relations and the democratic deficit of this backsliding NATO member.