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Biden’s challenge with Erdoğan

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Ali Dinçer*

It has been a month since Joe Biden was inaugurated as the new US president, following an election campaign during which he pledged to pursue a values-driven foreign policy, in contrast to his predecessor, who famously tended to cozy up to autocrats around the world.

For years now Turkey’s strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been enjoying a relatively smooth ride on the Washington front under the watch of both President Donald Trump who, despite significant challenges in US-Turkey relations during his term in office, never lost his admiration for Erdoğan’s big shot persona; and President Barack Obama, who was notoriously indifferent to Turkey’s democratic backsliding, which culminated in a freefall towards the end of his second term.

Things are off to a rocky start with Biden, whom during last year’s election campaign Erdoğan’s government-controlled media openly opposed and published several conspiracy theories based on Biden’s past messages of sympathy for the domestic opposition and the Kurds. Erdoğan was also significantly late compared to other world leaders to congratulate Biden on his victory, and Biden in return has been giving the Turkish president the cold shoulder and not responding to his phone calls.

A recent White House press release said a phone conversation between high-ranking US and EU officials involved an agreement to work together on “issues of mutual concern,” bundling together Turkey and China in that context, raising eyebrows among those in Turkey who still value the country’s traditional pro-West orientation. The White House statement reciprocated an EU decision back in December to postpone sanctioning Turkey over a Mediterranean dispute until March, arguably to buy enough time to move in sync with the Biden administration.

Some have suggested that the Biden administration is planning to reverse Trump’s overly personalized approach to Erdoğan and instead place the bilateral agenda within a more institutionalized framework. Such a strategy does stand to reason on a certain level, especially given the Turkish autocrat’s well-known eagerness to always remain personally visible at the forefront of his country’s dealings with the West as a way of fostering an image of a well-respected world leader at home as well as his trademark use of disagreements and deadlocks with Washington and Brussels to fuel anti-Western sentiment among the Turkish public whenever he deems necessary.

Yet, some of the major issues that have been plaguing the relations between the two countries might prove to be too challenging for their respective diplomats and technical experts to make headway on their own. For instance, Ankara’s grievances over New York federal court litigation in which Turkish state lender Halkbank has been indicted for allegedly engaging in a multibillion-dollar scheme to help Iran circumvent US sanctions, or its long-standing request for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, a US-based cleric that Erdoğan blames for a failed coup in Turkey in 2016, are matters to be ultimately settled by the US court system.

While Trump reportedly directed his attorney general to have the Justice Department drop the Halkbank case in an apparently unsuccessful attempt at obstruction of justice, a similar request made by Erdoğan towards the end of Obama’s second term was rejected by then-Vice President Biden himself. On the Gülen front, so far nothing has come out of the US Justice Department’s repeated initiatives to build a meaningful case for a competent US federal court to consider.

Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system, which became a source of widespread apprehension in NATO, had Turkey removed from a joint international program to manufacture the new generation F-35 stealth fighter jets and barred Ankara from purchasing them, and most recently prompted US sanctions that ruled out all military cooperation between the two countries, is likely to remain the most challenging point of contention.

For a long time, Turkish officials have consistently vowed not to take a step back on the S-400 issue. Earlier this month Erdoğan’s defense minister Hulusi Akar signaled a willingness to make a concession by suggesting the “Crete model,” referring to Greece’s installation of Russian-made S-300s on the island of Crete to be mainly used for training purposes. Akar, however, known for his relatively favorable views on Turkey’s transatlantic ties, might himself be in hot water as he has been blamed for a disastrous extraterritorial military operation in northern Iraq last week that led to the death of 13 Turkish soldiers, police officers and intelligence operatives held captive by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

After the failure in Iraq, Ankara retaliated by intensifying its crackdown on the Kurdish political movement at home, conducting police operations across the country to detain hundreds of members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) within a week. The incident also led to heightened anti-American rhetoric, with Erdoğan accusing the US of backing the PKK and some pro-government journalists, even going so far as to suggest that Turkey should be prepared for a military confrontation with the US. Earlier this month Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, a figure who is particularly popular among Erdoğan’s far-right ultranationalist allies, claimed in a TV interview that the July 2016 abortive coup was the work of the US, which Washington promptly denied.

Given that the PKK is also listed as a terrorist group by Washington and that Turkey’s cross-border incursions into northern Iraq to eradicate them have not drawn any strong US reactions, these accusations have arguably less to do with the PKK itself than with Washington’s refusal to agree with the Turkish assertion that the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria is nothing but the Syrian offshoot of the PKK and that therefore it should be viewed as a terrorist group as well. In recent years Trump’s permissive policies allowed Erdoğan to undertake two separate offensives in Syria to wipe out the YPG. While the Biden administration is most unlikely to encourage Ankara to go any further, existing issues such as alleged human rights violations in Turkish-held areas and the reported weaponization of the water supply to punish a large Kurdish-governed civilian population in the Al-Hasakah region could cause friction.

Although Biden as well as several figures on his team dealt with Turkey during the Obama administration as some commentators have pointed out, things in Ankara are not as they were five years ago. Even if Erdoğan theoretically shows a willingness to engage in a more positive dialogue with the US administration, the prevailing climate in Ankara and the well-entrenched interest groups surrounding Erdoğan as well as his self-apparent vulnerability vis-à-vis US adversaries such as Vladimir Putin might potentially undermine any attempt at meaningful progress on issues like human rights, the Kurdish conflict or the rift over the S-400s.

As to the institutional framework, Turkey’s foreign service, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has completely lost its traditional monopoly on foreign policy. The appointment of political figures as ambassadors, which used to be the exception and limited to relatively low-risk diplomatic missions, is gradually becoming established as the rule as career ambassadors are being sidelined and replaced by government loyalists with highly questionable credentials. Some have felt compelled to echo the government’s less than diplomatic discourse in order to remain on the stage. The ministry has also been losing prominence to the office of Fahrettin Altun, Erdoğan’s sycophantic communications director who has recently taken it upon himself to respond to world leaders in some of the diplomatic spats.

At this early stage it is not easy to make assertive predictions about what Biden’s term in office has in store for Turkish-US relations. However, there is not much ground for optimism for overcoming the current toxicity that has its roots in the Obama administration and which, in the shadow of Trump’s rapport with Erdoğan over the past four years, became deep-seated and considerably eroded not just Washington’s credibility but also the self-confidence of its allies in Europe, who were exposed to Erdoğan’s blackmail-based and increasingly militarized foreign policy.


* Ali Dinçer was formerly a diplomat at the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

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