Biden on Turkey: a hard hand instead of ‘meek requests’

WARSAW, (BM) – Joe Biden’s declarations on foreign policy, supporting democracy in the world, and opposing authoritarian tendencies are certainly not enthusiastic about Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Already during the campaign, there was sharp mutual criticism. Moreover, the appointments made so far by the new administration are not a good signal for Ankara. Meanwhile, several points of contention have accumulated between Turkey and the US.

In an article published in March last year in Foreign Affairs, in which Joe Biden presented his future foreign policy’s philosophy, Turkey’s word is never mentioned. While much emphasis is placing on rebuilding ties with the US’s traditional allies, this is not necessarily Turkey’s case. Simultaneously, Biden emphasized that one of the fundamental determinants of US foreign policy under his rule will be the strengthening of democracy and liberalism in opposition to fascism and autocracy and the end of the “supporting “ policy kleptocrats in the world. Biden also announced the convening of a summit for democracy [still in 2021], in which democratic states and social organizations fighting for democracy in not necessarily democratic countries would participate. Therefore, we can expect that Erdogan will not receive the invitation to this summit, but by those imprisoned.

In his article, Biden referred to Freedom House’s ratings, which are inexorable for Turkey. The only NATO country classified there as “not free,” both in terms of political rights and civil liberties. The aggregated result [32 points on a 100-point scale] differs from the rating of other Member States, where the worst ratings are: Montenegro [62 points], North Macedonia [63 points], Albania [67 points], and Hungary [70 points]. Moreover, these are not countries that could be considered critical allies of the US. For comparison, Poland has a rating of 84 points by Freedom House. Sometimes one can meet with opinions that Biden will forget about his declarations about supporting democracy under the influence of political realism and geopolitics.

Except that such an opposition is fundamentally false. Basing the international Alliance on the foundation of shared principles, liberal freedom and democracy, and their exports have been the USA’s traditional approach for decades, having nothing to do with any idealism but fitting into the paradigm of political realism. Of course, the USA has repeatedly applied the double standards policy, which has been explained in the book by Jeane Kirkpatrick “Dictatorships and double standards,” based on which the so-called Kirkpatrick doctrine. The problem is that it is questionable whether, in Erdogan’s Turkey, the US is interested in relinquishing its principles in favor of double standards.

Among other authoritarian US allies, such as Saudi Arabia, there is also concern about the upcoming Biden inauguration. Nevertheless, they were much more cautious during the election campaign and did not directly conflict with Biden. In August last year, a recording from December 2019 was released. Biden called Erdogan an autocrat and emphasized that he must pay for his policy, and the US should seek to overthrow Erdogan by legal means, supporting the Turkish opposition.

The current president-elect, in particular, criticized Turkey’s policy towards Kurds [this was just after the Turkish invasion of Northeast Syria], as well as Turkish-Russian collaboration. In response, the Turkish authorities launched a ruthless attack on Biden, undoing previous attempts to influence his backroom in the Democratic candidate winning event.

Turkey’s problem (and Erdogan in particular) is that for several years now, leading American newspapers and think tanks have been talking about undermining the slogan repeated like a mantra that Turkey is a key ally of the USA. In a situation where, under Erdogan’s rule, it deepens its cooperation with Russia and China, supports the bypassing of sanctions against Iran, makes it challenging to fight Al Qaeda and the Islamic State by attacking key US allies in this area. The question of why the US should tolerate it and whether it has an alternative seems entirely justified.

It is not Turkey, but the United States is a world superpower, whose position determines the right to impose alliance conditions. Meanwhile, the policy of concessions based on the assumption that is pressing Turkey forces it into the arms of Russia has led to opposite results, i.e., deepening Russian-Turkish cooperation and taking further actions contrary to the interests of the USA or other NATO members. Such an assessment of the situation was presented by, among others, Jake Sullivan, a new national security adviser. He is a 2018 Politico article called for a tough stance on Turkey in response to threats to attack US forces in Syria. “The long-standing tendency to treat Turkey mildly convinced Erdogan that Washington views its relationship with Ankara as too important to collapse. It only fuels the risk appetite – and, as a result, the potential for conflict,” wrote Sullivan at the time.

Meanwhile, Turkey would have paid a massive price if, faced with either the US and NATO or Russia and China, it chose the latter. Turkey’s advantage of the current situation is that it enables it to “play the two pianos” and has therefore departed from the policy of loyalty to the Alliance, which previously justified turning a blind eye to, to put it mildly, deviating from NATO standards and values. Therefore, the fears that putting pressure on Turkey will result in its exit from the Alliance are entirely unjustified.

It is primarily Turkey that would suffer the negative consequences of this step. From the US perspective, a possible destabilization of this country would not pose a geopolitical problem. Washington could move the Incirlik base to Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, or northern Syria. In each of these places, the conditions for using it would be much better, and there would be no such incidents as in Turkey. On the other hand, the Kurecik radar station could be moved to Armenia, which of course, would have to involve a general reversal of alliances [after Trump’s erroneous policy regarding the last Karabakh war, it is difficult but not impossible].

The US is also not interested in Trans-Anatolian routes’ patency, as China can use it. In December, Turkey boasted that the first rail freight transport between Istanbul and Beijing took place. Also, blocking the transportation of Caspian gas and oil to Europe would not be a problem for the USA because it would increase American LNG competitiveness and the profitability of the East-Med project in which the USA participates [Exxon explores the Cypriot deposits]. Also, the assumption that the control of the Bosphorus gives Turkey a strong geopolitical advantage is incorrect. If Turkey blocked access to the Black Sea, it would have to consider the Aegean Sea blockade.

This does not mean that the Biden administration will seek to end the US-Turkish Alliance and, as a consequence, open confrontation with Turkey and destabilize it. Hitherto’s statements of Biden and key persons nominated for his administration, i.e., the new Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan and prominent senators of the Democratic Parties, e.g., Sen. Robert Menendez, a dream. Tim Kaine or a dream. Cory Booker indicates that they are characterizing by such skepticism about Turkey’s rightness regarding the concessions policy.

It is worth adding that Trump blocked many steps against Turkey as part of its response to its aggressive and destabilizing actions and manifestations of disloyalty, including the imposition of obligatory sanctions under the CAATSA law the purchase of the S-400, despite the adoption of relevant law by Congress. The reasons were Trump’s interests (and not the US) in Turkey and his relationship with Erdogan. Now, this obstacle has been removed.

The list of US-Turkish relations problems is long and is undoubtedly opened by purchasing the S-400 system from Russia. In this respect, there is no question that Biden would make any concessions, which would be a massive problem for Turkey. In October, it began testing the system despite US warnings. Undoubtedly, she was encouraged to do so because, for a year, the Trump administration did not impose any sanctions, although they were mandatory and demanded by Congress. Senator Menendez issued a statement in which he stated that the tests carried out were proof that Ankara was not affected by the “meek requests” of the Trump administration. Erdogan was only reacting to “actions and not a word.” The imposition of sanctions on Turkey weakened the US position about Russia was a violation of US law and encouraged Erdogan to conduct tests.

The US finally imposed the sanctions in mid-December as Trump was aware that Biden would charge them anyway. The sharpening of post-election rhetoric makes it easier for people associated with Trump to run for other elected positions. The sanctions are quite severe [cutting off the Turkish defense industry from American licenses, component exports, etc.]. Turkey’s first reactions show that it is aware that taking retaliatory measures in the form of further tightening relations with Russia or China will not scare the Americans and will only worsen Ankara’s situation.

Another issue on which we cannot expect American concessions is the situation in the Mediterranean Sea. Both the European Union and the USA are interested in the uninterrupted exploration of gas fields in the Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ] of Greece and Cyprus, especially as American companies have significant interests. Already in January last year. Congress passed a law supporting Cyprus in its dispute with Turkey. Therefore, we could expect that the new administration will be much less tolerant of Turkish threats to seize the Greek island of Kastellorizo ​​or other acts of violating Greece and Cyprus’s sovereignty.

In March, the European Union is due to deliberate again on sanctions against Turkey connected with its aggressive activity in the EEZ of Cyprus and Greece. Suppose Turkey does not abandon further provocations and maintains its position on the S-400 [or takes retaliation in this regard]. In that case, we can expect that the US and the EU will coordinate the imposition of further, very severe sanctions on Turkey, which can quickly ruin the weak Turkish economy.

Turkey must also accept the fact of the US alliance with the Kurds in Syria. Statements by Biden, Blinken, or Sullivan are unequivocal here and differ from the frequently quoted words of James Jeffrey, known for his pro-Turkish sympathies, that relations with the Syrian Kurds are only “tactical and transactional.” However, Jeffrey had ceased to be Special Representative to the Global Coalition Against ISIS in November. Meanwhile, on January 6, information appeared that Biden intends to nominate Brett McGurk [repeatedly accused by Ankara of “supporting the PKK” and “Kurdish separatists”] as the director of the Middle East and North Africa department. Joe Biden himself repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Syrian Democratic Forces as a US ally and harshly criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from Northeast Syria to allow for a Turkish invasion.

In this context, it is irrelevant that the main reason for US forces in Northeast Syria is to hold back Iran’s expansion. Even if the US concludes a new agreement with Iran, which will not happen too soon, it will not leave Northeast Syria without guaranteeing its autonomy and will prevent further Turkish attacks on the SDF. It is worth adding that Erdogan, in January this year, threatened to renew the invasion of Northeast Syria again, and since the end of December, Turkey has stepped up its attacks on Ain Issa. We can expect that the US will seek to conclude some agreement between Northeast Syria and Turkey, guaranteeing both sides’ interests. Such an agreement was already negotiated in 2015, and it was Erdogan who broke off the talks at that time. Therefore, it will be up to Turkey to respond constructively to the US proposals or go to the confrontation and bear its consequences.

The above issues do not exhaust the list of contentious and sensitive topics in US-Turkish relations. Joe Biden also criticized Trump’s passive stance towards the Karabakh war, and Kamala Harris, as a former California senator, has good relations with the Armenian diaspora in the US. Since Russia has taken the initiative in this matter, the matter is not of primary importance now from the US administration’s point of view, but any new crisis may change it. Turkey may also forget about the release by the US of Fetullah Gulen, or the further suspension of court proceedings in the case of Halkbank, which affects Erdogan and his immediate surroundings not so much as Turkey but personally.

Moreover, the Biden administration will undoubtedly support the Turkish opposition, including the pro-Kurdish HDP. If the Turkish authorities tighten their course, including, for example, banning the HDP, Washington will not remain passive. The Biden administration will also pressure the Turkish authorities to guarantee the fairness of the elections in 2023. Therefore, the Biden administration’s actions will not be anti-Turkish [although Turkish propaganda will positively portray it in this way] but will be based on the “stick and carrots” with suggestions for constructive solutions.

We should also remember that the Biden administration will also be much cooler towards some of Turkey’s regional competitors, such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt, and it is unlikely to support General Haftar in Libya. All this creates a specific space where Turkey, thanks to a constructive attitude in relations with the US, can gain support for its aspirations in Africa or compete with Saudi Arabia for primacy in the Islamic world. It’s just that under Erdogan, such a turn is unlikely. If, on the other hand, it remains in power after 2023 [especially in an undemocratic manner], American-Turkish relations will deteriorate further.


The article “Biden on Turkey: a hard hand instead of ‘meek requests’” was published in Defence24. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.


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