The Biden Administration’s Turkish Dilemma

Feb 2, 2021 | Oved Lobel


It is always perilous to try to predict how a US administration might approach a particular geopolitical issue, and this is especially true of Turkey, which, being an ostensible US NATO ally, has never had a policy file of its own.

However, using statements and articles by President Joe Biden as well as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Biden’s long-standing National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, it is possible to speculate on how the Administration will deal with Turkey.

Of course, Turkey’s own behaviour will play a role in determining US policy, but there appears little likelihood of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan making anything more than the most cosmetic efforts to get into the Biden Administration’s good graces. If anything, he appears to be doubling down on his policies and provocations.

The relationship is already off to a rocky start – Erdogan took a week before acknowledging Biden’s victory, and the Biden Administration still hasn’t reached out to Turkey at any level. To make matters worse, Erdogan recently announced preparations for a new constitution to further consolidate his rule, likely for life, and undermine what remains of Turkish Democracy.

As if to be deliberately provocative, Erdogan’s top aides and former advisers have told the Washington Post that Turkey’s condition for a “reset” with the US is that the US concede on every issue in the relationship in return for no concessions from Turkey, a position amplified by several Turkish analysts.

Four Policy Irritants

In February 2018, Sullivan co-authored a scathing article on how to manage the relationship with Ankara, which in his view should be “a version of the tough-minded and transactional approach that has characterized Russo-Turkish relations over the past several years.” This would include considering “sanctions targeting the Turkish defense industry, financial sector and potentially officials tied to corruption.” In Sullivan’s opinion, “the aim should be establishing the conditions – and the ground rules – for constructive engagement. To that end, the White House should pair a firm approach with high-level engagement aimed at finding a better path forward.” This is likely to be the framework – high-level engagement and sanctions – used by the Administration in its relations with Ankara.

The four primary irritants that will dictate the Administration’s Turkey policy are:

  1. Cyprus and the tensions between Turkey and every other country in the broader eastern Mediterranean;
  2. Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system and subsequent sanctions imposed under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA);
  3. the enduring US partnership in Syria with Turkey’s arch-nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-affiliated PYD/YPG;
  4. Human rights and democracy issues, which will ostensibly be one of the guiding principles of the Administration’s foreign policy and an area where Turkey is among the most egregious violators in the world.

Then-candidate Joe Biden told the New York Times during an interview in December 2019 that he was very worried about Turkey’s behaviour, and that Erdogan had “to understand that we’re not going to continue to play with them the way we have… I’m very concerned about our airfields [in Turkey] and access to them as well. And I think it takes an awful lot of work for us to be able to get together with our allies in the region and deal with how we isolate his actions in the region, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean in relating to oil and a whole range of other things which take too long to go into.”

As AIJAC has covered previously, there is a coalition of states trying to contain Turkey, a process which Biden was personally involved in kick-starting as Vice President during the Obama Administration. “I wanted to come to primarily underscore the value the United States attaches to our growing cooperation with the republic of Cyprus. This relationship is now a genuine strategic partnership which holds great promise,” Biden said in 2014 during a visit.

This coalition began truly coalescing under the Trump Administration, with increasingly close energy and security ties between the US, Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, the UAE and several other countries since 2017, leaving Biden with the ready-made building blocks for a containment policy if Turkish behaviour forces Biden to shift his focus to the Mediterranean.

The Obama Administration was also very active in pushing for new talks on reunifying Cyprus with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), the internationally unrecognised puppet state occupied by Turkey since the 1970s. Assuming the Biden Administration again tries to revive talks, it will run into the wall of Erdogan’s new-found insistence on a ‘Two-State Solution’ for the island instead of the internationally supported reunification talks. The US answer to this could well be more sanctions. In any case, this will likely become an issue for the Administration as Turkey doubles down on dividing Cyprus.

When it comes to the YPG, Biden, Sullivan and Blinken are all staunch supporters of continued US support, a generally bipartisan position that will continue to strain even the pretence of the technical alliance with Turkey. During his 2019 interview, Biden differentiated himself from Trump in relation to Turkey and the YPG, asserting “the last thing I would’ve done is yielded to [Erdogan] with regard to the Kurds. The absolute last thing.”

It is difficult to summarise all of Turkey’s human rights violations or the extent of internal repression, although it’s worthwhile to note its transnational kidnapping campaign; the constant mass purges of society; ethnic cleansing of Kurdish areas occupied in Syria and the fact that it’s one of the greatest jailers of journalists in the world, having essentially succeeded in wiping out independent media. Recently, Erdogan has moved to control and subvert one of Turkey’s most prestigious universities by installing his own appointee as rector and dramatically cracking down on student protests against the move.

Erdogan’s continuing efforts to even further entrench his personal control over every aspect of life in Turkey will not sit well with a Biden Administration that is currently conducting a values-based review of US relationships in the region.

Sanctions or Neglect?

In addition, during his Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated it was possible sanctions on Turkey would be expanded over its purchase of the S-400. “What Turkey has done as a NATO ally in acquiring the S-400s is unacceptable, the idea that a strategic – so-called strategic – partner of ours would actually be in line with one of our biggest strategic competitors in Russia is not acceptable.” Given Erdogan and his Defence Minister have doubled down on expanding defence cooperation with Russia, even purchasing a second S-400 battery, more sanctions seem inevitable.

Yet even if the Administration is seriously willing to employ sanctions against Turkey to deter or punish its rogue behaviour, the fact is that Turkey is just not that important in the Administration’s regional calculations and priorities. Those mostly concern dramatically reducing the US military presence and achieving some sort of de-escalation, or at least dialogue, between the Gulf states and Iran. As Sullivan has repeatedly emphasised, the US will “rebalance… away from a primarily military approach to one that accentuates and emphasizes diplomacy to a much greater degree.”

In Blinken’s first press conference as Secretary of State, Turkey was not mentioned, even in passing, and Sullivan has reportedly downsized his Middle East directorate. Outside of Iran-Gulf tensions and narrow counterterrorism missions, it’s clear that the Administration does not intend the Middle East, including Turkey, to figure prominently in its allocation of resources and attention.

While there is little to suggest sanctions coupled with high-level engagement with Turkey will directly impact other US allies and priorities, the reverse is not true. The US is reviewing its relationship, including arms sales, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia while also attempting to re-engage Iran. Both of these developments will empower Turkey. Turkey’s nemesis in Libya, the UAE, could lose not only access to the F-35s and armed drones, but also the implicit diplomatic support from the White House that existed under the Trump Administration for its assault against Turkish-backed forces. With regards to Iran, Turkey is a close partner and has loudly pushes back against sanctions on Teheran, despite strategic differences in certain areas. The US reentry into the JCPOA will allow Turkey to expand economic and political ties with Iran.

Policy Needed

As many Turkey experts have pointed out, the Biden Administration really does need to formulate a standalone, coherent Turkey policy, and not simply view Turkey through the lens of NATO or broader regional tensions. The first step is a clear-eyed appraisal of Turkey as it is and not sustaining the current fantasies pervasive in both countries about their relationship. As Nicholas Danforth incisively wrote in Foreign Policy, “You can’t cooperate with an authoritarian regime that is dead set against cooperating with you.”

While the US may not have a separate policy file on Turkey for the time being, it is currently approaching the issue through the prism of rebuilding relations with European allies. When Sullivan, for example, recently spoke with the European Commission President’s Head of Cabinet, they “agreed to work together on issues of mutual concern, including China and Turkey.”

The European Union (EU) has been threatening its own sanctions against Turkey for its regional activities and aggressive actions in Cyprus’ territorial waters, and even during the Trump Administration, the two sides consulted over their separate sanctions while denying coordination. Perhaps under Biden, the EU and US will begin officially coordinating sanctions on Turkey to enhance their potential impact and build upon the unofficial US congressional arms embargo on Turkey.

Since US bandwidth will be occupied by Iran and, much more importantly, China, Erdogan is probably going to continue his rogue rampage through the region and autocratic consolidation at home, pocketing concessions during high-level diplomatic engagements and remaining largely undeterred by whatever sanctions the Administration threatens to impose. And that’s assuming that Biden, Sullivan and Blinken, now that they control policy, won’t simply settle back into the historical pattern of inertia and appeasement of Turkey while their attention is focused on drawing down US forces in the Middle East.

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