Future of Turkish-US ties an early dilemma for Biden
The very public, and at times altogether baffling, Turkish support of Donald Trump’s re-election campaign left many in the dark as to why Ankara would side so committedly with such a pro-Israel American president. The answer, quite simply, was the alternative. With President-elect Joe Biden now waiting in the wings, Turkey’s precious strategic goals are undoubtedly being recalculated.
Given that Biden has promised to reconfigure America’s relationships with the world, there is a real opportunity for both sides to consider a reset in bilateral ties, away from the short-term calculations of the election. With a Turkey that is increasingly at odds with NATO and European powers, how the US manages this relationship is of immense strategic importance.
A perfect storm of factors has made Turkey a concern of the US government for the last decade. It is a valuable ally as a long-standing member of NATO and given its situation between Europe and Asia, which makes it an important buffer not only to the chaos of the Near East but also to Russian expansionism. In Syria, where the US has lost important ground to Russia, Turkey provided not only a conduit for American efforts in the region but also a powerful reminder that the US’ recalcitrance for military adventurism had given way to the enthusiasm of regional powers. However, where Turkey once provided a vital pillar in the security of the transatlantic community, as illustrated by its work in Afghanistan, the war on terror and in promoting economic interdependence with Europe, its increasingly independent policies have seen Washington lose ground.
The dysfunctionality of the bilateral ties between the two overtly allied powers has only grown in recent years. Interestingly, the new year has not only concerned Ankara from the perspective of the change in administration, but also the sanctions enforced under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which had been delayed by Trump. With Turkey's Defense Industry Directorate, its chief Ismail Demir and three other employees feeling the pressure over their country’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile system, it is not surprising that Ankara is now feeling somewhat marooned.
The dysfunctionality of the bilateral ties between the two overtly allied powers has only grown in recent years.
Zaid M. Belbagi
These circumstances do, however, provide an opportune moment for a realignment of the relationship. As much as the Biden administration may hope that sanctions drive Turkey closer to its orbit, it will be well aware that any further pressure may drive Ankara toward Moscow, or worse still to expand its more independent diplomatic initiatives in the Mediterranean and farther afield. Where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan benefited from a personal relationship with his American counterpart to avoid the more commonplace repercussions for US allies that challenge its strategic imperatives, the new administration has made clear that it will only engage with Turkey through traditional diplomatic channels — and not rely on the kind of ad hoc communication that marked the relationship between Trump and Erdogan.
Though the transactional nature of the Trump administration that endeared it to foreign governments may have been deplored by Biden, there are certain concessions that both sides will need to make in order for relations to improve. Aside from the S-400 issue, US support for the Syrian Democratic Forces does not sit well with Turkey, while the Biden administration’s expected reluctance to extradite Fethullah Gulen (the alleged mastermind of Turkey’s July 2016 failed coup) will harm the prospects of changing things. Ankara has long been at odds with the US over its Syria policy, with America’s support of the People’s Protection Units — the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is designated as a terrorist organization by Ankara, the US and the EU — long considered a betrayal of the alliance between the two.
Despite these obvious hurdles, there are signs that relations could improve. Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin has said that Biden’s team wants to turn a new page in its relations with Turkey, but how and when this comes about remains to be seen. The haphazardness of the Trump administration provided a strategic vacuum, in which Turkey was able to act, to some extent, without concern for US consternation. Whether through defense purchases, explorations for natural gas in disputed waters in the eastern Mediterranean or their pursuit of their own agenda in Libya, Turkey’s leaders may have gotten too used to their new-found independence to see the strategic imperative of warming to Washington.
With the ruling Justice and Development Party having had to ally itself with nationalists to stay in power, any moves deemed to reduce Turkey’s international standing will be hard to enact. In any case, seasoned Obama-era hands like Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Lloyd Austin, Wendy Sherman, Victoria Nuland, Amanda Sloat and Brett McGurk, who will no doubt formulate Biden’s foreign policy, know both Turkey and its diplomats very well. Like the president-elect, they realize that the US has lost too many friends in the last four years — a trend that must be reversed.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid