Biden, Erdogan agree to disagree at peaceable summit
The long-awaited meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his American counterpart Joe Biden finally took place on the margins of the NATO summit in Brussels last week.
The encounter lasted for an hour and a half, divided between a one-on-one and a meeting of full delegations. The length of the summit was determined by Washington, so we can presume that Biden adjusted it according to what he had to tell Erdogan. Furthermore, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, during a visit to Turkey three weeks before the summit, conveyed to Turkey all that the US expected from it. Biden must have repeated to Erdogan the message that Sherman had conveyed beforehand. This scenario suggests that, rather than a genuine exchange of views, the encounter unfolded as a rehearsed monologue in both directions.
Biden gave the impression that he did not care much about how the Turkish side would reflect the outcome of the encounter to the media. He said: “I’ll let the Turks tell you about it.” Erdogan briefed the media in line with this agenda. He explained why the US had to stop its support for the Kurdish fighters in the north of Syria. Apparently the US remained unmoved on this subject. If Biden had offered even the slightest hope, Erdogan would have announced it jubilantly.
Another critical issue was the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. This subject was brought up at both the NATO summit and during the bilateral talks between Erdogan and Biden. No firm decision has been made in NATO, though Turkey was mentioned as a potential party to assume responsibility for Kabul airport’s security. In his address to the press, Erdogan said that if diplomatic, economic and logistic support could be provided, Turkey might consider assuming this responsibility. He said that Ankara could do it along with Pakistan and Hungary. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has a reputation as the least-democratic leader among the NATO countries and it is unclear whether Erdogan’s choice of such a potential partner is a mere coincidence.
Turkey has a relatively good chance of success in protecting Kabul airport because the Turks may establish better communications with the Afghans than other NATO countries. However, there are risks because the Taliban controls about two-thirds of Afghanistan’s territory, so Turkey may be sucked into a conflict that might be difficult to disentangle from.
The most important outcome of the meeting was that it did not lead to the collapse of relations.
Several weeks ago, Washington had proposed shifting the venue of its meetings with the Taliban from Qatar to Istanbul. The US probably hoped that Istanbul would be a more suitable venue for such meetings and Erdogan may have thought this idea could help gain Biden’s favor. However, the Taliban at first dragged its feet and later canceled the Istanbul meetings altogether.
An anecdotal detail regarding Erdogan’s press briefing saw him stumble into confusion. Before his departure for Brussels, Erdogan said he would definitely express his disappointment at Biden’s use of the word “genocide” to describe the resettlement of Armenians by the Ottoman state in 1915. After the meeting with Biden, a journalist asked whether he had raised this question. Erdogan responded: “Thank God, this question was not raised.” The words “thank God” must have slipped out of his mouth, as they made it look as if Erdogan was grateful that the question was not raised in the talks, even though he was supposed to do so.
Turkey believes there are opportunities for cooperation with the US in Syria, Libya, Ukraine and the Black Sea, but these areas are also places where Russia and the US have conflicting interests. After the NATO summit, Erdogan flew from Brussels to Azerbaijan. He emphatically announced this trip during his press conference, probably to re-emphasize the notion that Turkey may be helpful to the US in counterbalancing Russia’s preponderance in the Caucasus.
The most important outcome of the Erdogan-Biden meeting was that it did not lead to the collapse of relations. What impact this conciliatory attitude toward the US on Turkey-Russia relations will have is another critical issue.
Despite the lack of agreement on the discussed subjects, it appears that the atmosphere during the meeting was not combative. The two leaders exchanged views on the issues on their agenda without trying to persuade each other. It looked more like a stock-taking exercise for the conflicting issues between the two countries. They thus avoided unnecessary confrontation and maintained the general atmosphere of cooperation and mutual understanding.
One may say that they agreed to disagree on almost all issues on the agenda and referred them to their ministers, who will continue to look for areas of cooperation and potential solutions. The chessboard looks like a draw, with little hope for Turkey emerging as a winner in the long run.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar