Time for the US to strike a deal with Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The meeting followed a show of defiance from Erdogan toward the US, when he said he had worked well with George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, but relations with Joe Biden had “not started well.”
However, despite what seemed like a rapprochement with Moscow, it was far from being one, as the rift between Russia and Turkey is far too wide to bridge. Despite the harsh rhetoric from Erdogan, Turkey is now more ready than ever for a grand bargain with the US.
The US and Turkey have been bound for some time by a transactional relationship. The nature of this relationship has caused turbulence, pushing each side to blackmail the other in order to obtain better conditions, leading to increased instability in the region. Ankara’s objectives are aligned with those of the US in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Nevertheless, many factors led to the souring of the relations.
The starting point was America’s support for the Kurdish YPG group in Syria. While Turkey sees no difference between the YPG and the outlawed PKK, which has been conducting terrorist operations on the Turkish mainland for the past three decades, Washington sees no alternative to the Kurds in the fight against Daesh. The growing prowess of the Kurds in the northeast of the country, and their demand that Syria become a federation, are perceived as a threat to Turkey. After taking Deraa, Bashar Assad is now ramping up attacks on Idlib. The last thing Erdogan needs as he enters election season is a blunder in Syria.
This is where the Putin-Erdogan meeting fell down. Erdogan wanted to remind Putin of the ceasefire agreement. On the other hand, while there were talks about Ankara buying a second batch of the S-400 missile defense system, neither leader confirmed the deal was going ahead. Erdogan said that Turkey’s initial purchase of the S-400 came about only because the US refused to sell its Patriot system. As much as the US and NATO see the S-400 as offensive, the Turks view it as a necessary measure because in the Turkish perspective allies did not provide the necessary protection when it was needed; they mention the US and Western nations withdrawing their Patriot batteries from Turkey in 2015 when it was being harassed by Russian planes.
There were also many other factors, before the S-400 controversy, that led to the souring of the Turkish-US relationship. One of them was the failed 2016 coup and the fact that the accused ringleader, Fethullah Gulen, still lives in the US. Another point of contention with the Biden administration is the president’s recent recognition of the Armenian genocide. Though Erdogan in 2018 recognized the “historic pains” of Armenians, Turkey has not acknowledged the events of 1915 as genocide. This goes beyond Erdogan or any other political leadership — it is simply not accepted on a popular level. And there is, of course, the never-ending issue of Cyprus. Despite all these points of contention, Turkey and the US are both competing with Russia in the region and their overall goals are aligned.
Despite all their points of contention, Turkey and the US are both competing with Russia in the region and their overall goals are aligned.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
As much as the US sees Turkey drifting away from its commitment to the Western fold, now is the right moment to offer Ankara a grand bargain to make sure the partnership is strategic and long term. Though Turkey cannot dominate the region by itself, if it were to side with Russia you can bet that Moscow would be dominant — this is one dimension of Ankara’s importance to the US. As America is withdrawing from the Middle East, it should work with its allies, meaning its partnerships with Saudi Arabia and Turkey are of great importance. Unless the US puts in place firm agreements, its gradual withdrawal will result in total chaos.
Now is also the right time because Turkey dreads the prospect of a deal between Assad and the YPG. Moscow has been working on such a deal for some time and the Syrian president has felt empowered since taking Deraa. Though a deal between the Kurds and Damascus has not been finalized, progress has been made. If a deal were to be sealed, the next front for Assad would be Idlib. And such an agreement would give Assad tens of thousands of well-trained and US-equipped fighters. Assad would want to crush Idlib, the last stronghold of the opposition.
The opposition in Idlib is irreconcilable with Assad. If Damascus were to conquer Idlib, it would result in 3 million more refugees. Where could those refugees possibly go? If Idlib falls, it would be the political end of Erdogan. He is already in a precarious situation. Inflation, though it has boosted exports, has hit hard the people who live from paycheck to paycheck. Now more than ever, Erdogan and Turkey need American support.
It is the right time to strike a deal that will provide Turkey with the necessary support and protection, while Turkey givies a firm commitment that it will return to the Western fold. The wishful thinking of some American policymakers, who are banking on Erdogan losing power in the 2023 elections, is not logical. According to their thinking, it is better to ignore Turkey for the moment and wait for a change in leadership. But his potential loss does not guarantee that his replacement would be any better for the US or the West.
The Turkish opposition’s main promise to voters is to kick out refugees. What would the world do with the 3.5 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey? And, for the opposition, the refugee issue is about identity more than economics, meaning it might be difficult for Europe to keep them in place in return for a few more billion euros. To add to that, the CHP, the main opposition party, has been courting Damascus. That may mean sending the refugees back to Assad, who could use them as a negotiating chip to blackmail the West and get what he wants without making any compromises or changing his behavior.
Though Syria looks like the most complicated point of contention it should be the core of a US Turkey deal. While the Kurds should be protected, the US should ensure a balance in Arab and Kurdish composition of the SDF at both troop and leadership level, and also ensure that leaders associated with the PKK are sidelined while those who are acceptable to Turkey and to the Arab population in the northeast are put in place. The US should also jump start a Kurdish Turkish dialogue, and ensure that Turkey coordinates with US Arab partners
Ignoring Turkey will simply push Erdogan to act frantically and result in more instability, which needs to be avoided at all costs. It is time for the Biden administration to have a pragmatic approach toward the region and look beyond the rhetoric: A deal with Turkey is needed and can be crafted now.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.