President Joe Biden entered the trap of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogans in June by agreeing to hold a one-on-one meeting without the presence of diplomats or note-takers. The US president was hoping to finalize an agreement to outsource security at Kabul International Airport in Ankara. Biden got his deal and Erdogan returned to Washington’s good graces.
Fast forward three months: Erdogan not only took of Turkish troops from Afghanistan despite promises they would stay on even after the fall of Kabul, but are currently in talks with the Taliban to help them ensure diplomatic recognition . Erdogan too reached an agreement with the militant group to provide them technical support to operate the airport. Ankara would have offers this support through a dozen technicians while hoping Ensure the security through a private company. This U-turn offers a warning about outsourcing security missions to autocrats.
The deal between Biden and Erdogan Kabul marked an important turning point in a relationship that had had a difficult start. After taking office, Biden gave the Turkish Islamist strongman the cold welcome by refusing to call him for three months.
Erdogan, however, is adept at identifying the needs and weaknesses of his opponents. He was quick to detect the growing reluctance of Americans to keep US troops abroad on long-term counterterrorism missions.
In October 2019, during a phone call with former President Donald Trump, Erdogan exploited his American counterparts neo-isolationist impulses to convince him to withdraw US forces from northeastern Syria. Erdogan assured Trump that Turkish troops would deal with the remnants of the Islamic State.
Yet during the sequel Military operation in Syria, Turkish troops and Islamist proxies in Ankara defeated the Kurdish-led Syrian partners in Washington, who had borne the brunt of the fighting on the ground against the Islamic State. The result was a power vacuum that the Russians and the Assad regime exploited to extend their presence in northeastern Syria.
Hoping to replicate with Biden the kind of personal relationship he had with Trump, Erdogan launched a charm offensive after the 2020 US election, but failed to break through in the early months of the Biden presidency. Still neo-isolationist impulses has proven to be just as strong among Democrats as Republicans, giving Erdogan a weakness to exploit.
When Biden got cornered by to commit to a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Erdogan was poised to take advantage of the predicament in Washington, which included logistical challenges as good as the frustration of NATO allies . The Turkish president was correct in assuming that, under increasing pressure to outsource security responsibilities to Kabul, Biden would fall under Erdogan’s offer to keep and manage the city’s international airport.
From the start, Biden should have seen the signs that Erdogan was not a bona fide negotiator and did not share his values or goals in Afghanistan or, for that matter, somewhere else . In July, the Turkish president admitted that Turkey has no conflicting issues with [the Taliban’s] beliefs. Erdogan even suggested that the US-led NATO mission in Afghanistan was illegitimate from the start, saying , the imperial powers entered Afghanistan; they have been there for over 20 years. There was even reports that the Erdogan government planned to deploy to Afghanistan some 2,000 Syrian mercenaries, whose past conduct prompted the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria to do accusations war crimes against them last September, including allegations of hostage-taking, cruel treatment, torture, rape and looting.
Paradoxically, the total collapse of Bidens’ policy in Afghanistan and the concomitant withdrawal of Turkish troops from the war-torn country did not end Erdogan’s influence over Washington. On the contrary, as the Biden administration struggled to deal with the fallout, the Turkish president took the opportunity to offer new deals to his American and European counterparts.
These include a offer provide technical assistance to manage the Kabul airport, as well as efforts encourage the Taliban to form an inclusive administration that stands up for women’s rights, a commitment Erdogan should first hold at home. Above all, however, Ankara retains the capacity to block or slow down the flow of refugees to the European Union, a capacity that it armed at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015.
Whether the Turkish President’s renewed offers of assistance and veiled threats are serious or not, in recent times he has enjoyed a steady stream of affirmative messages of its American and European counterparts. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who fired Turkey as a so-called strategic partner in January, declared on September 3, that the United States work closely with our partners in Qatar and Turkey to help bring Kabul airport into service as quickly as possible.
A week earlier, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas Express Berlin’s gratitude to Turkey for its offer to continue helping run the airport after NATO pulls out and said Germany is ready to support this effort financially and technically. Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, an alliance in which Erdogan repeatedly plays a role spoiler role , in the same way thanked Turkey for its vital role in securing Kabul airport during the withdrawal of NATO forces and personnel from Afghanistan.
In a world where the United States and its European allies are reluctant to deploy troops even to hold back adversaries such as the Taliban, there will be new temptations to outsource security concerns by making questionable deals with Erdogan and d other autocrats. Illiberal governments remain keen to fill the power vacuum that the neo-isolationist United States and an inward-looking EU leaves behind. This, in turn, will reinforce the impunity of adversaries who know that Washington’s illiberal partners are in the game for themselves.
Aykan Erdemir (@aykan_erdemir ) is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
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