Ten years ago, The Atlantic ran an article titled The Ally From Hell.The article followed the raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and focused on U.S.-Pakistan relations, but focused on how Washington’s key ally in the war on terror contributed more to the problem than to the solution. In the last line of his conclusion, he reads There’s no escaping this hurtful relationship and little evidence to suggest that it will get better anytime soon.
Such a description has developed in several ways to apply to US relations with Turkey over the past decade. Ankara may not harbor American enemies like Pakistan knowingly or unknowingly did with Bin Laden, but it has actively challenged American campaigns against other adversaries from ISIS to Russia. While Turkey can claim that it has also suffered from US politics over the past decades, the country’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has effectively made Washington another enemy seeking to destroy the country.
The two remain NATO allies, but the reservoir of antipathy is unlikely to diminish now that Joe Biden has entered the White House and his administration has announced that it will engage Turkey on terms different from those of his predecessor, Donald Trump. This would mean de-emphasizing any personal relationship by shifting the focus of any institutional level interaction with the contribution of the US Congress and US partners abroad.
This does not bode well for Erdogan, who had forged a close, albeit highly controversial, relationship with Trump.
Unlike those in his administration and in Congress, Trump had a soft spot for Erdogan. Twice he moved to withdraw from Syria at the request of Erdogans and he openly embraced his rhetoric against the Syrian Kurds, who played an important role in helping defeat the Islamic State. This continued as Trump provided almost impenetrable cover to Turkey after purchasing the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia. NATO skeptic Trump saw fit to blame his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the purchase as an excuse for his refusal to impose sanctions. This has led to both internal confusion for the rest of the Trump administration and the deeply enraged Congress.
Biden has already put the new frame in practice. During the transition, as the president-elect traditionally speaks with his future counterparts around the world, Biden is reportedly repulsed The Erdogans are asking for a phone call, a serious snub from the Turkish leader. To this day, the two leaders have yet to speak.
Certainly, the Erdogans are not unique among the authoritarian world leaders who have been emboldened by Trump. It’s also not surprising that President Biden is now keeping them at bay. It wasn’t until this week that Biden speak Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his press secretary have made it clear that the president conversation with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman. Both were allies of Trump who used their relationship with him to advance their own national interests before the United States. Now they oppose Bidens’ current foreign policy priority – joining the Iran nuclear deal.
Biden will also remain grappling with the expectations of other stakeholders at home and abroad. Under the Trump administration, congressional fury against Turkey burned white after Trump allowed the Turks to attack Syrian Kurds and shielded Ankara from any responsibility for the purchase of the S-400.
Today on Capitol Hill there are few characters more hated than Erdogan. As a result, for an administration with limited room for maneuver for bipartisanship, confronting it is one of the easiest areas for U.S. lawmakers to find common ground.
On top of that, Biden has made renewing US partnerships in Europe a priority. For years, the European Union has been at odds with Erdogan over migration, territorial disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean and debates over Islam in Europe. The EU has already made it clear that it seeks American support confront Erdogan and Biden are perhaps more sympathetic to their wishes than Trump ever was.
Even if Biden does manage to move relations with Turkey in another direction, it is unclear whether or not that will improve ties between Washington and Ankara. This would require agreement on how to begin to address the issues. With a list as long as the one that has weighed down U.S.-Turkish relations for several years, it won’t be an easy task for Biden’s new administration.
The most immediate decision that could be made by the White House could involve the sanctions that were imposed in December 2020 for the S-400. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke openly about it when he called Turkey a so-called strategic ally during his confirmation hearing in January. Former Syrian envoy James Jeffrey also wins in a recent interview that he believed the S-400 was the biggest corner of relations.
If the S-400 is Washington’s main problem, American support for the Syrian Kurds is Ankaras. In a recent interview with Turkey Sabah Turkish Defense Minister Hulsi Akar said US support for their Kurdish allies was Ankara’s main concern. Turkey has always expressed its anger for the United States’ continued support for the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is ideologically affiliated with the PKK, the armed Kurdish group which has been at war with Turkey since the 1970s. The United States and Turkey have both designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.
The disagreement emerged this week following a Turkish raid in northern Iraq that resulted in the discovery of 13 hostages who had been killed. The State Department issued a conditional sentence on the PKK, which Turkey says is responsible for the deaths, but Turkish officials went further and accused the United States of supporting the group. For this reason, dampening the fury over the Americans’ response became part of the first call Blinken had with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Neither side is likely to change its position without any initial concessions. After Trump’s inconsistent years moving from policy making to policy reversal, Biden aims to define a cohesive U.S. foreign policy that will make his priorities clear to his friends and rivals. To that end, Biden will be open to solving the S-400 problem, but Turkey would have to give it up. Likewise, Turkey has made it clear that it will not do or budge in its opposition to American support for Syrian Kurds.
However, the question remains open as to how much the relationship can actually improve given the existing gap that is only widening. In one survey According to the German Marshall Fund (GMF) and Istanbul Bilgi University, 48% of Turks see the United States as the greatest threat to Turkey, compared to only 3.9% of Turks who see it as an ally.
It’s tempting to explain this as the product of years of Erdogans rule, but that wouldn’t capture the fact that a notable part of the Turkish opposition has this negative view of the United States. After all, Turkey’s opposition has firmly backed some of Erdogans’ most controversial foreign policy positions, including his territorial claims against Greece and Cyprus in the east. Mediterranean and its military support for Azerbaijan in its war against Armenia at the end of last year. In both cases, Biden was opposed to the poisoning of Erdogan.
The Turkish opposition has also spoken out against the punishments on the S-400, despite their own disagreement with Erdogan and his links Russia. As such, it proves that while a new government without Erdogan can be less openly hostile to the United States, that wouldn’t mean the end of geopolitical disagreements.
Any improvement in US-Turkish relations will be difficult, but not impossible. After years of interventions, of aggressive and aggressive rhetoric, Ankara has realized that it is now surrounded by a circle of rivals, who increasingly see it as a common cause against which to rally. None of this is helped by tensions with Washington, which is allied with all but one of Erdogan’s enemies and has the potential to seriously damage Turkey’s struggling economy through more sanctions.
Perhaps this is where the best prospects lie for reducing tensions without completely unfreezing the relationship at large. Biden’s allies made it clear during the transition that they seen Turkey as a challenge, but not as an irremediable partner that they want to keep further away. In fact, the Biden administration openly supported Turkey’s talks with Greece to resolve their differences and reduce intra-NATO tensions.
Turkey has taken steps to ease tensions with other neighbors like Israel and Saudi Arabia, before Biden was sworn in. While they may disagree with the US president for wanting to re-engage Iran, Turkey remains a key US partner in the Middle East. Whether this actually leads to some form of goodwill on Washington’s part, the weakening of the sense of Turkish encirclement will have to be at the heart of any future decision.None of this will mean a renewal of the deep strategic partnership that existed in the pre-Erdogan years of the Cold War and after the 1990s.
For Erdogan, he has too much at stake geopolitically and at home to meet all American requests for improvement. In Bidens’ case, avoiding Trump’s mistakes in his dealings with Turkey is a must, while at the same time he will have to thread the needle with Erdogan so as not to push Turkey further out of the US orbit and closer to that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. .
The common problem for both is the reality that their interests are more at odds than ever before, regardless of any outward proclamation of a partnership. In this sense, U.S. relations with Turkey have come to resemble those with Pakistan, to some extent – allies on paper, based on a small set of common interests, but in practice overly suspicious of each other. others to cooperate in a meaningful way.
There is still room for the Biden administration to prevent relations with Turkey from plunging into deeper lows. That said, that will mean starting small and keeping expectations in check, lest Turkey go from a faulty partner to a second ally from hell.
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