Over the past four years, Turkey’s often problematic role within NATO has been overshadowed by former President Donald Trump’s demands on NATO spending, “but now, given Biden’s strong commitment to transatlantic cooperation, Erdogan’s role as a corruption is suddenly in the Alliance has become more visible and is “the focus,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian who heads the Turkey Program for the Defense of Democracies Foundation.
The problems are substantial, but the Biden government is looking for an ally who can continue to assist with the Syrian refugee crisis while playing a more positive role in regional tensions. These include new disputes in the eastern Mediterranean, Syria and Libya, in which Ankara has clashed with a number of antagonists from Greece to France to Russia.
These problems will not be easily resolved, but in Brussels the personal relationship between the two heads of state and government does matter. Given Biden’s campaign labeling of Erdogan as “autocrats” and suggestions that the White House would support democratic opposition to Erdogan’s regime, there is little expectation that the two will enjoy the relationship Erdogan had with Trump.
That kind of joy isn’t necessary, however, as long as Biden continues to push for multilateral engagement wherever he can find it, and Erdogan looks for positive news to bring home.
Up to this point in his presidency, Biden Erdogan had given Erdogan the diplomatic cold shoulder and only made his first phone call in April informing the Turkish leader of his decision to recognize the 1915 Armenian genocide, the first time a U.S. President I did it that way. The decision sparked outrage in Ankara, and Erdogan said the decision caused a “deep wound” in US-Turkey relations.
However, as it turned out at the meeting in Brussels, even if tensions remain high, the relationship has no chance of collapsing. Turkey is NATO’s second largest military and seven of its top 10 trading partners are within the alliance, although Erdogan continues to insist on buying Russian military equipment and keeping his thumb in the eye of NATO’s decision-making process whenever he can.
The spoiler role seems to please Erdogan as he blocks NATO on a number of issues, including partnership agreements with non-NATO countries to seek a political price on countries with which it feuds. Erdogan also flaunts his controversial purchase of a Russian air defense system.
That role was fully realized in late 2019 when Turkey blocked a major new NATO Baltic defense planned for Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which was put together after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Turkey refused to sign the plan to defend the region against Russian aggression until NATO recognized the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria as a terrorist organization, a move the other 29 NATO countries refused to take. Ankara finally dropped its demands in July 2020 after it was not enforced.
More recently, Turkey has tried to tone down NATO statements about Russian cyberattacks against the United States, as well as an alleged attack by Russian military intelligence on ammunition depots in the Czech Republic. This kind of alliance breaking – NATO operates with the unanimous consent of its 30 member states – is unlikely to do the Biden government any good, which has placed alliance building high on its international agenda.
“With Biden committed to multilateralism and Biden pledging to work with allies, Erdogan’s spoiler role within NATO will then become a major obstacle to Biden’s proposed plan of action,” Erdemir said.
That gameplay came back into play on Wednesday when Secretary of State Mevlut Cavusoglu addressed the US-made Patriot missile defense system that Turkey had long requested from Washington, warning: “If the US does not guarantee Patriot, we can use an air defense system from ours other allies. “
After Turkey and the US failed to reach an agreement to purchase Patriot systems, Turkey received the Russian S-400 air defense system in 2017 – a move that marked the country’s deepest break with the NATO alliance.
The Trump administration warned for months prior to extradition that the S-400 would mean Turkey would be removed from the F-35 program and could impose sanctions on the local defense industry under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), of countries penalized for buying Russian military equipment.
Ankara did not give in and was removed from the F-35 program in July 2019. In December 2020, Congress imposed the CAATSA sanctions that hit the Turkish defense industry.
As for the demand for Patriot systems, a Foreign Ministry official declined Turkish muscular effort on condition of anonymity, pointing out that there are currently no talks between the two countries regarding the purchase of the Patriot. “We knew with Turkey that if they bought the S-400, the offer for the Patriot would be withdrawn, and they bought the S-400, so that offer has expired.”
Nothing is forever in politics, however, and Washington is well aware of the long-term consequences of its dealings with the Erdogan regime.
Meetings at the Pentagon with Turkey often end with the same question, according to a former Pentagon official who has worked closely on Turkey issues: “How will this affect Turkey after Erdogan? Because after Erdogan we want to have a great relationship with Turkey again. “
Removing Turkey from the F-35 program and hitting its defense industry, which is a significant and growing segment of the Turkish economy, were some of the toughest measures taken against the country to date and came after months of debate in Washington.
The concern among NATO members was that the radar system would track the Russian S-400 NATO aircraft flying over Turkey and return that data to Moscow. Of particular concern was that the stealthy F-35, which was flown by the US, UK, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark, with Poland and Belgium scheduled to keep their jets in the coming years, was at particular risk from the Russians’ point of view would be looking for ways to crack the jet’s code.
“Turkey is a NATO member and they know we are not going to cut them off completely,” said the former defense official. “But then you come to the F-35, where we cut it off … there’s just no way you can get an F-35 near the S-400, period.”
One card Erdogan can play is to reconsider Turkey’s role in ensuring the security of Kabul International Airport during and after the US withdrawal from the country in the coming months, proposed by Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar this week When the logistics for the delivery and to secure them were not sorted out soon.
American troops and equipment are rapidly withdrawing from Afghanistan, but the Biden government is looking for ways to ensure the central government remains intact during an anticipated Taliban push in the capital. It will be crucial to keep the inland airport open and safe.
At the moment the purchases of warplanes and Russian equipment have been completed. What Biden and Erdogan need to get started is a new opportunity for the two long-time allies to work together on a wider range of issues, including Russian and Chinese influence in Europe and the Middle East, and a common ground for Biden priorities like human action to find rights and anti-corruption initiatives.
“Turkey knows that its first and best ally is the United States,” said the former defense official. “But you cannot escape your geography, and you are in a very difficult area. Turkey is using its ties with the United States to leverage its activities with its neighbors, which means we are a lifeline and call a friend when they’re in a pickle, even if it’s homemade. So that gives us room to negotiate. “