Biden and Erdogan set to meet amid difficult relationship


Over the past four years, Turkey’s often problematic role in NATO has been overshadowed by former President Donald Trump’s demands on NATO spending, “but now, given the strong commitment of Biden in favor of transatlantic cooperation, Erdogan’s spoiler role in the alliance has become more visible and is coming to the fore, ”said Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian who heads the Turkey program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

The problems are significant, but the Biden administration is looking for an ally who will continue to help address the Syrian refugee crisis while playing a more positive role in regional tensions. This includes new disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean, Syria and Libya, regions where Ankara has faced a multitude of adversaries from Greece to France to Russia.

These problems will not be easy to resolve, but what is at stake in Brussels is the personal relationship between the two leaders. Given that Biden called Erdogan an ‘autocrat’ during the election campaign and that the White House is reportedly supporting Democratic opposition to Erdogan’s regime, the two are not expected to appreciate the relationship Erdogan was talking to Trump.

That kind of happy hand isn’t necessary, however, as long as Biden continues to push for multilateral engagement wherever he can find it, and Erdogan is looking for some positive news to take home.

At this point in his presidency, Biden gave Erdogan the diplomatic cold shoulder, not making his first phone call until April, which was simply to inform the Turkish leader of his decision to recognize the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the first once an American president has done. The decision sparked outrage in Ankara, and Erdogan said the decision caused a “deep wound” in US-Turkey relations.

Whatever the outcome of the meeting in Brussels, the relationship is unlikely to break down even if tensions remain high. Turkey is NATO’s second largest army and seven of its top 10 trading partners reside within the alliance, even as Erdogan continues to insist on buying Russian military equipment and continually sticks his thumbs up. of NATO decision-making when it can.

The spoiler role is one that Erdogan seemed to enjoy, blocking NATO on a multitude of issues, including partnership agreements with non-NATO countries, in order to demand a political price against the countries. with which it is in conflict. Erdogan also flaunts his controversial purchase of a Russian air defense system.

This role was fully displayed at the end of 2019 when Turkey blocked a major new NATO Baltic defense planned for Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, set up after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Turkey refused to approve the region’s defense plan against Russian aggression until NATO recognizes the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria as a terrorist organization, a decision that the other 29 countries in the ‘NATO refused to do. Ankara finally abandoned its demands in July 2020 after failing.

More recently, Turkey has sought to water down NATO statements regarding Russian cyber attacks targeting the United States, as well as an alleged Russian military intelligence attack on ammunition depots in the Czech Republic. This kind of alliance breakage – NATO operates by unanimous consent among its 30 member states – is unlikely to be suitable for the Biden administration, which has made alliance building high on its international agenda.

“Given that Biden is committed to multilateralism and given that Biden is determined to work with his allies, Erdogan’s role as a spoiler within NATO then becomes a major obstacle to the course of action proposed by Biden,” Erdemir said.

That way of playing came back into play on Wednesday when Foreign Secretary Mevlut Cavusoglu referred to the American-made Patriot missile defense system that Turkey had long requested from Washington, warning: “If the United States does not guarantee Patriot, we can get an air defense system from our other allies. “

After Turkey and the United States failed to come to an agreement on the purchase of Patriot systems, in 2017 Turkey was awarded the Russian S-400 air defense system, which represented the deepest break in the world. country with the NATO alliance.

The Trump administration warned for months before delivery that the S-400 would mean Turkey would be removed from the F-35 program and could invoke sanctions against the local defense industry under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through law. Sanctions (CAATSA), which punished countries. for the purchase of Russian military equipment.

Ankara did not back down and in July 2019 was withdrawn from the F-35 program. In December 2020, Congress imposed the CAATSA sanctions, hitting the Turkish defense industry.

Regarding the request for Patriot Systems, a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, rejected Turkey’s muscle flexion, pointing out that there is currently no discussion between the two countries on the purchase of the Patriot. “We have been clear with Turkey that the offer for the Patriot would be withdrawn if they bought the S-400, and they bought the S-400, so that offer has expired.”

Nothing lasts forever in politics, however, and Washington is well aware of the long-term consequences of its actions with the Erdogan regime.

Meetings at the Pentagon regarding Turkey often end with the same question, according to a former Pentagon official who has worked closely on Turkey-related issues: “How does this affect Turkey after Erdogan?” Because we want a great relationship with Turkey again, after Erdogan. “

Excluding Turkey from the F-35 program and hitting its defense industry, which is a large and growing segment of the Turkish economy, were among the most forceful measures taken against the country to date, and came after months of debate in Washington.

NATO members were concerned that the Russian S-400’s radar system would track NATO planes flying over Turkey and send that data back to Moscow. It was of particular concern that the stealth F-35, flown by the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark, with Poland and Belgium due to receive their jets in the years to come, would be particularly threatened by the Russians. to find ways to crack the code on the jet.

“Turkey being a member of NATO, they know we are not going to cut them off completely,” said the former defense official. “But then you get to the F-35 where we cut them … there’s just no way in hell to put an F-35 near the S-400, period.”

One card Erdogan can play is Turkey’s role in securing Kabul International Airport during and after the US withdrawal from the country in the coming months, which Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has suggested this time. week could be reconsidered if the logistics of supply and their securing has not been settled soon.

US troops and equipment are quickly withdrawing from Afghanistan, but the Biden administration is looking for ways to ensure the central government remains intact amid an expected Taliban move in the capital. Keeping the airport open and secure in the landlocked country will be essential.

For the moment, the purchases of Russian fighter jets and equipment are concluded. What Biden and Erdogan will need to get started is a new way for the two longtime allies to work together on a wider range of issues, including Russian and Chinese influence in Europe and the Middle East and to find common ground on Biden’s priorities such as the human. anti-corruption rights and initiatives.

“Turkey knows that their first and best ally is the United States,” said the former defense official. “But you can’t escape your geography, and they’re in a very difficult neighborhood. Turkey uses its relationship with the United States to leverage the activities it has with its neighbors, which means we are a lifeline and phone a friend whenever they are in trouble, even if it is on his own initiative. This therefore gives us leverage in the negotiations.

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