Past tensions between Biden, Erdoğan loom over Ankara-Washington relations

After Turkish leader’s ‘bromance’ with Trump, uncertainty is the order of the day.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leave the stage after family photo during the annual NATO heads of government summit at the Grove Hotel in Watford, Britain December 4, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/PETER NICHOLLS)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leave the stage after family photo during the annual NATO heads of government summit at the Grove Hotel in Watford, Britain December 4, 2019
The world is turning the page on the Trump Administration and getting ready for the Joe Biden presidency.
While many world leaders are breathing a sigh of relief that Donald Trump will soon exit the White House, a few like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are bracing for a stormy four years.
Erdoğan has had a cozy relationship with the outgoing American president, with their relationship something of a “bromance” and the two men constantly showering each other with praise.
Trump bragged that world leaders have come to him for help with Erdoğan, saying Turkey’s leader will listen only to him.
During an Oval Office meeting between them last November, Trump said of his Turkish counterpart, “The president and I have been very good friends, for a long time, almost from day one.”
Former Ambassador Ahmet Ünal Çeviköz, the foreign policy adviser to Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main Turkish opposition party, told The Media Line that with a Biden presidency, relations between the two principals will change.
“The authoritarian rule in Turkey enjoyed the Trump type of governance. With the new US administration, a stronger emphasis on the rule of law, fundamental rights and freedoms from the US side will create discomfort on the Turkish side,” Çeviköz says.
The continued tensions are due in part to the Trump Administration having neglected many of the issues under dispute between the two countries, he says, adding that relations between Ankara and Washington are “lukewarm” at best.
“The next four years will be a period to address all these issues, but nobody should be under the illusion that things will get back to normal easily and rapidly,” he says.
“It is a fact that Turkey will go to elections, both parliamentary and presidential, at the latest in June 2023,” Çeviköz adds. This means “there is a possibility of change in the Turkish administration, too. The new US administration will probably not look at relations with Turkey as an urgent agenda item.
“The best-case scenario would be to maintain, at least, the status quo, or not to worsen the relations if they cannot be repaired,” says Çeviköz.
In late 2016, Erdoğan went on CBS’s 60 Minutes news magazine to talk about how disappointed he had been with the outgoing Obama-Biden Administration. He said the Obama Administration had a failed policy on Syria.
Some four years later, Biden had tough words for Erdoğan. He told The New York Times earlier this year that Washington should support the Turkish opposition, “to be able to take on Erdoğan at the ballot box.”
That may be why Ankara was slow to congratulate President-elect Biden on his election victory. Erdoğan’s office issued a statement expressing Turkey’s determination to work closely with the new administration. “I believe that the strong cooperation and the bond of alliance between our countries will continue to make vital contributions to world peace in the future, as it has done so far,” Erdoğan said on November 10.
Despite all these differences, analysts say it is too early to know how the former vice president will deal with Turkey.
Egemen Bağış, ambassador of Turkey to the Czech Republic, downplays the friction with the US.
Bağış told The Media Line he likens it to the relationship between married couples. Even couples who have been married for a long time do not agree on everything, he says.
“It’s natural to have differences. I’m married for almost 30 years and I don’t see eye to eye on every issue with my wife, but we have a successful marriage. We have and continue to have each other’s support. In every relationship there are good days, and there are better days. Turkish-American relations have a long history of almost 70 years, so naturally we have ups and downs. As in every relationship, there are sometimes sharp differences, but we have a long tradition of cooperation and dialogue,” he says.
Bağış, a former member of the Turkish parliament and a former minister for EU affairs and chief negotiator of Turkey in accession talks with the European Union, says politicians say things during election campaigns that do not necessarily reflect their agenda once in office.
“There is a very popular Turkish saying: ‘The head that wears the crown grows wiser.’ So, when politicians get elected to office, they then realize their responsibilities because they are briefed and understand the need to recognize that neither the US nor Turkey can afford to lose each other,” he says.
“Experience has taught us that US politicians should not be evaluated based on their statements during campaigns. Look at the actions more than the words. Mr. President-elect is not a newcomer to the world of politics and international relations. He has relationships with Turkey, and with President Erdoğan,” Bağış adds.
With a new US administration entering office on January 20, the two capitals will have to sort through an assortment of issues in the following months.
Some analysts think the strains between Ankara and Washington could worsen under Biden, as the two leaders differ on several issues, ranging from Turkey’s seemingly close relations with Russia, its military interventions in Syria, Libya and the Kurdish issue, and what the West views as Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
Michael Doran, an American analyst of the international politics of the Middle East and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told The Media Line there are also other sticking points the US should not ignore.
“The Americans are also increasingly alarmed by the assertive Turkish foreign policy as well as by the Erdoğan government’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world and its support for Hamas,” he says.
A forceful and decisive policy by the new administration will yield results, Doran says.
“I think the assertive foreign policy [of Turkey] works, on balance, much more to the advantage of the United States than many people think, but in the absence of a common view of the world, a common understanding of the purposes of the alliance, and an effective mechanism for coordination, the assertive policy appears threatening to Washington. Great powers don’t like surprises,” he says.
Ankara’s 2019 decision to purchase S-400 surface-to-air missile defense systems from Russia is subject to sanctions mandated by Congress, putting the two NATO allies at odds.
Matthew Bryza, an Istanbul-based nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and Global Energy Center and a former US ambassador to Azerbaijan, told The Media Line that under US law, the president is required to counter that purchase with sanctions.
“He [Trump] is required to choose five of 12 [possible] sanctions against Turkey. He’s been obligated to do this since last year, and he simply refused,” Bryza notes.
Turkey’s fear of Biden stems from comments he made during the Second Gulf War, when he hinted he would be okay with breaking up Iraq into three countries, thus empowering Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Back in 2004, then-Senator Biden made some statements suggesting he might be in favor of breaking up Iraq into three separate cantons: a Shi’ite one, a Sunni one and a Kurdish one. That plays into Turkey’s huge fears of also dividing up Turkey,” Bryza says.
Bryza, an expert on US-Turkey relations with four years in the George W. Bush White House and another four at the State Department, says a more recent comment by the former vice president “about President Erdoğan, saying that he should be removed from office by democratic means, by election,” further irritated Ankara.
Doran says despite the optics that Ankara and Moscow are getting closer, this is not the case.
“I don’t actually believe that Turkey is getting closer to Russia. There is great friction in the Turkish-Russian relationship: in Libya, Syria, and add the South Caucasus, the Black Sea and Ukraine to the list as well.”
The future of the relationship between Ankara and Moscow depends on how Ankara and Washington resolve their differences, Doran says.
“The Erdoğan government has purposely given itself the option to move closer to Russia if necessary, meaning if it does not get satisfaction from the United States on its core security challenges, fighting the PKK [the Kurdistan Workers Party] being No. 1 among them,” he says.
“Washington feels Ankara developing options for itself outside of the traditional framework of US-Turkish relations, and it is resentful.
But it does not spend enough time asking itself why Turkey felt the need for this. Ideally, the Turks prefer to be closer to the US than to Russia,” Doran adds.
Another major headache awaiting Erdoğan is the court case against Turkey’s state-owned Turkiye Halk Bankasi A.Ş. (Halkbank), which was indicted in Manhattan federal court last year for alleged fraud and money laundering while helping Iran sidestep US sanctions.
Turkey’s maritime claims in the Mediterranean are also a source of tension between the two nations. Expecting the worst, Erdoğan seems to be taking precautionary measures.
Last week, Turkey’s parliament approved legislation to repatriate Turkish energy and mining companies established abroad. Turkish officials said the move aimed to guard against the impact of potential sanctions.
Doran says that the West is underestimating the depth of Erdoğan’s domestic support.
“Biden is not going to find Erdoğan easier to deal with than Trump did. The Turks are much more supportive of Erdoğan’s foreign policy than the United States realizes. Even Erdoğan’s domestic enemies support his major foreign policy moves.”
Yusuf Erim, chief political analyst and editor-at-large for the Turkish public broadcaster TRT, told The Media Line that both leaders would “look to increase bilateral trade to give the relationship more depth.”
The Biden Administration will likely have a more stable and less unpredictable foreign policy than under Trump, Erim adds.
“Despite the negative aura surrounding US-Turkey relations that has increased with the election of Joe Biden, I don’t expect the new administration to take any steps that would seriously hurt the relationship. Washington knows Ankara has alternatives in Moscow and Beijing, and Turkey is too important to the security architecture of the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region. Biden will want to rebuild alliances, and completely alienating Turkey would be a major blow to NATO,” Erim says.
Erim concedes that friction exists between the two countries, but adds that this shouldn’t overshadow the possibility of bridging the gap.
“While Biden will pose new challenges for Turkey, there will also be new opportunities as well. If the US goes back to the JCPOA with Iran, this will change regional dynamics,” he says, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or Iran nuclear deal. “Turkey may find it has new shared interests with rivals like Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt, creating a diplomatic space for a thawing of relations.”
Ali Cinar, a senior foreign policy expert and a 2019 Ellis Island Medal of Honor recipient, told The Media Line tension with Turkey would have been “unavoidable even if Trump had won, and it seems that it will continue with President-elect Biden as well.
“The reality is President-elect Biden’s priority will not be on Turkey. Biden Administration priorities are more domestic and fighting against COVID-19. I think that Turkey will have a better diplomatic relationship during the Biden Administration, especially with the incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He knows Turkey well and he acknowledges the importance of Turkey in the region,” Cinar says.
He adds that Biden is very familiar with Turkey.
“He was in Turkey four times during his vice presidency. He has made his first visit in December 2011, during the Arab Spring, and his second visit took place just after the US air bombardments against the [ISIS] organization [in Syria and Iraq] in November 2014.
Following his third visit in January 2016 for the meetings against ISIS, he visited Turkey for a fourth time after the [Turkish] coup attempt in August 2016,” Cinar notes.
“I don’t think that the ties will break completely during Biden Administration. I am more optimistic on the Turkey-US relationship,” he says.
He argues that the two leaders should work together on confidence-building measures, and “open a fresh page starting in January 2021.
“There is no solution in the Middle East without Turkey, so I think that Biden Administration will be careful not to push Turkey toward Russia and Iran. The US and Turkey will have a better relationship under the NATO alliance despite the current issues,” he adds.
However, “the problem for Turkey will be in the US Congress since there is a very negative perception by both parties,” Cinar says.
Read more articles from The Media Line.