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Meeting with Biden looms as critical test for Erdogan

Turkey’s relationship with the United States poses the toughest test for Erdogan in the coming period, bound to sway both his foreign policy and political alliances at home. 
Biden and Erdogan in 2014

Bracing for a make-or-break meeting with his US counterpart Joe Biden, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains squeezed between an imposing need for a thaw in his fraught ties with Washington and the task of selling it to his fold at home, where anti-American sentiment is running high, not least because he has often fueled it himself.

The two leaders are scheduled to meet on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels on June 14 in what would be their first face-to-face encounter since Biden became president, stripping Erdogan of a cozy rapport with the White House under Donald Trump.

Hectic preparations are under way in Ankara for the meeting, sources close to the government say, as a slew of thorny dossiers await the two NATO allies. Chief among them is the lingering row over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems and its ensuing ouster from the F-35 joint strike fighter program by Washington. Bilateral tensions have simmered also over US support for Kurdish forces in Syria, the US trial of a Turkish public bank for helping Iran evade sanctions, Washington’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based preacher accused of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey and Ankara’s territorial rows with Greece in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. Other issues of mutual concern include relations with Russia and tensions in the Black Sea region, the future of Syria and the situation in Iraq, particularly in the Kurdish-run north, where the Turkish army has been pursuing armed Kurdish militants from Turkey taking refuge in the region.

In a TV interview June 1, Erdogan conceded that his dialogue with Biden “has not been easy” thus far, unlike his “very peaceful and easy-going” phone diplomacy with Trump. Referring also to the terms of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, he said he “had never experienced such tension” with the White House, putting the blame on Biden for recognizing the Ottoman-era killings of Armenians as genocide.

Nevertheless, the row over the S-400s remains the most pressing, with Ankara still scrambling to find a solution that would satisfy Washington. It has floated several options, including the so-called Crete model – a reference to the Greek Cypriots’ controversial purchase of S-300 missiles from Russia in the 1990s, which ended up in storage on Greece’s island of Crete. 

There are signs that Erdogan might propose a new formula to Biden — to deploy the S-400s under US control at the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, without any Russian involvement in their operation and maintenance. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stressed this week that Ankara would have “100% control” over the systems and no Russian military experts would be present in Turkey. 

Ankara’s approach to the issue continues to strike many as superficial. With all that chatter on how Turkey would be the only one pressing the on-and-off button, Ankara has sounded as if it is a vacuum cleaner at stake and not a sophisticated missile system and, no wonder, failed to convince Washington.

To break the ice with Biden, the strongest card Erdogan could play is to promote Turkey as the best regional partner in US efforts to contain Russia and Iran. Though this card has somewhat weakened amid Turkey’s diplomatic, security and economic rapprochement with Russia in the past several years, Ankara has recently stepped up moves to show it is not giving Moscow a free pass in the region.

The leaders of Georgia, Poland and Ukraine — all at odds with Russia — have visited Turkey in short succession since April. During those visits, Erdogan pledged full support for Georgia’s bid to join NATO, sealed a drone contract with Poland and threw his weight behind Ukraine in its standoff with Russia. Also, Turkey took active part in NATO’s Steadfast Defender exercises in Romania last week.

Turkey’s growing military ties with Ukraine, in particular, are increasingly irking Russia, as evidenced by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s latest warning to Ankara to “stop fueling Kyiv's militaristic sentiment.” Ankara has also sent signals of possible further steps to counterbalance Russia in the Black Sea.

On the domestic front, anti-American bluster has been Erdogan’s main political fuel to rally his conservative and nationalist base. Yet realpolitik dictates a thaw in bilateral ties. Along with its tougher attitude on the diplomatic front, the Biden administration has refused to ignore Turkey’s violations of democratic norms, unlike Trump.

All those dilemmas have led to a rift in Ankara between those who favor normalization, even if at a transactional level, and those who believe that Washington is keen on toppling Erdogan.

Mehmet Kocak, a columnist for the pro-government Islamist daily Yeni Akit, for instance, argues that bilateral ties are doomed to deteriorate further, recalling that Biden, in an interview before his election, advocated support for Turkey’s opposition to defeat Erdogan. Despite those remarks, “President Erdogan congratulated Joe Biden on his election and offered to open a new chapter in bilateral ties, but that, too, has remained unreciprocated,” he writes. According to such isolationist Islamists, any dialogue with Washington would be futile.

Similar arguments have been raised by Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, backed by the Nationalist Movement Party, Erdogan’s de facto coalition partner. Soylu, who insists that the United States was behind the 2016 coup attempt, said last week that the rattling corruption allegations leveled against him by a fugitive mobster were part of a US-led conspiracy to topple Erdogan’s government.

Then there is a small but vocal clique of secular Eurasianists, which is a diehard adversary of the United States and claims to have swayed Erdogan’s foreign policies in the past several years. They, too, are irked by Ankara’s efforts to mend fences with Washington. Patriotic Party leader Dogu Perincek, the foremost voice of the Eurasianists, has recently lashed out at SETA — a government-linked think-tank, from where many presidential aides hail — for trying to “besiege Erdogan” and talk him into changing course toward reconciliation with the United States and Israel. 

This motley crew of US adversaries is likely to do its best to undermine Erdogan’s efforts at rapprochement with Washington, drawing especially on the claim that Biden is bent on toppling Erdogan; this claim is an appeal to the Turkish president's conservative and nationalist base. 

As for Biden, it would hardly come as a surprise if he puts a rigid condition on Erdogan to choose his side. That would be in line with NATO’s evolving vision, which is no longer limited to military partnership and common values, but highlights also greater economic cooperation along with political cohesion. 

Similar pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin would only deepen Erdogan’s predicaments as he becomes increasingly squeezed, both at home and abroad.

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