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Turkey Elections: Kilicdaroglu outreach to US, NATO hindered by Russia ties

Even if victory for the opposition reinvigorates Turkey’s relations with NATO, analysts say there’s no chance Ankara will break off ties with Russia.
Leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

The emergence of a credible challenger to the two-decade rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has raised a glimmer of hope in Washington for a potential revival of a pro-NATO foreign policy in Ankara and a return to Turkey’s democratic norms.

The opposition coalition led by 74-year-old economist Kemal Kilicdaroglu has vowed to restore Turkey’s standing on the world stage in repudiation of Erdogan’s brash approach to the West and Turkey’s neighbors.

Kilicdaroglu’s camp has said that if elected, the new government will rejoin the US-led F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and push ahead on Washington’s planned $20 billion upgrade of Turkey’s F-16 fleet, all while re-engaging the European Union and furthering dialogue with Greece over the status of disputed islands in the Aegean.

An electoral win by the opposition would also likely mean an end to Erdogan’s trademark tactics of playing Russia and the West off each other in pursuit of modest gains.

But the contest between Erdogan and his challenger remains a toss-up, and even if the opposition wins, a new government is likely to prioritize restoring faith in Turkey’s economy and domestic institutions before carving a bold new path in foreign policy.

Kilicdaroglu told The Wall Street Journal in an interview published Tuesday that if elected, his government would comply with the West's sanctions on Russia while maintaining Russia's investments in Turkey. 

Russia's economic leverage

Yet Turkey’s economic vulnerability, seen most urgently in the volatility of the lira, makes that a tall order, experts said. 

Russia has significantly expanded its economic ties with Turkey since the war in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in April the two countries reached $62 billion in total trade in 2022, according to Russian state media, in contrast to $33.8 billion with the United States for the same year. Turkey faces a widening foreign trade deficit, and Putin has threatened to turn the screws on Ankara’s economy before.

Kilicdaroglu has already said he will maintain relations with Moscow should his coalition be elected, reinforcing assessments that Turkey’s once binary alignment with the West is likely to remain a relic of the Cold War.

“Turkey is, in a way, stuck between its natural economic anchor, Europe … and to a smaller extent the US, and this tragic Russian chessboard, where it has locked itself in many ways with all the constraints that Russia can impose on Turkey,” Marc Pierini, former EU ambassador to Turkey, said during an Al-Monitor webinar on the elections on Monday.

Regardless of the limitations — or perhaps because of them — Western leaders are likely to welcome the CHP candidate with open arms should his party win the election, analysts said, especially given Turkey’s renewed strategic importance to NATO amid the war in Ukraine.

“At least we will have a new opportunity for real dialogue, which has not taken place at all in the past few years,” Pierini said.

Uncertainty around F-35 program

But exactly how a CHP-led government would rejoin the F-35 program and advance Washington’s stalled $20 billion proposal to overhaul Ankara’s F-16 fleet remains uncertain.

Improving human rights at home while ending Turkey's delay of Sweden’s entry into NATO, both of which a Kilicdaroglu-led government is expected to do if elected, are likely to grease the wheels.

Arranging the release of jailed Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtas and Turkish businessman and activist Osman Kavala would be key first steps by which Kilicdaroglu could soften resistance in the halls of the US Congress, where lawmakers led by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) have held up major arms sales to Ankara in recent years.

But the opposition camp has stopped short of committing to the Biden administration’s main condition for receiving the F-35, namely, offshoring the Russian-made S-400 air defense system that Turkey obtained despite Washington’s warnings in 2019.

On the other hand, if Erdogan wins the election, all bets are likely off for Turkey obtaining Lockheed Martin’s fifth-generation fighter jet, even if his government relents on obstructing Sweden’s bid to join the NATO alliance, analysts said.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said the AKP government rejected Washington’s proposals to send the S-400 to Ukraine, and Congress is unlikely to reimburse Ankara for what US lawmakers see as, at best, the lapse in judgment in buying Russian air defenses.

Yet the Biden White House may soften its stance should Kilicdaroglu become president and make good on his coalition’s campaign promises, said Soner Cagaptay, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“I can see the administration making a pitch to the Hill to move to put the S-400 episode behind us, whereby the status quo gets packaged as the solution,” Cagaptay suggested. “Maybe setting up some kind of verification mechanism with cameras to make sure that the systems are not being plugged in while they’re in storage."

Obtaining Washington’s permission to purchase the F-35 is one thing. But negotiating Turkey’s re-entry into the F-35 joint production program is no longer legally possible given US sanctions on Turkey's Defense Industry Agency over Ankara's purchase of the S-400.

“It will take the most amazing defibrillator in existence to bring that back to life,” said Aaron Stein, director of research at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.

And if Turkey’s opposition wins the election, it will need to tread carefully with its expected outreach to the Bashar al-Assad regime, especially as it explores options to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees, a position Kilicdaroglu has endorsed.

Assad is more likely to work with a Kilicdaroglu government than an Erdogan one, analysts said. But Syria's criminal regime remains a target of ire on Capitol Hill, and any agreement by Turkey that could put Syrian refugees at risk — or any fait accompli against Syria’s Kurds via the 1998 Adana accord — is likely to meet with a negative response in Washington.

Despite Kilicdaroglu's stated reservations about Turkey's burgeoning defense industry being in private sector hands, a CHP-led government is also likely to continue to build on that Erdogan-era legacy, which has become a point of pride at home and won Ankara new influence abroad through the sale of Bayraktar TB-2 drones.

For whatever policy inertia an elected CHP government may face, Kilicdaroglu’s tone toward the West is likely to be all that’s required for a good-faith fresh start, analysts said.

If Erdogan is re-elected, he’s almost certain to be less conciliatory than Kilicdaroglu, having spent much of his political career needling Western powers for domestic political consumption.

Yet Erdogan’s tactic in recent years of teasing defense partnerships with Moscow in hopes of leveraging concessions from Washington hasn’t worked, and Turkey’s next president is likely to need US support to weather the current economic crisis, said Sinan Ciddi, a senior fellow on Turkey at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

“Turkey's relationship with NATO is like a low-hanging fruit that both the Erdogan camp [and] the Kilicdaroglu camp, regardless of who wins, could actually engage pretty quickly,” Ciddi told Al-Monitor.

"After the elections, there are going to be some very hard economic realities and Turkey will need the support of the United States if it's going to go knocking on doors at the IMF (International Monetary Fund)," Ciddi said.

That could better position the Biden administration to press the Turkish government to reverse its crackdowns against critics and journalists while urging for a less aggressive foreign policy in Ankara.

“I think if Erdogan wins … there’ll be a lot of pressure on the administration to make a decision where it stands in terms of autocracy versus democracy,” Timothy Ash, an economist focused on Turkey and senior sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, told Al-Monitor journalist Amberin Zaman during the webinar on Monday.

If he does win, the trajectory of the next chapter in relations between the United States and Turkey may be shaped most by whether Erdogan challenges the legitimacy of the elections, Cagaptay told Al-Monitor.

Given the January 6 insurrection in Washington and the Biden administration staking its raison d’etre on the preservation of democracy, the United States “will have to be really vocal if there's a similar effort by Erdogan to claim the vote was rigged,” Cagaptay said.

If Turkey’s perennial president comes out on top once again, whether by legitimate means or otherwise, he’ll likely be expecting Washington’s swift endorsement.

“What the US does or doesn't say is going to inform how conciliatory Erdogan is going to be afterward,” Cagaptay said.

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