How Joe Biden can put US-Turkey relations back on track

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (R) shakes hands with a shopkeeper as he visits Samatya fish market in Istanbul December 4, 2011. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

As Joe Biden prepares to occupy the White House on January 20, interested parties across the globe are speculating on how the new US administration will approach their specific issues and regions. Turkey, one of the United States’ most important NATO allies, is similarly awaiting a new administration with a mixture of apprehension and optimism, as President-elect Biden has an opportunity to reset a relationship that has hit a low point in the last decade.

In the first days of his term, many observers expect Biden to prioritize COVID-19 economic stimulus as well as infrastructure revitalization, with foreign policy taking at least a temporary backseat to domestic challenges. Even within foreign policy, the Middle East will probably not be Biden’s primary focus when compared to the Indo-Pacific, China, Europe, the Americas, and the revival of transatlantic relations.

But great power competition with China and Russia will probably be the primary prism through which the new administration views the world, and therefore Biden will need capable allies on the ground as it attempts to push back against Beijing, Moscow, as well as other adversaries such as Iran and North Korea. Biden has emphasized the importance of cooperating with allies to achieve foreign policy goals in contrast to Trump’s preference to tackle issues on a bilateral basis. If the United States and Turkey can work through the many issues souring their relationship, Ankara can be one of Washington’s most capable global partners.

Turkey has started to assert itself as an important regional power in the last few years with direct or indirect involvement in conflicts in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, or the disputes over the Eastern Mediterranean. An active Turkish ally could help lower the security burden on the United States, fulfilling the pledge by both Biden and President Donald Trump to end US “forever wars.” If this is an outcome the United States desires, both parties need to seriously think about how the relationship can get back on track.

The S-400 dispute

The most pressing and awaited decision on Turkey for Biden will be how to respond to Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system. Trump effectively kicked the can down the road by delaying and refusing to implement sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which most analysts agree are mandatory and which many members of Congress and others have been clamoring for. Last month, Turkey took one of the final steps towards making the system operational by holding a live-fire test, which the United States swiftly condemned. The United States has already punished Turkey for the S-400 by removing them from the F-35 fighter jet program.

Regardless of Biden’s intentions, it is likely he will feel pressure from both sides of the political aisle to further punish Turkey under CAATSA. On numerous occasions, Turkey has offered to hold technical discussions with the United States to assuage concerns over NATO interoperability and, specifically, the potential for Russia to collect intelligence on the next generation F-35 fighter through the S-400, but these offers were categorically refused by Trump, who maintained that the presence of the S-400 precluded the export of F-35s to Turkey.

This is an issue where it is in the interest of both sides to engage in an open and honest discussion to address the core disagreements, bearing in mind that US sanctions would further deteriorate US-Turkey relations and would push Turkey closer to America’s adversaries. Turkish officials should also remember, however, that Turkey’s use of the S-400 system will hamper its NATO as well as bilateral security cooperation for years to come.

The United States and Turkey need to work towards a compromise on the S-400 issue. The two sides could not come to an agreement for the purchase of the Patriot missile defense system when Turkey first opened a tender to acquire a missile defense system during the Obama administration, due to disagreements over price and technology transfer requirements. Just this past spring, the United States again reiterated its willingness to sell Patriots to Turkey. Reopening negotiations on Patriots, accompanied by a softening of positions on both sides, could lead to a real breakthrough in security and defense ties and remove a serious roadblock in bilateral relations.

Detangling the Syrian knot

The area the United States is most likely to deeply engage Turkey on is the continued conflict in Syria. In 2014, during President Barack Obama’s second term, the United States decided to support the People’s Protection Units (YPG)-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces  in the fight against The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). Under Trump, the United States directly armed the group, which was obviously going to create huge problems with Turkey, who has been fighting the YPG’s parent organization, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), for years. PKK is recognized as a terrorist organization not only by Turkey but also by the United States and the EU.

Since its beginning, Turkey has been seriously affected by the Syrian war through terrorist attacks on its soil and has been engaged with clashes on its border. Turkey, which joined the US-led coalition to fight ISIS in September 2014 and opened its bases for US forces to attack the terrorist group in 2015, has consequently suffered several serious ISIS bombings.

With its intervention in Northern Syria in August 2016, launched by both Turkish Armed Forces and Turkey-aligned Syrian opposition groups, Turkey directly entered the war as a belligerent against both ISIS and the SDF forces.

US support for the YPG continued during President Trump’s term to the present day, as Turkish reports claim that the United States has transferred aid worth $400 million to the group by October 2020, mostly consisting of security equipment.

The war in Syria and the US decision to cooperate with the SDF took place under President-elect Biden’s term as vice president. It is not clear what the Biden administration’s Syria policy will be—there has been no clear announcement on this issue—but times have changed since Biden was vice president. Turkey’s military power has proven to be useful in stopping the advance of Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Turkey’s dedication to fighting ISIS was also recognized in November 2015 by Anthony Blinken, then-deputy secretary of state and now Biden’s nominee to be Secretary of State, at an Atlantic Council Summit in Istanbul: “Turkey, perhaps the most critical geographic partner in this effort, has increased detentions, arrests, and the prosecution of suspected terrorist fighters,” he said.

With the continued threat of ISIS, the United States will probably continue to keep a small presence in Syria and maintain its support of the YPG-dominated SDF forces. However, the US-SDF relationship is temporary, tactical, and transactional,” as former US special envoy James Jeffrey once described it. One of the main rationales for US cooperation with the SDF alongside the ISIS fight was to provide a counterweight against Iran as well as preventing a total victory for Assad. With the Biden administration’s likely desire to progressively disengage militarily from Syria if favor of stronger diplomacy, as well as renew the nuclear deal, Iran will likely be consequently empowered and the United States will need a stronger counterwright against Iranian influence, which its ally Turkey, the second biggest army in NATO, can more effectively provide.

In the Middle East, Biden is expected to continue the Trump administration’s attempted rapprochement between Israel and various Arab countries, while also attempting to revive the Iran nuclear deal and take a more careful approach to Saudi Arabia as Biden places a much stronger emphasis on democracy and human rights promotion. As opposed to other regional countries, which strongly supported the Trump Administration’s hardline on Iran and scrapping of the existing nuclear deal, Turkey could emerge as a important advocate for renewing the Iran deal while at the same time still acting as a more moderate counterweight to Iranian influence.

A need for dialogue on the Eastern Mediterranean

When the Atlantic Council hosted then-Vice President Biden in 2014 in Istanbul, he argued that if the United States and its allies can successfully seize the economic and energy opportunities in the Eastern Mediterranean, “all will benefit from greater stability, economic growth, jobs, and prosperity.”

This is not how things evolved. The Trump administration threw its support behind the EastMed Gas Forum, a platform whose primary members include Turkey’s regional rivals Egypt, Greece, Israel, and Cyprus. The EastMed Gas Forum excludes Turkey from what Ankara views as its sovereign rights in the maritime region. Conflict between Greece and Turkey heated up over the summer over maritime boundary disputes, with each side engaging in increasingly bellicose rhetoric. Diplomatic intervention through EU countries and NATO helped defuse tensions for now, but little progress has been made at the political level to resolve the underlying dispute.

President-elect Biden should center his policy in this region around bolstering stability and security of all its allies. To that end, he should urge policymakers in Ankara and Athens to negotiate a lasting settlement to their longstanding issues. The United States needs to find a way to leverage its ties with both capitals to bring them to the negotiating table. The only other power poised to mediate are European Union countries, such as Germany, but Turkey may find it difficult to see these partners as impartial, given Greece and Cyprus’ membership to the bloc and the general frozen state of EU-Turkey relations.

Furthermore, Turkey should be included in the intergovernmental decision-making bodies in the Eastern Mediterranean. As the largest economy in the region and a growing power, Turkey will not accept being sidelined. Such exclusion puts the plans to exploit and export the region’s natural gas resources in jeopardy.

An issue intimately related to Turkey’s interests in the Eastern Mediterranean is the war in Libya. At the beginning of 2020, Turkey intervened on the side of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and swiftly began to turn the tide of battle against strongman Khalifa Haftar. Libya is an area where US policy needs to be clarified. While the US administration generally supported the GNA, President Trump himself has given positive messages about General Haftar, who he sees as a strong leader. The Biden administration should, and likely will, abandon this rhetorical support for Haftar, who has been accused of numerous human rights abuses and atrocities.

The US needs allies. Turkey is ready to step up.

If President-Elect Biden wants to reduce the security burden on the United States, he will need to rely on strong allies to check US adversaries and safeguard common interests. Turkey is one of the most obvious partners for fulling this role in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean.

The perception in the West that Turkey is cozying up to Russia and leaving the Western community is a total illusion. Turkey is the only power in the region which actively fought on the opposing side of Russia in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey has shown that it is willing and able to push back against Russian aggression in not only the Middle East and the Mediterranean, but also in Black Sea-Caucasus region through its deepening of its defense partnership and military aid with Ukraine as well as recent defense deals and support to Georgia, and Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan trilateral cooperation. Without any support from the West, Turkey opted for a de-escalation framework for the resolution of many of its  issues with Russia.

Separate from how the Biden administration approaches the myriad of issues comprising bilateral relations, Turkey is sure to benefit from President-elect Biden’s aim to reset and reinvigorate transatlantic relations and NATO. Stronger US involvement in NATO will provide the Alliance a better foundation to ensure the security and stability of the region as well as resolve disputes between members. The general US approach to international engagement, specifically through multilateral organizations, can similarly benefit Turkey. In order to fully take advantage of the new environment, Turkey and the United States need to work to establish a fresh dialogue, compromise on their outstanding issues, and prepare the way for an active and beneficial partnership in the future.

Pinar Dost is a deputy director at the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY Program. Follow her on Twitter @pdosting.

Grady Wilson is an assistant director at the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY Program.

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