Turkey has been a “Eurasian actor” for more than seven decades and a significant ally of the US in a way that rendered bilateral ties a strategic partnership. Nevertheless, relations have become tense since the failed coup attempt in 2016, and a mixed record of declared differences and understandings conducted under the table during the tenure of President Donald Trump, who had personal relationships with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Furthermore, some analyses have considered that the state of “rapprochement mixed with tensions” between both countries is on its way to extinction against the emergence of a severe confrontational pattern, especially with the arrival of Democratic President Joe Biden, who initially seems to be taking a hostile stance against the Turkish president and policies.
The annoying ally
“The US-Turkey relationship has a long history of complexities, with no golden era to point to. However, even by these standards, recent years have been exceptionally bad”, Galip Dalay argued in his article for the Brookings Institution. Moreover, some analysts pointed out that relationship between Washington and Ankara has changed and will not return to its previous state.
Roots of the current controversy dominating the relationships between Washington and Ankara can probably be traced back to 15 July 2016, in tandem the failed coup attempt in Turkey. The Turkish government expected a strong statement from Washington condemning the coup attempt. The Justice and Development Party saw the slow American reaction as a core desire, if not an outright support, for the coup attempt, which reinforced the rapprochement of Ankara with Moscow and encouraged it to purchase the S-400 system.
In October 2019, Turkey launched military offensives against the locations of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) allied with Washington, which played a major role in fighting the Islamic State (IS) in the wake of the sudden withdrawal of the US forces called by President Trump. Furthermore, Ankara considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) (the main component of the SDF) as a terrorist group related to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In response, the German Deutsche Welle reported that the US military had announced its closure of Syrian airspace to Turkish warplanes, and, at the time, US officials had warned Ankara of any major military operation.
Yet, in November 2019, Turkey signed a bilateral agreement with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) regarding the maritime borders in return for a security agreement, including military trainers and advisors and military supplies. The move angered Washington’s European allies, Cyprus and Greece, and the entire European Union. Massive arms deliveries have continued by air and sea from Turkey to the Libyan GNA despite Ankara’s commitment to the outcomes of the Berlin Conference, in January 2020, which bans supplying arms to all Libyan parties.
Ankara also deployed its naval forces to support search and exploration activities in the disputed waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, which caused a major incident with a Greek frigate in August 2020. That was followed by NATO’s efforts to establish a mechanism to resolve the conflict between Athens and Ankara.
In a parallel context, in November 2020, Turkey claimed that the efforts exerted to negotiate a comprehensive agreement for Cyprus had become futile, considering that a two-state solution was its favored option, and rejecting the federal model. In response, the Republic of Cyprus inveighed against the visit by Erdoğan to Northern Cyprus, considering it an “unprecedented provocation”.
In February and March 2020, the Turkish Ministry of Interior allowed about 135,000 migrants to reach its land borders with Greece, through a false promise of open borders with the European Union (EU), which seemed to be a mean of pressure due to the solidarity of the European Union with Greece.
On 17 June 2020, three diplomats of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) said that Turkey has continued to block a NATO defense plan for Poland and Baltic states, despite the deal sealed a year earlier. Diplomats said while Ankara has approved the plan, known as “Eagle Defender”, it has not allowed NATO military chiefs to put it into action.
Biden’s administration seems more decisive
Despite what appeared to be a state of tension in relationships between Washington and Ankara when Trump was at the helm, some analyses confirm that the personal relationships between Trump and Erdoğan had played a major role in reducing pressure on Ankara, and allowing it to move freely. Trump told Erdoğan that he was his “best buddy”, John Bolton, the former US National Security Advisor, stated in his book “The Room Where It Happened”. The book presented a detailed view of the understandings that brought both presidents together, and Erdoğan’s success in employing these understandings to attain his goals. Thus, a general assumption may be made that the change of the American administration carries a similar change in the policy of Washington towards Ankara. Yet, the Trump administration had tended to tighten its stance more towards Turkey in its recent days. On 14 December 2020, Washington imposed sanctions on Ankara via the Combating America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) due to Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 system. Therefore, it becomes obvious that the crisis related to the S-400 system is the most prominent contentious issue between both countries that required further retreat from the Turkish side.
Biden adopts an anti-Turkish tone, as he had stated to The New York Times, during the preparations for the recent presidential elections, in which he described Erdoğan as an autocrat, condemning his policy towards the Kurds, and calling for supporting the opposition. Moreover, he made statements, while taking the position of Vice President, in October 2014, in which he indicated that Ankara had helped in building IS.
During his election campaign, Biden condemned Trump’s withdrawal of US forces from northern Syria, describing the move as a betrayal of the Kurds. He pointed out that Ankara would “pay a high price” for its military operation against the Kurds in Syria, while expressing his concern about Washington’s retention of nuclear weapons in Turkey.
Moreover, Biden has joined a number of Democratic lawmakers who condemned Ankara’s launching of Operation Peace Spring. In his statements to The New York Times, Biden pointed out to the possibility of cooperating with Washington’s allies to isolate Turkey in the Mediterranean due to its frequent skirmishes against Cyprus and Greece and its interference in Libya covetously hoping for the Mediterranean’s gas wealth.
At the private hearing held on 19 January, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken referred to Turkey as a “so-called strategic partner” in response to a question on Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 system. In this context, the US Department of State issued a statement during the last week of January, criticizing the Turkish measures that violate human rights, especially the rearrest of a number of opponents after they were acquitted by the court.
The Turkish position was further embarrassed by the appointment of Brett McGurk, who is close to the Kurds, as a coordinator for Middle East and African affairs at the National Security Council as he worked under President Obama as a coordinator for the international coalition against IS, and supported arming the Kurds, which provoked the anger of Ankara and pushed it to launch a campaign against him that ended in his resignation by the end of 2018.
On 6 February, John Kirby, the spokesperson of the US Department of Defense, announced that the Biden administration would not lift the ban imposed by his predecessor’s administration for Turkey’s purchase of F-35 fighters, in response to its purchase of the S-400 system. He added that Turkey is an ancient ally of NATO, but its decision to purchase the S-400 does not comply with the obligations of Turkey as an ally of Washington and NATO.
Perhaps all of these matters are the main reason that drove Turkey to reconsider its controversial policies. Consequently, the first signs of change appeared in the suspension of exploration operations in the disputed areas with Cyprus, and the launching of talks with Greece on 25 January. Moreover, Erdoğan called for turning a new page in relationships with the European Union and reviving the idea of Turkey’s accession to it.
A new approach?
Based on the previous indicators, it has become initially obvious that the relationship between Washington and Ankara are is on the brink of a new phase, in which Washington takes a more intense stance towards Ankara to deter it from continuing its aggressive stances and its controversial policy. In this light, Biden’s presidency is meant to establish the anti-Turkish rhetoric, especially with the Democratic Party’s control of the Congress and White House, in like manner. Furthermore, the Biden administration seems to be more inclined towards the Kurds in northern Syria, more sympathetic towards Greece and Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, more convinced of the necessity to impose sanctions on Turkey, and more condemning of the illiberal and anti-democratic steps that Ankara is following, such as violations of the freedom of the press and the social media law, etc.
It is clear bilateral relations have not been permanently harmonious. Instead, there’s been a tug-of-war between Washington and Ankara on more than one occasion. John Kennedy’s administration withdrew Jupiter missiles from Turkey in April 1963. After Turkey’s occupation of Cyprus, Washington banned American arms from Ankara. The US military aid to Greece has also contributed to countering Ankara’s ambitions in the Aegean Sea. Yet, the Soviet threat has led them to overcome their differences and helped in strengthening their relationship.
Therefore, it is difficult to assume that the strategic partnership between both countries has ended due to Biden’s victory and was replaced by animosity. In this context, it becomes obvious that the Biden administration’s policy towards Ankara will proceed according to an equation governed by a number of factors:
Turkey’s power: Turkey has significant potentials that make it difficult to be replaced with another ally in view of the fact that Turkey has a geopolitical position that enables it to connect Asia with Europe, and allows it to extend its influence in most of the significant arenas in the Middle East, Balkans, Caucasus, Black Sea and Central Asia, and to control the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. Moreover, Turkey has borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran, and is a key actor in most of the hot spots in the Middle East, whether in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, the Palestinian cause, Syria, Libya or the Eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, Ankara is the appropriate path to achieve a rapprochement of visions between Washington and Tehran, especially with Biden’s rising interest in adoting a more reasonable and pragmatic approach with Tehran. This is due to the fact that Ankara is the arena in which Tehran depends, to some extent, to circumvent American sanctions.
In addition, Turkey is not only the sole Muslim country in NATO, but it also has the second largest army in the Alliance. Moreover, it includes military bases, centers for monitoring, early warning, wireless communication and espionage and information gathering systems, the most important of which are the two air bases Incirlik and Konya, NATO Ground Forces Command in Izmir, US early warning radar system in Kürecik which is part of the NATO missile defense system in Europe, Sinop base which contains long-range radars and advanced communication systems.
The Turkish narrative: Since its ascent to power, the Justice and Development Party has been able to stimulate the nationalist sentiments of the Turkish people. Even the secular sectors that reject the Islamic character of its project believe and take pride in the powerful Turkish state that has a say in the international arena. Therefore, some analysts are inclined to consider that the failures facing domestic politics have prompted Ankara to focus its foreign policy options on issues of an internal consensus, such as: the Kurdish rebellion, Turkish rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkish Cypriot rights and Azerbaijan’s rights in Nagorno-Karabakh. This means that Turkish opposition parties do not have an external project different than Erdoğan’s in terms of content; it is the same project, albeit with different features.
This effect comes from the marketing of the major international position that Ankara has come to enjoy. Speaking on Victory Day 2020, Erdoğan said: “We are determined to welcome 2023, the centenary of the Republic, as an economically, militarily, politically stronger, more independent, [and] more prosperous country”, pointing out to the “critical accomplishments from Syria to Libya, from the Black Sea to Eastern Mediterranean”. Thus, it becomes obvious that the American administration’s endeavor to support the opposition in the face of Erdoğan will not necessarily alter Turkish foreign policy under a new administration, but rather may push it to change its Islamic framework.
Washington’s opponents: Ankara may be regarded as a “strategic balance” to confront the increasing role which Washington’s opponents seek to play, especially Russia and China. Furthermore, the significance of this role increases with the expansion of Washington’s desire to reduce its foreign engagement in a way that requires counting on a reliable agent who can fill this void. Thus, Washington realizes that the growing gap with Ankara may drive it to further rapprochement with Washington’s opponents in a way that harms US interests.
In this context, it becomes obvious that the Turkish presence in the hot spots where Moscow is located would signify, in one way or another, the presence of a Western actor in the face of Moscow, even if Ankara has sought an understanding with Moscow regarding its own interests. Moreover, Ankara seems to be seeking to use the rapprochement card with China, in order to pressure Washington in particular, and the West in general, by sending a message indicating that it still has the alternative that will economically support it together with its regional role in Asia.
US interests in South Caucasus, Caspian Sea and Black Sea: Despite what appeared to be differences between Washington and Ankara in some arenas, such as northern Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya, the Caucasus and Black Sea regions have seemed to be a stimulation of the positive development of relationships and the opening of wider cooperation areas. Since Vladimir Putin has risen to the helm, the Russian moves have irritated Western powers in general, and Washington in particular, commencing with the Ukraine crisis, the Russian quest to restore influence in the countries that were under the command of the Soviet Union, and ending up with its efforts to reach an agreement with the countries bordering the Caspian Sea on banning foreign powers (i.e.: NATO forces) from accessing the sea. Thus, it has become obvious that Turkey is the closest ally to the region and the most suitable to intervene in the interactions there in a way that protects US interests.
In the Black Sea, the indications have been pointing out to the expansion in Moscow’s maritime influence in a manner that does not only constitute a challenge to Turkey, but also to the military system of the NATO alliance. In 2010, NATO deployed the early warning radar system for the southern region of the missile shield at the Turkish Kürecik base, which Moscow saw as a move to constrain its attempts to pressure Azerbaijan and Georgia. As of 2018, Washington has taken some steps to strengthen its presence there as the US defense budget for 2019 included about $ 27 million to modernize the infrastructure in Romania and Bulgaria. In November 2018, in response to the Kerch Strait incident, Washington increased military surveillance missions in Romania by deploying the aircraft carrier USS Fort McHenry to participate in joint naval exercises with Romania. Rather, it seems that Washington’s other allies from the countries bordering the Black Sea do not desire to clash with Moscow, as most of their hope is to only strengthen their security so that Turkey would remain the most active actor there. This is due to Turkey’s enormous maritime capabilities, in addition to its responsibility for maritime traffic through its control over the straits linking the Black and Mediterranean seas.
To sum, despite the decreasing trust and escalation of tension between Washington and Ankara, it seems that Washington will not seek a sharp confrontation against Ankara. Both sides will continue to realize the significance of their relationship and the need to maximize mutual interests and understandings, which requires both parties to show flexibility.
The differences between the two capitals do not indicate the relationship is turning hostile. On the contrary, there will be a set of understandings and interests that will guide the compass of bilateral relationships. Galip Dalay has called for laying a new middle ground between both countries that is not based on the previous conceptual tools, such as the strategic alliance or the model partnership, because such conceptual frameworks would create a gap between expectations and reality. Rather, the new form of the relationship should be more interactive, with clearly defined goals and boundaries.