Opinion by Asli Aydintasbas
As the Biden administration rolls up its sleeves to formulate foreign policy objectives, one of its more difficult dossiers will be Turkey.
Drifting from the West, flirting with Russia and going authoritarian at home, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey has been a difficult ally, but it remains a NATO partner and a regional powerhouse. Ankara has angered Washington by purchasing the Russian S-400 missiles system and going after U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in Syria. Turkey has also skillfully filled the vacuum from the U.S. retreat in the region by expanding its military footprint in the Caucasus and the Middle East.
Increasingly self-confident and with growing domestic defense capabilities, Turkey’s strongman is no longer interested in being a loyal member of the West. He believes that Turkey should pursue its own destiny — with himself at the helm.
Now he is looking for a reset with the Biden administration that acknowledges Turkey’s new reality, as he sees it.
“[Donald] Trump has in some ways done a favor to us by getting U.S. sanctions out of the way,” said a senior Erdogan adviser, referring to the Trump administration’s last-minute announcement of CAATSA sanctions on Turkey’s military procurement agency in December for its purchase of Russian hardware. “We can move forward on a clean slate.”
The relationship between Ankara and Washington used to be touted as a “strategic partnership,” but that now rings hollow given the deep mutual mistrust.
In recent days, I’ve spoken with several of Erdogan’s top aides and former advisers as they prepare for the Biden era. Trump had his own way of dealing with Erdogan, bypassing his own establishment and striking personal deals with the Turkish leader — but failing to solve any of the major issues in the alliance. Erdogan would ideally like Biden to act like Trump, but in the absence of that, he is hoping for a grand bargain — involving U.S. concessions on S-400s, Syria and a major case against a Turkish state-run bank in New York.
“We are the only country pushing back against Russian expansionism in Syria and elsewhere,” the same Erdogan adviser said. “The president [Erdogan] has developed a rapport with [Vladimir] Putin and is the only Western leader who can have a frank conversation with him. The Biden administration should see this as an asset.” Reluctant to drop Russia, Turks feel they should be able to have a foot in each camp.
But there seems little appetite for that. “The idea that a strategic, so-called strategic, partner of ours would actually be in line with one of our biggest strategic competitors in Russia is not acceptable,” Antony Blinken, now secretary of state, said at his Senate confirmation hearing last week. “We need to take a look to see the impact that the existing sanctions have had and then determine whether [there is] more that needs to be done.”
As Biden himself knows from his days as vice president, Erdogan is a tough negotiator, even with a weak hand. He remains economically and electorally vulnerable — but will not show that.
“Erdogan negotiates by making everyone around him believe there is no tomorrow and zero chance of a compromise,” one former Erdogan lieutenant told me. “In the end, what he wants in return for not using the S-400s is a personal relationship with Biden, in the way he has had with Trump and Putin. And no more headaches about human rights and democracy.” Emerging as the sole interlocutor in issues to do with Washington, the former adviser argued, was Erdogan’s way of guaranteeing the continuation of his regime.
Turkey is preparing to drive a tough bargain, and Blinken’s remarks suggest that the Americans are in no mood to pull punches either.
A big reset might be elusive. But the one area where positive momentum in Turkish-U.S. ties can happen is the periphery — in ancient conflicts like Cyprus and Armenia. In anticipation of the Biden administration, Ankara has recently embarked on a charm offensive toward the European Union and reached out to regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. After a year of hard-line policies, Turkey is also encouraging the United Nations to restart Cyprus talks on the decades-old division of the island.
More surprisingly, the senior Erdogan adviser told me that Ankara is ready to “normalize relations with Armenia.” In November, Turkey supported Azerbaijan’s military campaign against Armenia, but the official now says they could engage with their historic foe and even open the border crossing: “The problem for us has always been Armenian occupation of Azeri territory. That’s now resolved. If Armenia is willing to take a step, we are ready.”
Cyprus and Armenia might not be at the core of Turkish-U.S. relations, but solving these conflicts would hugely benefit Ankara’s relations with the West.
Americans have never understood how to deal with Erdogan, and the Turkish president has never tired of playing hardball. Perhaps the key to fixing this relationship this time is a little social distancing. Rather than fixating on a big reset from the top, Turkey and the United States might do better with baby steps, keeping the door open for a better future.