How will sanctions affect Biden’s relationship with Ankara?

By THO Contributor, Emily Przyborowski 

As Joe Biden’s inauguration looms in the coming weeks, President Donald Trump and the United States Congress imposed sanctions on Ankara, a devastating blow to US-Turkey relations. 

On December 14th the United States imposed sanctions on Turkey’s military acquisitions agency under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) in response to Ankara testing its Russian S-400 missile defense system that it purchased more than three years ago. The sanctions will include economic penalties on US exports, authorizations, or loans to the Turkish military procurement agency. They also freeze the American assets of four of its top officials, including its chief Ismail Demir, and bans them from entering the US. Washington also issued an export license ban to the Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB), a civil institution established by the government that manages both foreign procurement and domestic production of military equipment. 

Ankara responded as expected, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated on December 16th that the sanctions were a “hostile attack” on Turkey’s defense industry and that they would fail. The next day, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that Turkey would not be reversing their purchase of the S-400s in response to the sanctions. Ankara has also repeatedly stated that the S-400s will not be incorporated into NATO and that they needed to purchase them because they were unable to acquire a similar defense system from a NATO ally on satisfactory terms. 

While the sanctions appear to be fairly limited they’re actually significant as they threaten Turkey’s budding indigenous defense sector and its plans to become defensively self-sufficient by 2023. The sanctions will make it more difficult for Ankara to procure defense technologies and materials from the US, some of which is used for the production of its indigenous weapons and technologies. In this respect, the sanctions could have major political fallout for Erdogan who has made the development of the defense industry a key effort of his presidency.

However, not all arms deals to Turkey have stopped — existing sales that do not require congressional approval or are already underway will not be affected. However, these sales tend to be smaller deals, such as spare parts, ammunition, and maintenance packages for aging equipment. In order to acquire major technology, like tanks, planes, and ships Ankara may have to begin relying more heavily on other partners like Russia and China. In the past, Turkey has explored the idea of purchasing Russian Su-35 fighter jets as well as Chinese ballistic missiles. Even if Turkey fulfills the US government’s demands and arms sales resume, it’s uncertain if Turkey will still want to buy American weapons, given their growing domestic industry and access to other markets.  

Many have argued that the sanctions have the potential to seriously damage the Biden administration’s efforts towards a more productive relationship with Ankara. And while this may be true, it is important to remember that Trump went to great lengths to remain an ally of Turkey and avoid the sanctions. Those lengths even included the US offering to sell Turkey its Patriot missile defense system in March, if Ankara agreed not to operate the S-400s.   

In fact, the US Congress has been the biggest driving force behind the sanctions and the Biden administration will have to contend with their calls for tougher treatment of Turkey. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been calling for the imposition of CAATSA sanctions since the S-400 purchase occurred. In early December, some members sought to include a mandate requiring Trump to impose the CAATSA sanctions on Turkey in its National Defense Authorization Act, forcing the President’s hand. 

Joe Biden himself is not expected to take it easy on Turkey either. Biden has called Erdogan an ‘autocrat’ in the past and said that he would support the opposition’s efforts to defeat him. Some believed that he would impose the CAATSA sanctions if Trump did not before he left office. With Turkey remaining involved in the conflicts in Libya and Syria, as well as oil exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, there are plenty of opportunities for another flare-up in relations. However, Biden administration officials have stated that they intend to work with Ankara on a multilateral approach to the region, and will likely look to work with Erdogan on countering growing Russian and Iranian aggression.

Although the future of relations between the US and Turkey in the near future seems grim, all hope is not lost. Turkish officials have been careful to leave the door open for cooperation and rapprochement with Washington — a statement made by Turkey’s Foreign Ministry’s was sure to include that Ankara was still ready for dialogue and diplomacy. At the end of the day, Ankara realizes that it is best served by cooperating with Washington and will likely encourage positive relations with Biden after inauguration day. Erdogan will likely attempt to improve relations with the US, possibly through the release of political prisoners or other human rights improvements, without reversing its purchase of the S-400s, which would damage his image domestically. 

Emily Przyborowski is a contributor for the Turkish Heritage Organization and a researcher focused on the Middle East and terrorism.