What Now?

By THO Nonresident Fellow, Altan Atamer

It is no secret that the Turkish – US relationship has deteriorated in the recent months and years. Despite President Erdoğan enjoying a “direct line” with former President Trump (Rudaw 2019), the two nations were not able to reconcile many of their issues. Likewise, the Presidency of Biden did not signal any rapprochement to Turkey. Among the numerous disagreements, the most pressing of them appear to be divergent interests in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, such as US support for the YPG or Turkish offshore drilling in contested waters around Cyprus, and the Turkish acquisition of the Russian made S-400 missile system. The latter dispute has even engendered both the ejection of Turkey from the F-35 program and the imposition of CAATSA sanctions against various members of the Turkish defense industry which remain in effect to this day (US Department of State 2020). Yet, the disagreements between the two nations have further reaching consequences than bilateral ties. 

Crucially, both the US and Turkey possess the two largest militaries in the NATO alliance. Naturally, irreconciled disagreements between these two vital nations hurt the operability and effectiveness of the NATO alliance. For instance, Turkish influence in Libya, Syria, and the Caucasus have grown significantly, sometimes even at odds with fellow NATO members like France or Greece, while the general role of NATO and the US has also diminished in these regions. Since these crucial regions are conflict zones where Russian armed forces or their proxies operate, they also form the borders of NATO and, as such, define many of the security issues of the alliance. Therefore, in order to maximize the efficacy of the alliance and the security of each member state, it is in the best interests of Turkey, the US, and NATO to develop a comprehensive and effective means of cooperation moving forward – or, at the very least, a strategy that does not degenerate into zero-sum games or unilateral and disjointed action. On the 14th of June 2021, NATO leaders met in Brussels to discuss just this. But what exactly can the 2021 NATO summit tell us about the future orientation of NATO, the expected role of Turkey and the US in the alliance, and the prospect of improved Turkish – US ties? 

Right before the NATO summit the Turkish – US relationship was under significant strain. About a month before his inauguration, then President elect Biden had made comments in an interview with the New York Times that characterized the Turkish president as an “autocrat” and suggested that the US should support Turkish opposition movements in order to “take on and defeat Erdoğan” (Al Jazeera 2020). In April 2021, around four months after taking office, Biden made his first phone call to Erdoğan only to reveal that he would depart from his predecessors and label the deaths of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I a “genocide” (Fraser 2021). Effectively, the US was straining its relationship with Turkey over issues that did not exist under previous administrations. Unfortunately, when it came to preexisting issues, such as the S-400 missiles, the Biden administration also did not seem to be making any constructive progress. While US deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, suggested in an interview with CNN Turk in May 2021 that the US was offering Turkey alternative avenues to solve their disagreements over their purchase of Russian armaments, Turkish officials argued that the US “had not brought forward any new proposals” (Soylu 2021). In response to these developments, President Erdoğan even signaled that his June meeting with Biden at the NATO summit would be “a turning point for US-Turkey relations” and that Turkey would counter US initiatives if the meeting did not go well (Soylu 2021).  

At first glance, it does not appear that the meeting was too productive. For instance, while Presidents Erdoğan and Biden originally agreed to meet for 90 minutes on the sidelines of the 2021 NATO summit, their meeting only ended up lasting about 45 minutes (Michalski and Strachota 2021). Biden also remained tight-lipped regarding any details about the meeting. Instead, the only information Biden was willing to provide to the press was that the two leaders had a “very good meeting” (Haltiwanger 2021), and that he would “let the Turks tell you about” the particular issue of stationing Turkish troops in Kabul airport following the withdrawal of US soldiers (White House 2021). The cursory information provided by Biden makes it difficult to determine whether there was any meaningful progress made regarding either Turkish – US ties or Turkey’s relationship with NATO.  

However, information coming from the Turkish press and Erdoğan reveal that the meeting was more productive than initially anticipated. Speaking at the press conference after the two leaders’ meeting, Erdoğan signaled that that the talks revealed a “strong will to start an efficient cooperation based on mutual respect in every area” and that “there are no problems in Turkey-US ties that don’t have a solution and that, to the contrary, our areas of cooperation outweigh our problems and look richer” (Reuters 2021). While these comments suggest that there was likely no breakthrough concerning issues such as the Turkish purchase of the S-400 missiles or the US’s continued support for the YPG in Syria, it does imply that there has been both a marked shift in tone and rhetoric between Washington DC and Ankara and that the two countries are now willing to reengage with each other across a broad spectrum of issues. In fact, Erdoğan even revealed that Biden may pay an official visit to Turkey in the near future (Reuters 2021).   

Taking into consideration the positive outcome of Erdoğan’s meetings with other NATO countries who have also experienced a strain in their relations with Turkey, like France (Dönmez 2021), it seems that the prospects of improved Turkish ties with the US and NATO are on the horizon and that the NATO alliance is moving towards developing a coherent strategy that is beneficial for all of its members. However, it is anyone’s guess whether these positive trends continue to develop and form the backbone of Turkey’s relationships with other NATO members.


References:

Michalski, Adam, and Krzysztof Strachota. 2021. “No Breakthrough. Biden-Erdoğan Talks.” OSW Centre for Eastern Studies. https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/analyses/2021-06-16/no-breakthrough-biden-erdogan-talks (June 21, 2021).

Al Jazeera. 2020. “Turkey Condemns Biden's Criticism of 'Autocrat' Erdogan.” Joe Biden News | Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/8/16/turkey-condemns-bidens-criticism-of-autocrat-erdogan (June 24, 2021).

Dönmez, Beyza Binnur. 2021. “Turkey's President Meets French Counterpart at NATO Summit.” Anadolu Ajansı. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/turkeys-president-meets-french-counterpart-at-nato-summit/2273065 (June 24, 2021).

Fraser, Suzan. 2021. “Erdogan and Biden Meet at a Tense Moment for Turkish-US Ties.” AP NEWS. https://apnews.com/article/government-and-politics-donald-trump-joe-biden-middle-east-europe-0acabd54e9305b40a5c8d875f90ae133 (June 23, 2021).

Haltiwanger, John. 2021. “Biden and Erdogan Play Nice at NATO Summit, Showing the US and Turkey Still Need Each Other despite Tensions.” Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/biden-and-erdogan-play-nice-at-nato-summit-despite-tensions-2021-6 (June 22, 2021).

Reuters. 2021. “Erdogan Says U.S.-Turkey Problems Can Be Solved after Biden Meet.” Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/erdogan-says-no-us-turkey-problem-cant-be-solved-after-biden-meet-2021-06-14/ (June 23, 2021).

Rudaw. 2019. “Ahead of Erdogan-Trump Meeting, US Priority Is Keeping Turkey in NATO: Aide.” rudaw.net. https://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/turkey/11112019 (June 23, 2021).

Soylu, Ragip. 2021. “US Offers 'Alternatives' to Lift S-400 Sanctions on Turkey.” Middle East Eye. https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/us-offers-alternatives-lift-s-400-sanctions-against-turkey (June 23, 2021).

US Department of State. 2020. “The United States Sanctions Turkey Under CAATSA 231 - United States Department of State.” U.S. Department of State. https://2017-2021.state.gov/the-united-states-sanctions-turkey-under-caatsa-231/index.html (June 22, 2021).

White House. 2021. “Remarks by President Biden, President of the European Council Charles Michel, and President of the European Commission Ursula Von Der Leyen Before the U.S.-EU Summit.” The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/06/15/remarks-by-president-biden-president-of-the-european-council-charles-michel-and-president-of-the-european-commission-ursula-von-der-leyen-before-the-u-s-eu-summit/ (June 21, 2021).