Erdogan’s Tightrope Walk Between East & West May Soon Collapse
Ever since Pres. Joe Biden’s election last November, hundreds of articles have been published around the world analyzing the problematic relations between Turkey and the United States. Pres. Biden has made no secret of his dislike, if not outright hostility, toward Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The main points of contention between the United States and Turkey are as follows:
1) U.S. support for Kurdish allies in Syria which Turkey considers terrorists;
2) Turkey’s purchase of S-400 Russian missiles which could expose NATO’s military technology to Moscow. As a result, the United States cancelled the sale of advanced F-35 jets and imposed sanctions on Turkey;
3) U.S. refusal to extradite the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen whom Turkey falsely accuses of inciting the coup d’état against Erdogan in 2016;
4) Turkey’s abysmal record on human rights with the jailing of thousands of innocent civilians, journalists and judges on trumped up charges which Pres. Biden finds unacceptable.
Pres. Erdogan is following the strategy practiced by the Ottoman Empire of manipulating rival European powers against each other, by switching sides and changing partners. For example, he has declared himself to be the defender of all Muslims and particularly Palestinians, while engaging in a military partnership with Israel until recently. Another example is Turkey’s membership in the Western military alliance of NATO, while purchasing billions of dollars of sophisticated Russian missiles which are incompatible with NATO and U.S. weapons. At the same time, Erdogan is cozying up to Russia while involved in a military conflict with Russia in Syria and Libya. Turkey and Russia, two normally antagonistic countries, have also managed to find a modus vivendi in the Artsakh conflict.
The souring of relations between the U.S. and Turkey dates back to the time of Obama’s presidency, during which Biden served as Vice President. Erdogan was annoyed with Obama after an initial friendship. However, the Turkish leader developed a privileged relationship with the United States after Donald Trump became President. It is still unclear what prompted such a warm personal affection between the two. Was it Trump’s financial interests in Turkey or his bizarre fondness for tyrants around the world? We may never know.
Nevertheless, Biden fired the first shot in a December 2019 interview with the New York Times in which he called Erdogan an ‘autocrat’ and stated that the United States should support Turkish opposition leaders “to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan. Not by a coup, but by the electoral process.”
The next awkward situation arose when Erdogan congratulated Biden a few days after the November election. Four months later, Biden has still not contacted Erdogan even though he has called many other world leaders. Erdogan must be deeply offended by this diplomatic snub.
The first indication of the Biden administration’s tough policy on Turkey became evident on January 19, 2021, during Blinken’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing, when he pointedly called Turkey a “so-called strategic partner” and raised the possibility of imposing more sanctions on that country. “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,” Blinken said. “I think we need to take a look to see the impact that the existing sanctions have had and then determine whether more needs to be done.”
Blinken’s critical comments on Turkey were later reaffirmed by US national security advisor Jake Sullivan who described Turkey as “an ally that in many ways… is not acting as an ally and this is a very, very significant challenge for us and we’re very clear-eyed about it.” Sullivan placed Turkey in the same category as China.
On Feb. 5, 2021, the Pentagon confirmed that the Biden administration has no intention to lift the sanctions on Turkey for purchasing the Russian missiles. Turkey’s “decision to purchase the S-400 is inconsistent with Turkey’s commitments as a U.S. and NATO ally,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said. “Our position has not changed…. We urge Turkey not to retain the S-400 system…. Turkey had multiple opportunities over the last decade to purchase the Patriot defense system from the United States and instead chose to purchase the S 400, which provides Russia revenue, access and influence,” Kirby said.
To make matters worse, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soslu repeated in early February the baseless accusation that the United States was behind the abortive Turkish coup in 2016. State Department spokesman Ned Price issued a sharp rebuke, calling the allegations made by the Turkish Minister as “wholly false.” They “are inconsistent with Turkey’s status as a NATO ally and strategic partner of the United States,” added Price.
Another contentious issue is the in absentia Turkish trial of American professor Henri Barkey of Lehigh University on false charges of aiding the 2016 coup. The US State Department called the accusations against Prof. Barkey baseless.
On Feb. 10, 2021, the U.S. State Department called on Turkey to immediately release from jail Turkish philanthropist and human rights activist Osman Kavala who has been detained for more than three years without a conviction. Kavala was falsely accused of trying to overthrow the Turkish government with Prof. Barkey during the 2016 failed coup. The State Dept. urged Turkey to comply with a European Court of Human Rights ruling in late 2019 that Kavala be released.
On February 15, 2021, when Blinken finally called Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, he urged Turkey not to retain the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system.
Last December, when the United States placed sanctions against Turkey for the purchase of the Russian missiles, the Turkish Foreign Ministry arrogantly warned: “Turkey will take the necessary steps against this decision, which will negatively affect our relations and will retaliate in a manner and timing it deems appropriate.”
Turkey is still attempting to find a way to circumvent the U.S. sanctions. On February 1, 2021, it hired Arnold & Porter, a major American lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., to resolve the dispute with the U.S. government over the Russian missiles. The contract was signed with the Ankara-based SSTEK Defense Industry Technologies, owned by the Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB), Ankara’s main defense industry authority. SSTEK agreed to pay Arnold & Porter $750,000 for the six months to give Turkey “strategic advice and outreach” to U.S. authorities.
It is highly doubtful that Turkey will be able to resolve the dispute regarding the Russian missiles through its hired lobbyist. Interestingly, the contract with SSTEK specified that Arnold & Porter “does not make any promises or guarantees” about the outcome. “If the matter does not reach a successful conclusion, for any reason, SSTEK shall still be responsible for all fees and disbursements charged by the firm under the terms of this agreement.” It is noteworthy that at a time when the Turkish economy is on the verge of collapse and the Turkish people are in dire financial straits, Pres. Erdogan is wasting $750,000 of Turkish taxpayers’ money on useless lobbying.
It remains to be seen whether Turkey’s tightrope walking skills will succeed to maintain the Russian missiles and evade the U.S. sanctions. Should Turkey be forced to get rid of the missiles, it will have to face the consequences of a major disruption in its relations with Russia. Turkey will then have to choose either the East or the West. It will no longer be able to fool both sides. Biden and Blinken are too experienced to fall for Erdogan’s tricks.
The title of a recent article by journalist Nicholas Morgan describes best the state of U.S.-Turkish relations: “Is Turkey Biden’s Ally from Hell?” We will find out shortly.