Author: Irina KHALTURINA
Two events in 2020 - the election of Joseph Biden as a new President of the United States and the growing regional role of Turkey – force many observers to make predictions on the tactics and strategies of the new US administration in relation to Turkey and President Erdogan. Moreover, a package of new sanctions against Turkey decreed by the outgoing President Donald Trump under pressure from the Congress also added fuel to the existing situation. As part of the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, the sanctions were adopted due to Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. The story goes back as far as to 2017 when Washington tried to persuade Ankara to purchase the American missile system Patriot instead of the Russian S-400. But Ankara opted for a deal with Moscow.
Operation ‘Course Correction’
Sanctions are imposed on the Turkish Presidency of Defense Industries, its head Ismail Demir and three other Turkish citizens. According to Clark Cooper, US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, sanctions are needed to "correct the course" of Turkey. He also said that sanctions were not introduced against the Armed Forces of Turkey, with which the US "maintains both bilateral relations" and contacts "within NATO." It is clear that the Turkish leadership was not convinced by such assurances. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes the sanctions are nothing but an attack on Turkey's sovereignty. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Turkey will continue to take steps to make its defense industry more independent and will not step back from its decision on S-400s.
Ismail Demir said that after the introduction of sanctions, Ankara "will double the efforts on projects that strengthen its defense industry." At the same time, the Turkish Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, said that the sanctions would negatively affect joint activities within NATO, and Ankara expects Washington to revise its decision. Indeed, this is a rather sensitive issue for Turkey, which significantly depends on cooperation with the West in terms of the supply of components for its defense inducstry. Moreover, Canada and Germany also support the US position on this issue.
Remarkably, the sanctions were introduced by Donald Trump, who has quite good relations with Erdogan. It is likely that Trump did so to make things more difficult for the succeeding Biden administration, although this does not make life for Ankara easier. Nevertheless, American politicians from different camps believe that it is the necessary way to correct Turkey's course. Biden's team will have to set the parameters of this course. To roughly guess these parameters, it is necessary to determine the geopolitical goals of the new US administration. From various media reports and statements, we can assume that the Biden administration will try to fix its relations with the key allies, as well as to restore the membership and leadership of the US in international organizations. In addition, Biden announced that he intends to hold a so called Summit for Democracy in his first year in the office in an attempt to emphasize the significance of democratic allies and partners of the US.
Demonstrative sanctions from NATO
As to allies in the context of US-Turkish relations, NATO is the first one to consider. The Alliance was indeed extremely dissatisfied with Turkey's cooperation with Russia. Thus, the US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison said that "the idea that one can put a Russian-made missile defense system in the middle of our alliance is out of bounds..." At the recent summit of NATO foreign ministers, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded that Turkey finally begin to "act as an ally."
The New York Times published yet another interesting statement from Robert Gates, the former US Defense Secretary in the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He said that “Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system against repeated American warnings must have costs. (Recently imposed sanctions are a good start.) And Ankara must also be held to account for its actions in Libya, the eastern Mediterranean and Syria that contravene the interests of other NATO allies and complicate efforts to achieve peace. Actions by member states contrary to the interests of other allies ought not be ignored... There is no provision in the NATO Charter for removing a member state, but creative diplomacy is possible, including suspension or other punitive steps.” Without going into the details of NATO's systemic and ideological problems, as well as, in general, the crisis of the collective West, one can assume that Turkey is likely to have problems in the alliance. It is quite possible that it gets demonstratively "punished" so that the other allies would henceforth be discouraged "to undermine the unity of the bloc."
The Middle East will become warmer
As an experienced politician, Erdogan understands the threat. Immediately after Biden's victory in the elections, conciliatory signals began to flow from Turkey to its regional rivals - Israel and Saudi Arabia. It is believed that is how the Erdogan administration is getting ready for dialogue with the new US administration. According to Al-Monitor, the head of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization, Hakan Fidan, held secret negotiations with Israeli officials. In turn, the Adviser to the Turkish President on Foreign Affairs, Mesut Kasin, said that diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey can be restored by March 2021. Kasin also acknowledged that it was Joe Biden’s election as the new US president that made it possible, Mr. Biden "has new perspectives and a lot will change."
As for Saudi Arabia, Mevlut Cavusoglu met with his Saudi counterpart Faisal bin Farhan in Niger on the sidelines of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. “A strong partnership between Turkey and Saudi Arabia is beneficial not only for our countries, but for the entire region,” the Turkish minister wrote on Twitter. Remarkably, Cavusoglu’s statement was made in parallel with the attempts of Riyadh to smoothen its relations with both the US and Israel. For example, many media outlets report that the Saudis have recently significantly intensified their lobbying activities in America.
As to the Iranian factor, the ongoing normalization of Israel's relations with the UAE and Bahrain shows who is Israel's main enemy in the region. It is not surprising that recently Turkey's relations with Iran have deteriorated significantly. Rather it seems that Ankara is distancing itself from Tehran for now to understand Biden's stance on Iran.
Russian and Chinese traces
However, the most significant factor that will influence the relations between Turkey and the US under the Biden administration is definitely Russia. Ankara is Moscow’s key partner in many of the current global hot spots - Syria, Libya, the South Caucasus. At the same time, the Kremlin's strategy is undoubtedly to detach Turkey from NATO and the West in general as much as possible.
After the introduction of US sanctions against Turkey, Vladimir Putin commented on Russian-Turkish relations during his yearly public conference. Underlining the existing disagreements between the West and Erdogan, he made a series of flattering statements characterising Erdogan as a man who "keeps his word" and "does not wag his tail." Putin added that the straightforwardness of his Turkish counterpart in promoting national interests is "an element of predictability." This can be described as an important message addressed to Ankara. Earlier, Sergei Lavrov condemned the US for imposing sanctions against Turkey noting that this is "yet another manifestation of an arrogant attitude towards international law."
We can list many issues that bring Russia and Turkey closer or make them rivals. But the most important factor linking the both is that Erdogan and Putin are often ready to resolve issues "here and now" depending on the situation. There are no alliances between Russia and Turkey; they are tactical moves are based on situational benefits. This is exactly what makes the Biden’s team concerned. It will influence the predictability of the situation, hence irritating Washington and even, perhaps, pushing it to take rather tough decisions.
The Chinese factor, which may also affect the US-Turkish relations, is less visible than the Russian one, but no less significant to say the least. Beijing is interested in investing billions of dollars in the Turkish economy, and also provides loans to Ankara. The countries are actively cooperating under the New Silk Road initiative promoting logistics and infrastructure projects competitive with respect to both Russia and the US. It’s important to note that the share of Chinese technology giants Huawei and ZTE, which the US is trying to get rid of globally by all means, is constantly growing in the Turkish market. In addition, Turkey can always turn to Beijing in the defense sphere given the existing situation with American sanctions.
In other words, it is rather difficult to predict the development of Turkish-American relations after Joe Biden's inauguration, since it will depend on many accompanying geopolitical factors. In addition, it is worth considering the constant factors affecting the difficult dialogue between the US and Turkey, including the extradition of Fetullah Gülen, who lives in the US and whom Ankara accuses of organizing a coup attempt in 2016. Plus Washington's support for the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria. But they can be influenced by certain factors stated above too.
We can assume that in its relations with Washington, Turkey, which has a strategically important position for both the EU and the US, will be manoeuvring in an attempt to play on the interests and contradictions of different regional states and the attitude of the White House toward these states. Ankara is not going to sacrifice its interests in favour of alliances, even such reputable ones as NATO. The S-400 deal with Moscow is quite indicative in this case. Therefore, Erdogan will try to cooperate, to some extent, with the West, Russia, Iran, Israel, and China. Considering the current state of international affairs, this seems to be the most reasonable approach that the US, despite its established status and the ambitions of the new Biden administration, will have to take into account.