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Biden’s presidency won’t go smoothly on Turkey, say experts

Joe Biden. (Reuters)
Joe Biden. (Reuters)
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09 Nov 2020 03:11:02 GMT9
09 Nov 2020 03:11:02 GMT9
  • Experts said that bilateral relations could even get worse and much more vulnerable, given the two nations’ divergent priorities

Menekse Tokyay

ANKARA: Joe Biden’s presidency is likely to lead to new developments in US relations with Turkey as his approach differs from that of his predecessor, who was providing shelter to Turkey’s assertiveness in the region.

Experts said that bilateral relations could even get worse and much more vulnerable, given the two nations’ divergent priorities.

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara office director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said there were several factors that could complicate matters during Biden’s presidency.

He explained that the personal relationship between former President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Ergodan, which formed a buffer between an increasingly upset Washington and a defiant Ankara, could not be created between Biden and Erdogan because the two leaders had demonstrated a dislike of each other and because Biden, unlike Trump, was expected to give priority to institutionalizing relationships rather than personalizing them.

The new US administration was likely to bring forward the democracy and human rights deficit in Turkey, while also trying to contain its moves in Libya, Syria and naval ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean.

According to Unluhisarcikli, the people Biden brought on board would also play key roles in the relationship and that some of these individuals were likely to be from former President Barack Obama’s administration whom Erdogan had scapegoated.

“Biden, unlike Trump, is not likely to overlook democratic backsliding in Turkey and Erdogan will not take his criticism lightly,” he told Arab News.

Turkey’s testing of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system and a possible green light on sanctions against it will also be on the agenda. The US Congress remains stubborn and has bipartisan support to take measures against Ankara as Washington is concerned that the Russian missiles could compromise NATO defenses.

So far, Washington’s only “stick” to Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 has been kicking it out of the F-35 fighter jet program. 

Although the impact of punitive measures from the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) would be catastrophic for Ankara, especially in economic terms, the country currently gives no signal of walking back from its controversial rapprochement with Russia.

Turkey’s main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, was the first Turkish politician to congratulate Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for their electoral victory.

“I look forward to strengthening Turkish-American relations and our strategic alliance,” he tweeted late Saturday.

In an interview with The New York Times last December, Biden described the Turkish president as an autocrat and criticized his policy toward the Kurds. He also suggested emboldening the Turkish opposition leadership, comments that provoked much reaction.

As Biden’s priorities will focus on containing Russia and Iran and bolstering the commitment to multilateral alliances, especially NATO, Ankara’s chances to mend ties with Washington will depend on how its policies align with this pattern.

Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish academic from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Biden was going to prioritize developing relations with key allies.

“Democracy, human rights, rule of law and freedom of expression are also important for Biden, who would expect Erdogan to take positive steps on these issues,” he told Arab News.

Cagaptay said as Biden would prioritise reviving NATO’s vision and forming a unified bloc against Russia, that he would see Turkey as an important ally.

“Of course the US can implement its policies without Turkey but, with Turkey, those policies are easier, less cumbersome, less costly, and more effective. The worst-case scenario is preventing Turkey from being a spoiler of US policy against Russia, and the best-case scenario is Turkey becoming an ally and joining US efforts to unify NATO.”

Cagaptay added that, with Trump out, it was now more likely that the US would implement CAATSA sanctions. But he expected Biden to prefer symbolic sanctions over those that destroyed Turkish economy.

Back in Oct. 2014 a diplomatic rift emerged after Biden officially apologized to Erdogan for implying that Turkey had helped the rise of Daesh by letting foreign fighters cross the border into Syria.

Unluhisarcikli said there was an element of self-prophecy when it came to relations between Biden and Erdogan, that their ties would start on a downward spiral because both leaders assumed they would be negative.

“However, things could also move in the opposite direction if Erdogan provides Biden with a perspective toward the convergence of policies. What Turkey decides to do with its S-400s will be taken as an early sign of Turkey’s approach,” he added.

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