15 December 2020

The US-Turkey relations ... at a crossroad!

Claudiu Nebunu

While Joe Biden is getting ready to take the Oval Office in January next year, the rest of the world is speculating about the way the new US Administration will approach problems specific to different regions. Similarly, Turkey, one of the most important NATO members and US allies, is waiting somehow circumspectly and yet optimistically for that moment, because the president-elect can reset a relation that has reached a historical minimum in the last two decades. From Ankara’s refusal to allow the US troops to cross the Turkish-Iraqi border in 2003, to the strong bilateral disagreements regarding Syria, during the Obama Administration, and then the recent procurement by Turkey of the Russian air defence systems, despite its partnership to NATO, the US-Turkey relations provoked a lot of headaches to the American presidents.

Image source: Profimedia

Biden irritated Ankara last year when, during the electoral campaign, he said that the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is an autocrat and Washington should encourage the leaders of the Turkish opposition to “take over the power, but not through a coup d’état, but through electoral competition”.

But Turkey started to become a greater regional power lately, becoming a relevant player and sometimes even critical in many current regional conflicts and challenges, among them the wars from Syria and Libya, the disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean, the migration problems and the West’s relations with Russia and Iran.

Therefore, both sides should seriously think about the development of the bilateral relations, because one thing is for sure: regardless of the reset of the US policy in the Middle East, Turkey will seek an important role, be it in a good or bad way… and that will also affect Romania!


A few weeks before Biden’s victory in the USA, Erdogan participated at a meeting of his own party in South-East Turkey, sending a defying message to the US: “You do not know who you are dealing with! […] Impose your sanctions, whatever these may be!”, stated Erdogan, referring to the US threats following the procurement of the Russian S-400 air defense system. Theoretically, the target of the message would have been president Donald Trump, although he was saying in an interview back in the summer that his relations with Erdogan were generally good.

According to the US law, “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA)”, the executive can impose sanctions to the countries buying military equipment from Russia. However, has repeatedly refused to do that, despite the multiple calls from the Congress and State Department representatives. Trump has argued that his constraint in imposing sanctions to Turkey is an attempt to correct a “mistake” of the Obama Administration, which did not provide Turkey the Patriot missile defence systems, made in the USA.

Regardless of that being or not a sincere effort to be fair with Turkey or just an expression of the less ethical relation he has with Erdogan, Trump’s effort to avoid the sanctions has favored Ankara, as the impact of similar sanctions for this state was significant enough. The US Congress has stopped the important sells of new weapons to Turkey, meanwhile the Trump Administration officials have used all the technical arguments possible to delay imposing CAATSA sanctions.

However, equally (or mostly equally), the statements of the Turkish president targeted Biden as well… The Turkish government probably remembers the Obama Administration, when Biden was vice-president, for the support given to the YPG militia from Syria, the one that Turkey thinks is a branch of the PKK, an armed group which worked along its borders for tens of years and was included by the US and the EU on a terrorist organizations list.

Did Trump, the last ally of Turkey in Washington, change his mind?

The US-Turkey relations have worsened in the last years, even if president Trump has tried to cool down the disputes with Turkey about a series of issues, like the procurement of the Russian S-400 system. As Trump is about to leave the White House, the Ankara authorities are not sure how the new president will treat Turkey. Erdogan took some time to congratulate Biden, comparing to other European leaders, and he also thank Trump for everything, in a separated message. In the end, Trump was the one to support Erdogan when he was criticized by the other NATO members for getting close to Moscow. Also, Trump could not resist to the US Congress pressures and imposed sanctions to Turkey.

But, after the American state secretary, Mike Pompeo, went to Turkey, late November, as part of a tour in other six countries (France, Georgia, Israel, UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia), both the US and the international media have questioned the real “purpose” of the Turkish visit. Pompeo landed in Istanbul, not Ankara, saying that the visit aims at discussing about the religious freedom, given the latest decision on turning the “Saint Sofia” church into a mosque, a topic which was on the topic agenda with different religious personalities, including Bartholomew I of Constantinople.

The choice of the US diplomacy chief to not visit Ankara, when he could have met with Turkish officials, including with president Erdogan, instead of meeting with religious personalities from Istanbul, has raised some questions in Turkey. Therefore, the Turkish Foreign Affairs Ministry has described Pompeo’s meetings from Istanbul as “extremely inadequate”, sending a harsh message to Washington: ““It would be more advisable for the United States to look in the mirror first and to show the necessary sensitivity to human rights violations such as racism, Islamophobia and hate crimes in its own country”.

Was this visit a message from the Trump Administration for Ankara that the grace period has ended and the American president changed his mind about the relations with Turkey? Some media reports are suggesting that Trump will even impose CAATSA sanctions in the last days of his mandate. What would be the relevance, besides a “poised apple” for Biden… or is it precisely for that?

Almost certainties…

 For the new US Administration, an additional calcification in the relation with Turkey would be an obvious method to interrupt the long-criticized closeness of Trump with authoritarian leaders. What seems to be certain is that Ankara’s participation to the US development program of the F-35 stealth fight aircraft had ended for good, even if some production contracts of some parts in Turkey are developing (Turkey expressed its intention to buy 100 fight aircraft, but it got excluded after it acquired the S-400 system). However, it seems that the demand for this aircrafts is increasing, so they will not be left out!

Especially after Turkey tested the S-400 system, Biden is practically forces to use the CAATSA sanctions. The concern here is how aggressive these sanctions will be and how will Turkey react.

Therefore, Biden’s mandate is concerning for Turkey. The US and other members of the NATO alliance could see the S-400 procurement by Turkey as an insult, as it is breaking the US law and is compromising the NATO defence systems. Biden could be pressured by the democrats to impose sanctions to Turkey in the S-400 issue and the increasing connections between Turkey and Vladimir Putin. CAATSA offers a legal basis for Biden for call on imposing sanctions. The “menu” includes a larger spectrum of options, from harsh ones, like excluding Turkey from the US banking system, to medium measures, like limiting the export licenses, or light ones, like limiting the transactions of certain people.

There is still the possibility, less likely to happen, to restart the discussion on procuring the US Patriot system (the two sides could not get to an agreement during the Obama administration, due to differences on the price and technology transfers requirements).

A look at the map!

Turkey, which connects Europe and Asia, is also on the verge of changing US foreign policy. Washington's strategy is moving away from the fight against terrorism and non-state actors to a focus on countering major powers, especially Russia and China. The United States has so far delayed taking action against Turkey, whose strategic position, at the borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria, as well as hosting US facilities at Incirlik Air Base, has helped it avoid sanctions. But perceptions have diverged: from the assumption that Turkey "is not fully indispensable" and should not "test US and NATO patience" in favor of sanctions, to "the indispensable position within NATO", which will allow Ankara to avoid sanctions, especially in the scenario wherein Biden would take a tough stand against Moscow.

Biden has also been in a negotiating position with Turkey as vice president during the Obama administration, when he traveled to Ankara to cool down tensions with Turkey following the failed coup in 2016. If Turkey calms the disputes with the US and the Western alliance, it can benefit the accession to NATO and existing links with the United States and other European information, free from disturbances that may be caused by changes in existing agreements. On the other hand, if the US would impose harsh sanctions, Turkey could move closer to both Russia and China, even at the cost of ostracizing it in the Western camp.

In conclusion, the power competition with Moscow and Beijing is likely to be the main future for the new administrations' foreign policy, and therefore Biden will need others capable on the ground to try to counter opponents such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. Biden stressed the importance of cooperating with other intelligence to achieve foreign policy goals, as opposed to Trump's preference to address the issues on a bilateral basis. And if the USA and Turkey will be able to resolve their differences that will be presented in a bilateral relationship, Ankara may be one of Washington's most capable global partners...

However, it is unlikely to return to the previous status quo of the US-Turkey partnership. The acquisition and testing of the Russian S-400 system and the rhetoric of Turkish leaders about the normalization of Arab states' relations with Israel have raised serious questions in Washington about the future of relations with Ankara. These movements have also increased tensions between Turkey and other US partners in the Middle East, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which are strongly at odds with Ankara both rhetorically and on the ground in various regional disputes.

A foreshadowing…

In the first days of his term, Biden is expected prioritize the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and to revitalize the infrastructure, with foreign policy taking at least a temporary step behind internal challenges. Even in term of foreign policy, the Middle East will probably not be Biden's main target compared to the Indo-Pacific, China, Europe, America and the reaffirmation of transatlantic relations.

Under the Biden Administration, relations between Washington and Ankara will certainly begin with tensions and restraints on both sides. Although there may be a revision of Biden's policy on Turkey, followed by a reset offer, Ankara has two main concerns about future ties with the new administration: the first is the fear that Biden will reintroduce a discourse on democracy and promotion of human rights into bilateral relations, and the second - limiting Turkey's actions in Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya. And both will be further complicated by the EU's position, from France's approach to countering Ankara's ambitions, to their acceptance by Germany in order to maintain cooperation in a broader framework.

It is still unclear whether Washington will keep the same strategy in the Middle East, namely the defense of US interests, especially counterterrorism, through direct intervention and support for allies, but with fewer resources, or will resort to a new regional approach, maintaining close relations with actors in the region to prevent the expansion of Moscow and Beijing’s influence even at the expense of other concerns, such as antiterrorism. The answer is probably a bit of both. Given the need to transfer resources to Asia, Washington will increasingly seek to outsource the protection of mutual interests to its regional partners. However, it will also seek to recruit these partners in a wider effort to uphold global order and norms against the growing challenges of the great competing powers.

Instead of an epilogue ...

In any such reformulation of US policy in the Middle East, the role that Turkey will choose to play will be important. It is the largest economy in the region, has proved the ability to use hard power to influence regional dynamics, and has borders with Iran, Iraq and Russia's neighbors across the Black Sea. Therefore, Turkey's position, both geographically and politically, may influence the projection of Russia's influence to the south or China's influence to the west.

Moreover, what has made Turkey an important partner for the United States has also drew the attention of Russia and China, which are aware that a cooperative relationship with Ankara would significantly improve its ability to meet its goals in the Middle East. And the opportunity to exploit the current differences between Ankara and Washington, to deepen the misunderstandings within NATO, offers an additional attraction for Moscow and Beijing.

However, Turkey's ties with China or Russia also have limits. Relations with Beijing are influenced by China's oppressive policy towards the Uyghur minority population, which shares cultural and linguistic ties with other Turkish ethnic groups, and relations with Moscow remain at odds over regional issues such as Syria, Libya and Armenia, as well as under the specter of centuries of distrust of Russia's efforts to expand its influence to the south. On the other hand, neither Russia nor China can offer (at least for the time being) Turkey the economic or security benefits that Ankara's commitment to the West has brought over the decades.

Consequences for Romania

The Black Sea security is another important common strategic interest area for Washington and Ankara. Both NATO capitals see Russia's interventions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 as dangerous precedents, with Moscow using military force to change borders. Moscow's efforts to assert military power throughout the Black Sea region also included annexing Crimea, blocking the Kerch Strait to restrict Ukraine's freedom of navigation between the Azov Sea and the Black Sea, modernizing the Black Sea Fleet and deploying new ones air defense systems, electronic, warfare and other military capabilities seeking to ban NATO’s access to the region.

Romania would, therefore, be directly threatened by a bad relationship between Washington and Ankara and Turkey closeness to Russia...

And, not least, Turkey and the US have cooperated for a quarter of a century in the East-West transit corridors that connect Central Asia, South Caucasus, Turkey and the rest of Europe for oil and natural gases, road and rail transport. Although Romania could not take advantage on these things, there is still hope…

Translated by Andreea Soare