The compass of the Turkish-American relations points towards which direction…?

Naci Koru, /

One could hardly claim that Turkey lately recorded any progress on the pending important topics in her relations with the United States. This is because the Biden administration refrains from relaying positive messages on developing relations with Turkey, in visible departure from the conduct of its previous peers. For years, the White House had consistently distanced itself from the demands resting on the Armenian allegations. Alas, no more: this year established policy modalities were replaced by a Presidential Statement issued in support of these claims. In this climate, a host of multiple issues ranging from the infamous S-400 missile defence system to the PYD/PKK presence in Syria, and to our relations with the Russian Federation now loom large ahead of the meeting of Turkish and American leaders scheduled for June 14. 

Turkey’s recent statements specifically meant for the U.S., and more generically for the West, suggest revitalized relations while stressing the importance of the NATO alliance. Notwithstanding the noticeable increase in such relays, caution should be exercised as to whether this could be an indication of a new orientation in the Turkish foreign policy, for an appraisal claiming otherwise could prove premature and misleading. 

Against this backdrop, next week’s upcoming important meeting could be framed briefly in a Q&A format.

What is the significance of the Erdogan-Biden meeting on June 14?

The two presidents have thus far held a brief phone call only once on 23 April, since the aftermath of the elections in the U.S. in November last year, and the inauguration of the new U.S. administration on 20 January. In hindsight, we gather that this sole outreach was reduced to President Biden’s disclosure of his policy decision to recognise the “Armenian genocide”. By contrast, U.S. official statements provide a treasury of Mr. Biden’s phone calls with numerous other leaders, some of which were held more than once. 

Meanwhile, neither the senior officials of the two countries were in apparent engagement of comprehensive talks over the last six months to address the pending issues derived from the previous U.S. administration. The occasional get-togethers between the foreign secretaries or the senior diplomats/officials did not serve any purpose larger than issuing a mutual statement of respective positions, or a review of the standard agenda items. As understandable as this may be, commencing a business-like relationship towards a comprehensive and measurable cooperation was simply deferred till the long hoped for meeting of the two leaders. Hence the importance attached to the meeting on 14 June: the occasion is entrusted with the purpose of taking the bilateral relations out of the freezer, and serving them to the table.

Turkey furnishes this meeting with unambiguous importance. This is not in any way an understatement: political polemics notwithstanding, Turkey’s greater need for the U.S. cooperation warrants this observation. For one thing, there are sensitive stand-alone issues like the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, entailed with Turkey’s cooperation in perspective. Nevertheless, Turkey has always cultivated a far larger necessity for a relationship resting on broad scale cooperation with the U.S., just as much we experience today. Frustrating Turkey’s expectations, however, foreign secretary Mr. Blinken’s remarks in the U.S. Senate this past week disqualified Turkey in her “demeanours not befitting a reliable ally”. Making matters worse, Mr. Blinken’s earlier utterance in the U.S. Senate had diametrically specified Turkey as “a so-called partner”. These backstopping statements, not least at the rhetorical level, imply the ‘reduced status’ Turkey has lately acquired in the U.S. perspective. 

Unabated by the current loss of ground in Turkish-American relations, President Biden is scheduled to attend the G-7, NATO and the E.U. Summits over the course of next week. This first Presidential overseas trip will later be concluded by an august summit with Mr. Putin, the Russian President. Since all observers by now know the U.S.- E.U. Summits are organised before the European Council meetings, conferring with the European Union stands emblematic for an assurance of the western alliance. Meeting with Mr. Putin, in a different realm, reflects the search for establishing a new balance with the ‘authoritarian bloc’, effectively preceding a more comprehensive relationship the U.S. seeks to establish with China. The U.S. foreign policy agenda is layered: it comprises engagements of partnership and alliance developing under variegated topics and at differentiated levels. This structure evolves its core content, eventually proliferating at global scale. Hence the purposeful importance we find in the order of these meetings. 

What is anticipated for discussion during this meeting?

Different issues loom in respective agendas of the parties. Turkey will seek for a prospective lifting of the CAATSA sanctions, while renewing her demand for repatriation of the FETO leader residing in the U.S. for many years. Turkey’s demand for ceasure of the U.S. cooperation with PYD/PKK in the Syrian theatre will be revisited. Readmission in the F-35 programme, and delivery of the F-35 aircraft already paid for will be among Turkey’s expectations. It is also plausible to anticipate Turkey’s hopeful insistence concerning the Halkbank court case. Afghanistan will be thoroughly discussed, while Turkey’s relations with Russia and Libya will likely be part of the talks. Time permitting, a detailed walk-through on issues ranging from the Middle East peace process to the Black Sea security and the Caucasus, and from Iraq and Iran to the African continent will be undertaken. 

The U.S. agenda, in stark contrast, rather prioritises a single issue: the now-perennial issues rendered by Turkey’s association with being the single NATO-member country in purchasing air defence systems from the Russian Federation. The U.S. is forthwith expected to renew its insistence for a decisive disuse and ultimate decommissioning of the S-400 system as first order of business. Completion of the U.S and other NATO allies’ withdrawal from Afghanistan before 11 September is another major issue qualified for a thorough discussion, especially in view of Turkey’s willingness to assume a role in maintaining peace and security to this end. In passing, it could be apt to recall that there is no other NATO-member country willing to undertake any such role, but Turkey.

As remaining points of order, the U.S. could raise concerns emanating from Turkey’s far too close relations with the Russian Federation, and to a lesser extent with China. It is probable to anticipate a U.S. demand voiced for cooperation in Libya that would satisfy the expectations of the international community. Nonetheless, Iran’s nuclear programme, where Turkey no longer casts any influence; or, the entirety of the Syrian quagmire, where Turkey only takes a potluck of appreciation for her generous hospitality towards the refugees, are not likely U.S. agenda items during this meeting. 

Deep differences of opinion on PYD/PKK are hard to come around in the short term, therefore the U.S. will likely avoid a discussion on this issue. Turkey’s sharp stance on the Ukraine, and the subsequent sale of her home-grown military UAVs to this country, will echo no further than a mere thank you: For Mr. Biden knows all too well that the Ukrainian issue could only be managed on a ground he hopes to demarcate this week with Mr. Putin, an effort not to be distracted by Turkish heroism. 

Contextual setting suggests that Mr. Biden will also hold dear the conventional wisdom and elaborate criticism consistently voiced by the U.S. administration on issues related to the absence of freedom of expression, the rule of law,  malpractices in democracy and human rights in Turkey.  In connection, Mr. Biden will not be apologetic, and he would grab this opportunity to politely remind Mr. Erdoğan that any prospective U.S. and western investment, and flow of financial resources, could remain conditional to conduct of good practice in Turkey.

In brief overview, new/additional roles that Turkey could assume in Afghanistan emerge as an apparent topic for reaching an agreement within this comprehensive agenda. This is due to the overt enthusiasm of both parties in finding a rare niche of cooperation in a vast field of other issues. Such an agreement could also be made conveniently serviceable to the wider public opinion. 

Could a solution be evoked on the S-400 air defence system?

It is hard to anticipate a quick-fix solution to this complicated issue. The fundamental reason for this view rests on Turkey’s self-imposed, narrowly restrictive policies in her relations with both the U.S. and the Russian Federation. This state of self-restriction could be read in another order: any innovative solution reached will inevitably damage Turkey’s relations with either the U.S. or the Russian Federation in certain respects. The U.S. demands for either a verifiable decommissioning, or a relocation of the S-400 system outside the Turkish territory. Derivatives pursuant to this demand could likely be worked out. Yet, any likely solution would require a Russian consent in the first place, and this will constitute an arduous difficulty in view of obvious sensitivities. Moreover, any Russian discontent towards a solution hardly found on this matter could provoke powerful reactions on unexpected fronts, aggregating serious costs. Turkey, then, must take these costs into account.

With an aim to earn some extra-time, Turkey could of course repeat the now well-known arguments about her actual purchase of the S-400, or her once-intended purchase of the U.S.-made Patriot systems. Similarly, previously voiced intentions to purchase the French-Italian SAMP-T system could resurface. Regardless, these arguments are neither found convincing by the U.S. and the NATO allies, nor are they found amenable for exiting this impasse. Therefore, so long as a viable solution is not found to this issue, establishing a constructive ground for progress on remaining topics in the current agenda, excluding a singular Afghanistan and perhaps Libya, seems rather difficult. In any case, a plausible prediction would command that Turkey’s already substantial defence expenditures amounting billions of dollars coupled with irrecoverable material losses will continue dominating the national political agenda, deepening the existing rifts and problems in her foreign relations. 

This rather odd conjuncture further underscores the alternative costs of purchasing the S-400 system: Turkey’s deprivation from the hyper-technology of the F-35 platforms boast, together with loss of revenues amounting tens of billions of dollars which would otherwise be generated by Turkish manufacture and export of the multiple F-35 components. Adding to the gloom, it should be noted that this loss of ground will not be easily recuperated in the near future. To make things further complicated, the aging F-16 combat squadrons, current backbone of the Turkish Air Force, are now up to technical renewal/modernisation, a necessity that may face political hurdles. It is worth noting, along these lines, that Turkey’s home-grown military UAV squadrons could not be placed at the core of any credible interception/assault, combat and deterrence strategy, displacing modern combat aircraft. No air defence/assault architecture with this kind of innovative pattern so far exists as a viable defence doctrine in the world. 

An afterword in conclusion…

The reserved and relative refractory attitude of the U.S. towards the Turkish-American relations should not be misinterpreted by the Turkish policy makers. Such a stance possibly reflects a measured response on the part of the U.S. policy makers to safeguard whatever is left from an already eroded ground cushioning the bilateral relations between the two nations. Turkey, after all, remains an important NATO nation not to be lost at ease. The U.S. policy toolkit, with its global outreach and cooperative schemes, is an enabler for sustaining this strategy. Turkey, on the contrary, has limited capacity to maintain her bilateral relations in their current ambiguity. This asymmetry to reckon with compels Turkey to transform her relations with the U.S. on a solid ground of cooperation. 

As in all similar occasions, a photo-op of the leaders with positive resonations will be relayed to the press in the aftermath of this important meeting, however various interpretations this may serve. This outcome should not misguide any reasonable observer however: this presidential get-together will fall short of any significant outcome, with all imminently pressing topics deferred till later. In spite of all this, reaching even such a minimum medium should be regarded as an accomplishment: it would suffice to remember how Turkey abandoned her claims for the “Blue Homeland”, with a sudden, sharp turn to embrace France and Greece, while hoping to find an exit from her self-imposed restrictions in foreign policy. This meeting could then be the moment for this long sought after exit…

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