How a reset with Biden eludes Turkey

Turkey’s relations with the United States under President Joe Biden remain elusive, owing to the pallet of disagreements between them.

This week saw the first real interactions between the two countries since Biden assumed office two weeks ago, and the results were mixed. On Tuesday, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke with his Turkish counterpart Ibrahim Kalın where they agreed to pursue progress on the issues that bedevil the once-strategic partnership in recent years. 

However, their disagreements soon became public. On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department expressed concern over Turkish authorities’ response to the protests at Boğaziçi University, prompting an indirect warning from Turkey’s Foreign Ministry to stay out of domestic affairs. Going a step further, Turkey’s Interior Minister accused the United States of involvement in the 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, something the United States quickly rejected

Yaşar Yakış, former member of Turkish parliament and former foreign minister, told Ahval that this conspiracy was still strong for some in Turkey’s government, and that denials would not make a difference. 

“I think there is an entrenched opinion in quarters close to the government in Turkey,” Yakış said in a podcast interview with Ahval. “This is not something new, and not the end of it.”  

Experts and critics have said that the Turkish response to criticism over Boğaziçi University was unprofessional and passive aggressive, seeking to draw parallels between the protests and unlawful incidents in foreign countries. Namık Tan, former Turkish ambassador to the United States, said he “couldn’t believe” that “the statement was actually written by the Foreign Ministry.”

“I went and checked their website, unfortunately it was true,” Tan tweeted.

To Yakış, whose duties as Foreign Minister ended just after Turkish parliament voted against giving the United States permission to use its bases during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the response was not entirely surprising but rather one among many “refraction points” in the history of relations between the two allies.

On top of problems of their own, there are also tensions with other players that influence United States-Turkey relations, including Russia, Israel and the European Union. 

Despite an ongoing regional competition between the two, Turkey has cooperated extensively with Russia to a point where several analysts suggest relations with Washington should seek to emulate those with Moscow. Yakış said the United States “should put aside the issue of S-400s” even if only because Turkey was unlikely to sacrifice its ties to Russia or cave on what it called its right to buy the missile defence system. 

On Turkey’s troubled relationship with its neighbours like Israel and Saudi Arabia, Yakış said recent attempts to improve ties were urgent for reasons separate from relations with the United States. 

“Even if improving relations within the Middle East is not a priority for the Biden administration, it has to be a priority for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule,” Yakış said, “because Turkey is isolated and becoming further isolated in the international region.”

As the Arab Spring unfolded, Turkey cooperated with the United States and their harmony was a priority because of Washington’s desire to maintain a united front against Iran. It is partly for this reason that Biden personally was tasked by the Obama administration to broker a rapprochement between Turkey and Israel after the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010 when Israeli commandos killed ten Turkish activists aboard an aid ship headed to the Gaza Strip. 

Erdoğan and his officials have for months expressed openness to improving relations with Israel, but Israeli diplomats have made clear that sentiments would not trump actions. Yakış added that improving relations would have the effect of regaining a partner to talk to Washington on Turkey’s behalf when needed.

“As a side effect, the Israel lobby in the U.S. Congress was the strongest lobby in favour of Turkey,” said Yakış. “With Israel, Turkey should have no problems.” 

The final relationship that may be difficult to balance is with the EU, according to Yakış. The Biden administration was quick to endorse the resumption of Turkey’s talks with Greece to reduce tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, a matter of urgency for Ankara. Future developments in this area could determine whether or not the EU goes ahead with sanctions, something Brussels said it would coordinate with Washington. 

Biden has a long history in the region dating back to his time as a young senator. His ties to the Greek-American community also run deep, with a leading diaspora group even claiming to have educated Biden on the dispute decades ago. Yakış said it was possible that Biden could be partial towards Greece, but was confident that the U.S. president could avoid any bias.

“In the past he always supported anti-Turkey motions in the U.S Congress, but despite that, he is a statesman with a long history, and thus likely to make fewer mistakes than Trump,” he said.

Regardless of a constellation of other problems across the board, any reset between the United States and Turkey will begin bilaterally. Sinan Ülgen, a non-resident fellow at Carnegie Europe and a former diplomat, penned an op-ed for the Financial Times that offered several suggestions for compromise, including setting parameters for the S-400 and the lifting of sanctions. 

However, these would require Ankara to offer its own concessions as well. Yakış described the current disagreements as all distinct in their dynamics, and said both sides had mishandled the issues, pushing the relationship into its present freeze.

“We need to meet somewhere in the middle. The United States should not seek to impose at all costs whatever it thinks is right over what Turkey thinks is wrong,” said Yakış. “I hope that the two NATO countries can find a middle ground where they can protect each other’s interests.”