Does President Biden know what he is doing?
When it comes to Turkey, U.S. President Joe Biden is about to make the same strategic error as his predecessor, Donald Trump, which served to undermine U.S. strategy in the region.
The U.S. in its war on terror earlier focused on the Islamic State (ISIS) and it initially wobbled a decade ago with a proposal to establish a Salafist principality in eastern Syria to isolate al-Assad’s regime.
But the Pentagon’s train-and-equip program to provide a moderate opposition to Assad was an abject failure, and it was U.S. cooperation with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that led to the fall of the ISIS stronghold Raqqa in October 2017. However, it was Trump’s sudden decision in March 2018 to withdraw from Syria that undermined this success.
In October 2019 Trump was cajoled by Turkey’s President Erdoğan into endorsing “Operation Peace Spring”, a Turkish offensive which cut a swathe into the Kurdish area of northeastern Syria. According to Trump, this decision to abandon America’s Kurdish allies was “strategically brilliant”, although it was condemned by Brett McGurk, earlier a special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS, as “strategically backward”.
Now his successor, Joe Biden, who in Turkey is an object of derision because of his need for a cue card, is guilty of the same blunder. Biden has taken President Erdoğan’s support for Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership at face value without being able to place Erdoğan’s volte-face in its proper context.
As Steven A. Cook has pointed out, Erdoğan has skilfully exploited Turkey’s nuisance value as a member of NATO and is now reaping his reward. NATO’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg has accepted Turkey’s objections to Finland and Sweden’s membership as legitimate, although Cook has correctly identified them as spurious.
The fact that Sweden in particular has caved in to Turkey’s demands will with guarantee cause a furore, as the survival of Magdalena Andersson’s Social Democrat minority government is dependent on the support of an independent member of parliament, Amineh Kakabaveh, of Iranian Kurdish descent.
The wording of the trilateral memorandum that ostensibly addressed Turkey’s concerns about Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership also contains pitfalls.
For example, the commitment by Finland and Sweden to address Turkey’s pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects “expeditiously and thoroughly” in accordance with the European Convention on Extradition, which does not apply to political offences.
Although the U.S. claims no concessions have been made to get Turkey to drop its objections to Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership, this is clearly what has happened. Turkey has declared it “got what it wanted” from the two Nordic countries and Biden’s phone call with Erdoğan provided the payoff.
Celeste Wallander, U.S. assistant secretary of defence, says the U.S. fully supports Turkey’s plans to modernise its F-16 fleet. In a one-on-one with Erdoğan on the sidelines of the Madrid summit Biden also praised Erdoğan for “doing a great job” with his efforts to get grain out of Ukraine.
However, in view of the pending conflict between Turkey and Greece, as Paul Iddon has explained, this upgrade would alter the strategic balance in the region. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told Congress in May, “The last thing that NATO needs at a time when our focus is helping defeat Russian aggression is another source of instability on NATO’s southeastern flank.”
President Biden’s support for Turkey’s plans also collides with the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act passed by Congress in 2019 in support of Greece as a valuable NATO member and Cyprus as a key strategic partner. It also undermines last October’s upgrade of the U.S. – Greece Mutual Defence Cooperation Agreement (MDCA).
The trilateral memorandum also commits Finland and Sweden to support Turkey’s fullest possible involvement in the existing and prospective initiatives of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Here it would be relevant to mention that the EU in its 2021 report on the implementation of the CSDP expressed regret for Turkey’s overall destabilising role in many areas of concern in the EU and its neighbourhoods, in particular Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Kemal Kirişci, has advanced the view that over and above the need to be re-elected, Erdoğan’s intransigence towards the membership of Finland and Sweden reflects an underlying discontent with the values that not only NATO but also the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights represent.
According to Kirişci, these values and institutions are an impediment to his one-man rule and ideological goal of breaking Turkey’s traditional Western vocation. In effect,
Biden’s support for an F-16 deal with Turkey aids and abets not only Erdoğan’s re-election but also his ultimate agenda.
Erdoğan’s chief ideologue and spokesperson, İbrahim Kalın, at the Istanbul Forum in 2012 presented a blueprint for a new geopolitical framework which rejected Western political and economic values. Kalın reiterated this call for a new global security architecture in March at the Doha Forum in Qatar.
If events play out as Erdoğan intends, and they have done so far, this new security architecture will not as far as Turkey is concerned include membership of the European Union, the Council of Europe or NATO.