Between a rock and a hard place

They say history repeats itself. For example, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, French commander Ferdinand Foch observed: “This is not peace. This is an armistice for twenty years.”

As far as Turkey is concerned, there were great expectations of a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York last week.

In June, after their first meeting in Brussels, the outcome was deemed “constructive”.

As Erdoğan then stated, "We are going to increase our cooperation with the U.S. There is no problem between us that cannot be solved." Biden was confident Turkey would cover America’s back in Afghanistan and Erdoğan was confident of U.S. diplomatic, logistical and financial support.  

In August, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Çavuşoğlu about joint efforts to ensure a safe and orderly evacuation from Afghanistan and tweeted that Turkey was an important NATO ally and an important partner in the region.

In New York, Blinken expressed gratitude to Turkey for its very strong partnership in Afghanistan and again affirmed Turkey and the United States stood together as strong partners and NATO allies, but somehow the wheel has come off the wagon.

Ahead of New York, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar was also sanguine. “Turkey is a strong, effective and reliable ally for the U.S. in its region. If the U.S. is to be in the Middle East, it must cooperate with Turkey. We are the country with which the U.S. will cooperate in the region.”

There was also a caveat. “However, as long as the U.S. acts in an alliance with the YPG [the Kurdish People’s Protection Units] in Syria, this will remain the most important issue of our relations, and we will have serious problems in relations.”

After the bilateral, Erdoğan expressed a strong sense of grievance over the way Turkey had been treated by the United States, especially with regard to the fact it had been excluded from a programme to develop and purchase the F-35 fighter jet after paying $1.4 billion. He added that he had worked well with former presidents Bush, Obama and Trump but so far not with Biden. Erdoğan also made it clear that Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400s was a closed chapter. 

Again, there was no readout of the meeting but no doubt U.S. cooperation with its Kurdish allies in northern Syria was a bone of contention.

Erdoğan’s mood is now defiant, and he has made it clear Turkey will go ahead with the purchase of additional S-400 batteries.

On Wednesday, Erdoğan will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, where Syria will be the main item on the agenda. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier stated that Russia has never truly considered Turkey as a strategic ally but only as a close partner.

Nevertheless, in June Lavrov expressed his appreciation of Turkey’s principled position on developing military and technical cooperation.

This could be another case of history repeating itself.

In 1909 the Ottoman government ordered and paid for two battleships from England, but shortly before the battleships were commissioned, they were on the order of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, confiscated. Consequently, Turkey entered into a military alliance with Germany, which despatched two cruisers to the Bosporus as a replacement. Then Turkey abandoned its neutrality and entered the war on Germany’s side.

Two years ago, Putin offered his Turkish guest an ice cream at the MAKS air show, and when Erdoğan was shown Russia’s most advanced SU-57 fighter jet, he was told “You can buy it”.

Furthermore, the findings of the Turkey Tribunal published on Friday, although not legally binding, represent a regression to the low-intensity war waged between Turkey and the PKK in the 1980s and 1990s, when torture, enforced disappearances and “a culture of impunity” were the order of the day.  

Erdoğan, who in 2005 was the first Turkish leader to acknowledge Turkey had a Kurdish problem, reignited the conflict ten years later when the rise of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) threatened his presidency. He has since chosen to imprison or ban its leaders, and on his return from New York declared the problem solved.

On the other hand, leader of the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has stated that the HDP is an integral and legitimate part of the solution.

Biden, in his remarks on the end of the war in Afghanistan, assured that human rights would be the centre of U.S. foreign policy, and here he has been caught between a rock and a hard place.

Obama in his autobiography mentions that every president feels saddled with the previous administration’s choices and mistakes, but Biden’s decision to implement his predecessor’s agreement with the Taliban has been met with fierce criticism. Especially Afghan allies feel betrayed.

Accordingly, White House officials have confirmed that the Biden administration will remain committed to its partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces until ISIS is finally eliminated, even though Turkey’s nose is put out of joint.

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