Biden may speak with Turkey's Erdoğan this week after Mitsotakis call

United States President Joe Biden may speak with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as early as this week, ending months of silence from the new occupant of the White House.

Sources in Washington told Ahval News on Sunday that White House officials informed Turkish diplomats that there was a likelihood that Biden would make a phone call to Erdoğan now that he has called Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. He spoke with Mitsotakis on March 25, the 200th anniversary of Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire.

For decades, there has been a diplomatic tradition of sorts that incoming U.S. presidents conduct their initial outreach to Turkey and Greece almost simultaneously. The source explained that when it was learned Biden would call Mitsotakis first, Turkish officials encouraged the White House to schedule a call with Erdoğan as well. They appeared confident that the probability of a call happening was more than 50 percent.

If Biden and Erdoğan do in fact speak this week, there are a litany of issues that the two through their emissaries have already been speaking about. Here are four topics to be watched in particular:

A date for Turkish-hosted talks on Afghanistan

The U.S. has requested that Turkey host the next round of negotiations for ending the two-decade-long war in Afghanistan, so this is likely to be of immediate importance.

For Biden, it is an opportunity to step closer to ending the longest war of the United States but for Erdoğan it is an opportunity to improve Turkey’s standing as a vital partner to Washington. To this end, Turkey may hope that a successful hosting of the intra-Afghan talks will make the United States more inclined to reduce diplomatic pressure in other areas.

Since the initial Afghan peace talks were declared by the Trump administration in February 2020, Turkey has coordinated with the United States on discussions with Afghan officials on both sides. Since then, U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has frequently flown to Turkey, including in the past week, for talks on how to reach a peaceful solution to the conflict and build international support for a lasting settlement.

However, both Biden and Erdoğan face the risk of the talks unravelling before they even begin.

Biden has signalled that he is undecided about whether he will stick to the May 1 deadline to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan as previously agreed on by his predecessor. The president is concerned that a premature withdrawal before a power-sharing arrangement is in place will result in a sudden Taliban takeover of the country that could undermine U.S. security interests.

The Taliban has already warned it will renew attacks if the deadline is not achieved and that it was not interested in a six-month extension sought by the administration.

Turkey has been a U.S. partner in Afghanistan since the war’s start, but it also may risk undermining any potential talks by dragging other bilateral issues into negotiations.

No date has been given for the start of the Afghan meeting, but Al-Monitor reported that Turkish officials may be looking to push it towards May. Citing sources, it reported that Turkey may do this hoping to extract concessions on either U.S. sanctions for the purchase of the S-400 or to discourage Biden from recognising the Armenian Genocide of 1915 on April 24.

One diplomatic source told Al-Monitor that this would likely be rejected by Washington, but it is still likely that Biden and Erdoğan will make a date for the Afghanistan conference a priority topic in their phone call.

A debate on the S-400

Turkey first agreed to buy S-400 air defence missiles from Russia in 2017 in a deal worth about $2 billion and secured a loan financed by Russia to acquire the system. Erdoğan’s government rejected the Trump administration’s threats that Ankara would be inviting sanctions for violating the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) that prohibited purchases from the Russian defence sector.

The first S-400 regiment arrived in July 2019, but Turkey dodged U.S. retaliation for another seventeen months, when Trump finally sanctioned members of the Turkish defence industry for the purchase.

Erdoğan’s personal relationship with Trump allowed Turkey to avoid sanctions for some time, but this form of diplomacy is unlikely to work with Biden. In their interactions with Turkish counterparts, Biden administration officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken are insisting that Turkey abandon the weapons and any subsequent purchases from Russia.

The issue has shown up in the diplomatic readouts of every interaction between U.S. and Turkish officials during Biden’s young presidency, but no obvious progress has emerged. The current position of the United States has been characterised as uncompromising by many analysts and politicians in Turkey, including Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar.

New U.S. sanctions would arrive at a time of pain for the Turkish economy, owing to a depreciating lira, stubbornly high inflation and diminished investor confidence. People close to Biden previously said that the president would be unlikely to take any steps that would harm Turkey’s economy seriously, but if a second regiment of S-400 missiles arrive as planned, Biden would be inclined to act.

Observers of Turkey will watch closely how Erdoğan can mitigate the sanctions risk without having to surrender the S-400.

Hints of cooperation in Syria

For years, Syria’s civil war has been the open wound that has progressively driven the United States and Turkey apart more than any other issue.

A decade ago, the two NATO allies sought the removal of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad but the rise of the Islamic State (IS) and a U.S. decision to use Syrian Kurdish militants to help defeat his regime has soured ties. Turkey sees the U.S. alliance with the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as tantamount to open support for its decades-long foe, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody insurgency against for political autonomy from Ankara since 1984.

Before the U.S.. elections, Biden and many current officials opposed Turkey’s attacks on the SDF. Now in office, it is unclear whether or not Biden’s team has agreed on a Syria policy beyond the continuation of the U.S. counterterrorism mission against ISIS remnants and helping Kurdish factions overcome political differences to build a united position vis-a-vis Assad.

Turkey’s operations against the SDF in 2018 and 2019 were facilitated by Trump’s eagerness to exit Syria, but given Biden’s tepidness about withdrawing from Afghanistan too soon, Erdoğan will not receive any similar greenlights to act again in Syria. Meanwhile, Turkey is adamantly opposing U.S. support for the SDF and pushing it to end its protection of the militia.

The immediate area of concern in Syria may, however, be in the Idlib province, where a tenuous ceasefire between Turkey and Russia still holds.

In recent weeks, Russia has stepped up its airstrikes in Idlib and has pushed Turkey to reopen transit points inside the province to facilitate humanitarian aid. Activists fear that is simply a guise for creating a commercial lifeline for the regime. Turkey has refused to oblige the Russian request.

Erdoğan had recently called on the West to assist him in Syria in an opinion piece published by Bloomberg, citing humanitarian grounds. Turkey fears a new attack in Syria’s north by Russia-backed regime forces could drive more refugees across its border at a time of economic and political malaise.

After the Trump administration blew off Turkish calls for support in Idlib, Erdoğan may hope to find in Biden a more willing partner.

Respecting human rights in Turkey  

The Trump administration was uninterested in the deteriorating state of democracy and human rights in Erdoğan’s Turkey. Almost three months into the job, the White House and U.S. State Department have repeatedly condemned what it sees as the Turkish authorities’ violation of citizens’ freedoms.

To date, the United States has called on Turkey to release civil society activist Osman Kavala and Kurdish opposition politician Selahattin Demirtaş, and to respect the rights of students protesting at Boğazici University in Istanbul. The most recent criticism came from Biden himself after Erdoğan exited the Istanbul Convention combatting violence against women. Biden called the decision “deeply disappointing” and a “disheartening step backward”.

Biden’s statement stood out to observers because a U.S. president was personally criticising the domestic policies of an allied country. Turkish officials took umbrage at each statement through thinly veiled rebukes or counter accusations, including by Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, who repeated a Turkish claim that the United States was involved in a coup attempt in Turkey in 2016.

Biden has made respect for human rights a core tenet of his foreign policy, and this has been reflected in comments from his officials. In readouts of their interactions with Turkish officials, the U.S. version always refers to respect for human rights. Readouts by the Turkish side always omit any reference to discussions on the subject.

Erdoğan has previously announced plans for judicial reforms in Turkey and released a human rights action plan at the start of March to outline specific steps. He also boldly called for a new Turkish constitution as well as further changes to Turkey’s electoral system. Both have raised concerns that he is seeking new means to consolidate his power amid weakening approval ratings.

Like previous meetings or calls between U.S. and Turkish officials, expect to see a readout from Biden emphasising respect for human rights in Turkey and Erdoğan mentioning anything else other than human rights.      

Other issues to watch out for

Turkey has made repeated calls for the United States to extradite U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen. Erdoğan has accused Gülen of orchestrating the coup attempt of 2016 but U.S. officials have declined to hand him over, citing a lack of evidence submitted to make the case.

Neither President Obama nor Trump acquiesced to this demand. Biden, who has stated he will not influence any decision by his Department of Justice, is unlikely to behave any differently.

A similar conundrum exists in the U.S. criminal case against state-owned Halkbank. The bank, controlled by Erdoğan via his chairmanship of Turkey’s sovereign wealth fund, is accused of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. Erdoğan has dismissed the claims as a plot against him from abroad. Beyond this, he may also be concerned for the impact a conviction would have on the economy.

Like in the case of Gülen’s extradition, Biden is likely to cite a policy of non-interference in law enforcement matters, limiting any chance for Erdoğan to have him influence the final outcome of the legal proceedings.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.