For the past four years, Turkey’s often problematic role within NATO has been overshadowed by former President Donald Trump’s demands over NATO spending, “but now, given Biden’s strong commitment to transatlantic cooperation, suddenly Erdogan’s spoiler role in the alliance has become more visible and is playing for center stage,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian who runs the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The problems are significant, but the Biden administration is looking for an ally that will continue to help with the Syrian refugee crisis while playing a more positive role in regional tensions. That includes new disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean, Syria and Libya, areas where Ankara has butted heads with a host of antagonists from Greece to France to Russia.
Those issues won’t be easily resolved, but at play in Brussels is the personal relationship between the two leaders. Given Biden’s campaign-trail labeling of Erdogan as an “autocrat” and suggestions that the White House would support democratic opposition to Erdogan’s regime, there’s little expectation that the two will enjoy the rapport that Erdogan had with Trump.
That kind of glad-handing isn’t necessary, however, as long as Biden continues to push for multilateral engagement wherever he can find it, and Erdogan looks for some positive news to bring home.
To this point in his presidency, Biden has given Erdogan the diplomatic cold shoulder, only making his first phone call in April, which was merely to inform the Turkish leader of his decision to recognize the 1915 Armenian genocide, the first time a U.S. president has done so. The decision sparked outrage in Ankara, and Erdogan said the decision caused a “deep wound” in the U.S./Turkey relationship.
However the meeting in Brussels turns out, there’s little chance the relationship collapses even if tensions remain high. Turkey is NATO’s second-largest military and seven of its top 10 trading partners reside within the alliance, even as Erdogan continues to insist on buying Russian military equipment and continuously sticks his thumb in the eye of the NATO decision-making process when he can.
The role of spoiler is one that Erdogan has appeared to relish, blocking NATO on a host of issues, including partnership agreements with non-NATO countries, in order to exact a political price against countries with which it is feuding. Erdogan also flaunts his controversial buy of a Russian air defense system.
That role was on full display in late 2019 when Turkey blocked a major new NATO Baltic defense planned for Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, put together after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Turkey refused to sign off on the plan to defend the region against Russian aggression until NATO recognized the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria as a terrorist organization, a move the other 29 NATO nations refused to make. Ankara eventually dropped its demands in July 2020 after failing to get its way.
More recently, Turkey has sought to water down NATO statements concerning Russian cyber attacks targeting the United States, along with a suspected Russian military intelligence attack against ammunition depots in the Czech Republic. That sort of alliance-busting — NATO operates by unanimous consent among its 30 member states — is unlikely to sit well with the Biden administration, which has put alliance building at the top of its international agenda.
“Given Biden is committed to multilateralism, and given Biden is committed to working with allies, Erdogan’s spoiler role within NATO then becomes a key obstacle to Biden’s proposed action plan,” Erdemir said.
That gamesmanship came into play again on Wednesday when Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu brought up the U.S.-made Patriot missile defense system that Turkey had long sought from Washington, warning, “if the U.S. does not guarantee Patriot, we can get an air defense system from our other allies.”
After Turkey and the U.S. failed to reach an agreement on buying Patriot systems, in 2017 Turkey received the Russian S-400 air defense system in a move that represented the country’s deepest break with the NATO alliance.
The Trump administration warned for months before the delivery that the S-400 would mean Turkey would be removed from the F-35 program and could invoke sanctions against the local defense industry under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which punished countries for buying Russian military equipment.
Ankara wouldn’t back down and in July 2019 was removed from the F-35 program. In December 2020, Congress imposed the CAATSA sanctions, hitting the Turkish defense industry.
As for the demand for Patriot systems, a State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, rejected the Turkish muscle-flexing, pointing out that there are no current talks between the two countries about buying the Patriot. “We’ve been clear with Turkey that the offer for the Patriot would be withdrawn if they purchased the S-400, and they purchased the S-400, so this offer has expired.”
Nothing is forever in politics, however, and Washington is well aware of the long-term consequences of its actions with the Erdogan regime.
Meetings at the Pentagon concerning Turkey end often with the same question, according to a former Pentagon official who worked closely on Turkey-related issues: “How does this affect Turkey after Erdogan? Because we want a great relationship with Turkey again, after Erdogan.”
Kicking Turkey out of the F-35 program and hitting its defense industry, which is a significant and growing segment of the Turkish economy, were some of the strongest actions taken to date against the country, and came after months of debate in Washington.
The concern among NATO members was that the radar system on the Russian S-400 would track NATO aircraft flying over Turkey and feed that data back to Moscow. Of particular concern was that the stealthy F-35, flown by the U.S, U.K., Italy, Netherlands, Norway and Denmark, with Poland and Belgium slated to receive their jets in the coming years, would be put at particular risk as the Russians looked for ways to crack the code on the jet.
“Turkey being a NATO member, they know we’re not going to completely cut them off,” the former defense official said. “But then you get to the F-35 where we did cut them off … there’s just no way in hell we’re putting an F-35 near the S-400, full-stop.”
One card Erdogan can play is Turkey’s role in providing security for the Kabul International Airport during and after the American withdrawal from the country over the coming months, which Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar suggested this week could be up for reconsideration if the logistics for supplying and securing them weren’t sorted out soon.
American troops and equipment are rapidly withdrawing from Afghanistan, but the Biden administration is looking for ways to ensure the central government stays intact amid an expected Taliban move on the capital. Keeping the airport open and secure in the landlocked country will be critical.
For the moment the fighter plane and Russian equipment purchases are done deals. What Biden and Erdogan will need to kickstart is a new way for the two long-time allies to work together on a wider range of issues that include Russian and Chinese influence in Europe and the Middle East and finding common ground on Biden priorities such as human rights and anti-corruption initiatives.
“Turkey knows that their first and best ally is the United States,” the former defense official said. “But you can’t escape your geography, and they’re in a very difficult neighborhood. Turkey uses their relationship with the United States to leverage the activities they have with their neighbors, which means we’re a lifeline and phone a friend whenever they’re in a pickle, even if it’s of their own making. So that gives us leverage in negotiations.”