Ten years ago, The Atlantic ran as its cover story a piece titled “The Ally From Hell”. The article followed the raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and was focused on the relationship between the United States and Pakistan, but was focused on how Washington’s key ally in the War on Terror contributed more to the problem than to the solution. In the final line of its conclusion, it reads “There is no escaping this vexed relationship—and little evidence to suggest that it will soon improve.”
Such a description has in several ways grown to apply to the United States’ relationship with Turkey in the last decade. Ankara may not be harboring American enemies the way Pakistan knowingly or unknowingly did with bin Laden, but it has actively challenged US campaigns against other adversaries from ISIS to Russia. While Turkey can claim that it too has suffered from American policies in recent decades, the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has effectively cast Washington as another foe looking to destroy the country.
The two remain NATO allies, but the reservoir of antipathy is unlikely to decrease now that Joe Biden has entered the White House and his administration has signaled that it will engage Turkey on terms that are different than his predecessor, Donald Trump. This would mean de-emphasizing any personal relationships by moving the center of any interaction to the institution-level with input from the US Congress and American partners overseas.
This does not bode particularly well for Erdogan, who had forged a close, if highly controversial, relationship with Trump.
Unlike those in his administration, and in Congress, Trump had something of a soft spot for Erdogan. Twice he moved to withdraw from Syria at Erdogan’s request and he openly embraced his rhetoric against the Syrian Kurds, who played a significant role in helping to defeat the Islamic State. This carried over as Trump provided near-impenetrable cover for Turkey after it purchased the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia. The NATO-sceptic Trump somehow saw fit to blame his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the purchase as a way to excuse his refusal to impose sanctions. This led to both internal confusion for the rest of Trump’s own government and deeply enraged Congress.
Biden has already put the new framework into practice. During the transition, when the president-elect traditionally speaks with his soon-to-be counterparts around the world, Biden reportedly rebuffed Erdogan’s request for a phone call, a serious snub to the Turkish leader. To date, the two leaders have yet to speak.
To be sure, Erdogan’s not unique among the authoritarian leaders of the world who were emboldened by Trump. Nor is it a surprise that President Biden is now keeping them at arm’s length. It took until this week for Biden to speak to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his press secretary made clear the president is putting off a conversation with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman. Both were Trump allies who used their relationship with him to push their own national interests ahead of the US’. Now they oppose Biden’s current foreign policy priority – rejoining the Iran nuclear deal.
Biden will also remain saddled by expectations from other stakeholders at home and abroad. During the Trump administration, congressional fury at Turkey burned white-hot after Trump allowed the Turks to attack the Syrian Kurds and shielded Ankara from accountability over the purchase of the S-400.
Today on Capitol Hill, there are few figures more loathed than Erdogan. As a result, for an administration with limited room for bipartisanship, confronting him is one of the easier areas for American lawmakers to find common ground.
On top of this, Biden has made renewing US partnerships in Europe a priority. For years, the European Union has found itself at odds with Erdogan on migration, territorial disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean, and debates over Islam in Europe. The EU has already made it clear that it seeks American support in confronting Erdogan, and Biden may be more sympathetic to their desires than Trump ever was.
Even if Biden succeeds in shifting relations with Turkey in another direction, it is unknown whether or not it will improve ties between Washington and Ankara. To do that, it would require some agreement on where to begin addressing issues. With a list as long as the one that has weighed down US-Turkey relations for several years, this will be no easy task for the new Biden adminstration.
The most immediate decision that could be addressed by the White House could involve the sanctions that were levied in December 2020 for the S-400. Secretary of State Antony Blinken openly spoke about this when he referred to Turkey as a “so-called strategic ally” in his confirmation hearing in January. Trump’s former Syria envoy James Jeffrey also said in a recent interview that he believed the S-400 was the biggest wedge in relations.
If the S-400 is Washington’s main problem, American support for the Syrian Kurds is Ankara’s. In a recent interview with Turkey’s Sabah newspaper, Turkish defence minister Hulsi Akar said American support for their Kurdish allies was Ankara’s main concern. Turkey has always expressed its anger for the US’ continued support of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is ideologically affiliated with the PKK, the armed Kurdish group that has been at war with Turkey since the 1970s. Both the US and Turkey have designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.
This disagreement came into focus this week following a Turkish raid into northern Iraq that resulted in the discovery of 13 hostages that had been killed. The State Department issued a conditional condemnation of the PKK, who Turkey says is responsible for the deaths, but Turkish officials went one step further and accused the US of backing the group. For that reason, tamping down the furor over the Americans’ response became part of the first call Blinken had with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Neither side is likely to change their stances without any initial concessions. After the incoherernt Trump years of swinging from policy decision to policy reversal, Biden aims to chart a consistent American foreign policy that will make clear its priorities to friends and rivals alike. To this end, Biden will be open to resolving the S-400 issue, but it would be contingent on Turkey abandoning it. Similarly, Turkey has made it abundantly clear it will not do so or budge on its opposition to the Americans’ support of the Syrian Kurds.
It remains an open question, however, about how much the relationship can actually improve given the existing gap that is only growing wider. In a survey by the German Marshall Fund (GMF) and Bilgi University in Istanbul, 48% of Turks consider the US to be the biggest threat to Turkey compared to only 3.9% of Turks who see it as an ally.
It is tempting to explain this away as a product of years of Erdogan’s rule, but that would not account for the fact that a noticeable part of the Turkish opposition holds this negative view of the United States. After-all, Turkey’s opposition has staunchly backed some of Erdogan’s most controversial foreign policy positions, including his territorial claims against Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterrenean and his military support for Azerbaijan in its war against Armenia late last year. In both cases, Biden was opposed to Erdogan’s poisition.
The Turkish opposition has also spoken out against the sanctions over the S-400, despite their own disagreement with Erdogan and his ties Russia. As such, this proves that while a new government without Erdogan may be less openly hostile to the US, it would not spell the end of geopolitical disagreements.
Any sort of improvement in US-Turkey relations will be difficult, but not impossible. After years of interventions, sabre-rattling and aggressive rhetoric, Ankara has woken up to the fact that it is now surrounded by a ring of rivals, who increasingly see it as a common cause to rally against. None of this is helped by tension with Washington, who is allied to all but one of these Erdogan’s foes and has the potential to severely damage Turkey’s struggling economy through more sanctions.
Therein may lie the best prospects for reducing tensions without completely thawing the wider relationship. Biden allies have made clear during the transition that they viewed Turkey as a challenge, but not as an irredeemable partner that they want to drive further away. In fact, the Biden administration was openly supportive of Turkey’s talks with Greece to resolve their disputes and reduce intra-NATO tensions.
Turkey has taken steps to tamper down the tensions with other neighbors like Israel and Saudi Arabia, before Biden was sworn in. Though they may disagree with the US president for wanting to re-engage Iran, Turkey remains a key American partners in the Middle East. Whether that actually leads to any form of goodwill from Washington, weakening Turkey’s sense of encirclement will have to be central to any future decision. None of this will mean a renewal of the deep “strategic partnership” that it existed in the pre-Erdogan years of the Cold War and the immediate aftermath of the 1990s.
For Erdogan, he has too much at stake geopolitically and at home to meet every American demand for improvement. In Biden’s case, avoiding Trump’s mistakes in his relations with Turkey is a must, while at the same time he will have to thread the needle with Erdogan in order not to push Turkey further from the US orbit and closer to that of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s.
The shared problem for both is the reality that their interests are more at odds than ever, regardless of any outward proclamations of a partnership. In this sense, American relations with Turkey have come to resemble those with Pakistan, to a degree – allies on paper, based on a narrow set of shared interests, but in practice too deeply distrustful of one another to meaningfully cooperate.
There does remain room for the Biden administration to prevent relations with Turkey from plunging to deeper lows. That said, it will mean starting small and keeping expectations in check, lest it wants to see Turkey go from a flawed partner to a second “ally from hell.”