Biden and Erdogan – how much carrot, how much stick?

Initial statements by the Biden administration indicate it will follow a carrot and stick policy towards Turkey. Ankara believes its role in negotiations on various issues could strengthen its hand when it comes to ties with the new man in the White House. Ayse Karabat reports from Istanbul

By Ayşe Karabat

The election victory of Joe Biden as the new president of the United States has prompted mixed reactions in Turkey: concern, hope, uncertainty, conspiracy theories, and curiosity as to what awaits the two NATO allies.

Joe Biden drew the ire of Ankara during his election campaign last year, when he said that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was an autocrat and that Washington should embolden Turkish opposition leaders "to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan, not by a coup, but by the electoral process."

But regardless of the reaction, one thing is very clear for everyone watching Ankara-Washington relations closely: the nature of Turkish-U.S. ties, which had largely been reduced to the peculiar relations between U.S. President Donald Trump and Erdogan, is bound to be readjusted under the incoming Biden administration.

It would not be wrong to assume that there will be fewer direct phone calls between the two presidents and there will no back-door diplomacy between the sons-in-laws, either.

Berat Albayrak, the son-in-law of Erdogan who recently resigned as treasury and finance minister, and Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of Trump, both took an active role in overseeing bilateral relations between the two countries. They will no longer.

Demokratların ABD Başkanlığı adayı @JoeBiden Türkiye’de muhalefeti destekleyerek @RTErdogan iktidarını değiştireceğini ve en son yapabileceği şeyin Kürtler hakkında Erdoğan’a “taviz vermek” olacağını söyledi. Joe Biden samimi bir Kürt ve Kürdistan dostudur.

— Arif Zêrevan (@ArifZerevan) August 15, 2020

There was considerable speculation within Turkey that the resignation of Albayrak and the election of Biden, both of which happened in the same week, was not coincidental, but that Albayrak's resignation was part of Ankara's efforts to prepare for the Biden era.

Michael Carpenter, managing director of Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy & Global Engagement, was among the ones that raised the speculation, saying that Albayrak's stepping down may be "an indication that when the facts start to accumulate, there is a willingness to re-evaluate policies and personnel." He was speaking on 11 November during a livestream hosted by the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), a Greek non-profit research institute, where he said: "Let’s test this."

It seems Ankara is preparing itself for this test, not only by seeking out new lobbies to establish good connections with the new U.S. administration, but also by promising reforms to ensure the rule of law and a better economy. The Turkish economy has already been grappling with various problems, struggling especially since 2018 when Trump threatened Turkey with economic sanctions in a tweet over the imprisonment of American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, who was charged over terrorism links before eventually being allowed to walk free after two years in jail.Ankara, which has surely not forgotten about this tweet, seems to be hoping for a new era with the U.S. and counting on Biden not to be as impulsive as Trump. Ankara hopes that the two countries will base their ties on mutual interests and can navigate their way around the obstacles.

At the same meeting, Carpenter argued that the incoming administration did not intend to impose devastating sanctions against Turkey and the objective should not be "pushing Turkey into a corner." This is considered by Ankara as a "promising start", as expressed by Burhanettin Duran, the head of prominent pro-government think tank SETA, in his column in the pro-government daily Sabah. 

How much political leverage?

According to prominent independent journalist Murat Yetkin, Ankara thinks Biden will aim to rebuild transatlantic ties to contain Russia in regions like the Mediterranean and the Caucasus and that he might appreciate the value of Turkey, which can be helpful in reaching this aim.[embed:render:embedded:node:32442]

"Because of Erdogan’s risky military diplomacy, Turkey is also practically at the table over Libya and Armenia-Azerbaijan, besides Syria, showing that without him no solution can be reached in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean. Even though a negative perception against Erdogan and Turkey has existed since the Obama administration, no actions that will push Turkey towards Russia, China and Iran are expected," Yetkin wrote on his blog.

According to Duran, Ankara has space to manoeuvre vis-a-vis the Biden administration because "it is at the negotiating table and on the ground in many parts of the world."

"There are two key points: first, Turkey, a leading NATO ally, balances out the Russian influence in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh. At the same time, the country can play a constructive role, as the Western alliance, which the Biden administration will attempt to restore, seeks to compete with Moscow," he wrote in his column.

But some argue that Ankara could be overplaying its hand. One such person is Soli Ozel, an academic at Kadir Has University’s international relations department.

"Plenty of people in the United States believe they can manage things without Turkey," he had told Voice of America, stressing that Biden's message to Turkey is "to behave like an ally or face the consequences."

One of the very first messages of the Biden administration, which came from Carpenter, shows that the new White House is aware of the role Turkey can play, but it should be openly told that otherwise there will be a price for it.

"Instead of unilateral threats, NATO member-states should present a 'united front', which may persuade Erdogan that there is room for co-operation, but there are also very negative consequences for pursuing a more aggressive policy," he said.


Difficult issues on the agenda

Despite the initial willingness of both sides to test the waters and co-operate, there are difficult issues that must be addressed very soon, starting with the S-400 issue. Turkey bought the S-400, an advanced missile system from Russia, despite Washington’s warning that the purchase violated U.S. laws and that the missile's radar compromises NATO defence systems.

Although U.S. senators warned that the move would trigger sanctions, Ankara tested the system in October. And in a very first decision regarding Turkey, Biden could implement sanctions on Ankara under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), ranging from symbolic to severe financial measures.

Another issue that is worrying Ankara is the case into Turkey’s state lender Halkbank, which saw an executive jailed in New York in 2018 for taking part in a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran.

In early 2021, Halkbank faced charges again in a New York court, but the U.S. Treasury Department had so far held off on penalising Turkey, according to The New York Times, partly because of the good relations between Erdogan's son-in-law Albayrak with the Trump administration.

Under the Biden term, however, it is obvious that the personal relations factor will not come in handy, because relations will be based on the institutional ground, and the rest will be constructed through negotiations. Neither tensions nor cooperation will therefore come as a surprise.

Ayse Karabat

© 2020