Turkey is a US ally and a NATO member, but under President Erdogan’s assertive foreign policy, Ankara has shown the capacity to go its own way if necessary.
American and Turkish leaders, Joe Biden and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will meet on June 14 at the NATO summit amid a backdrop of serious disagreements on various issues, ranging from Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400s to Washington’s ongoing support of the YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK, a terror group in northern Syria.
There are also other issues like Biden’s recent acceptance of the 1915 incidents concerning armed fighting between Armenians and Turks during WWI as a genocide, and Washington’s previous criticism of Turkey’s assertive eastern Mediterranean policy.
Despite those differences, Turkey and the US continue to have close commercial relations and across Central Asia and the Caucasus, both countries have similar political stances. Ankara, like Washington, has been also opposing Russian intervention in both the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts.
There have also been recent improvements between Ankara and Washington on the eastern Mediterranean front, after Turkey’s repeated calls for Greece to address issues on how to share the eastern Mediterranean’s rich gas reserves. Turkish and Greek foreign ministers will also meet in Brussels at the NATO summit.
Matthew Bryza, a former US ambassador to Azerbaijan, who has extensive experience and knowledge on Eurasian issues, says that from a realistic perspective the approaching Biden-Erdogan meeting in Brussels provides a chance for both leaders to rebuild the bilateral relationship.
“This will simply be the first step in restoring a sense of strategic partnership between the US and Turkey from the perspective of a clean sheet of paper. So it’s important - even though the two leaders have met each other before - they get a chance to build a new relationship personally now [with] Biden being the US President,” Bryza tells TRT World.
What both leaders think
Erdogan has called the upcoming Monday meeting “the beginning of the new era” in relations between the two countries. Biden also appears to have thoughts mirroring Erdogan's, according to Bryza.
Bryza says that his contacts in the Biden administration in Washington tell him that like Erdogan, “Biden wants to get US-Turkey relations back on the path of partnership across a wide range of issues, which they share as strategic interests.” The former diplomat had worked as a top official for both Republican and Democrat administrations in Washington in the past.
"President Biden knows Erdogan very well. The two men have spent a good amount of time together, and they're both, I think, looking forward to having a business-like opportunity to review the full breadth of the relationship," said Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, during a press briefing this week.
Washington and Ankara have developed a beneficial bilateral relationship since the early years of the Cold War. In the late 1950s, Turkey became a NATO member under a conservative government led by Adnan Menderes, whom Erdogan and his governing AK Party see as one of their political godfathers.
Since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and the emergence of Turkey as a regional powerhouse in the last two decades under Erdogan’s leadership, some analysts see a necessity to reset ties between the two NATO allies to recalibrate the bilateral relationship in the face of new geopolitical realities across Eurasia.
But Washington’s unwillingness to recognise Turkey’s growing role from Bosnia to Syria and Azerbaijan has frustrated Ankara, pushing the post-Ottoman state to seek new partners like Russia to strengthen its defence system, buying the technologically-proved S400s and developing a partnership to address the Syrian conflict.
“Turkey and its neighborhood have changed in ways that make U.S.-Turkish relations both more important and more complex, but Washington has yet to develop a vision for how a new partnership can work,” wrote Walter Russell Mead, a fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship at Hudson Institute and professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College in New York.
In the absence of a new US approach toward Turkey, Ankara might seek other political options rather than Washington, Mead viewed. As a result, Biden urgently “needs to develop a new way of thinking about this important relationship,” he advised.
“Mr. Biden’s job in his meeting with Mr. Erdogan isn’t to rescue the old US-Turkish alliance, but to lay the foundation for a new one,” the professor concluded.
“Biden should do everything he can to keep Turkey stable within NATO” so as not to let the Atlantic alliance “disappear”, wrote Russell A. Berman, professor of Humanities at Stanford University and Dania Koleilat Khatib, co-founder and the president of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building (RCCP), a Lebanon-based Track II organisation.
Despite challenges, Bryza thinks that both leaders appear to be ready to listen to each other’s concerns.
“I do think that both leaders are in a mood to sort resolutions to various differences between the two countries,” he says.
Seeking common ground
Bryza thinks that if both leaders are able to put “some of the more difficult issues” aside like S-400s and the status of northeast Syria - where Turkey, the US and Russia have been militarily present - and concentrate on other areas like Ukraine and the eastern Mediterranean, they can make progress.
The two countries could also find common political ground on the Libyan conflict, where both recognise the UN-backed Tripoli government, Bryza says. In northwest Syria, where millions of people live under inhumane conditions due to the Assad regime’s siege, Turkey and the US could also work together to address the growing humanitarian crisis, the diplomat adds.
Mead also echoed similar thoughts to Bryza. “Both countries would like to see peace and order in Libya, Syria and Iraq. Both would like Iran’s influence curbed. Both would like to limit Russian power in the Middle East, the Black Sea and the Caucasus,” he wrote.
Across the Caucasus, where Bryza previously worked as an American diplomat to mediate between opposing sides like Armenia and Azerbaijan, he sees more opportunities for Turkey-US cooperation.
During the recent Karabakh war, Turkey backed Azerbaijan against occupying Armenian forces and was instrumental in ensuring Azerbaijan regaining control of the region. Since the end of armed clashes, Turkey and Russia have sent their peacekeepers to the region to keep things in order.
Turkey’s peacekeeping role in the South Caucasus “provides NATO eyes and ears on the ground, overseeing what Russian peacekeepers are doing and hopefully deterring Russian peacekeepers from launching any sorts of military adventures,” says Bryza, referring to Moscow’s destabilising interventions in Georgian regions like Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Across Central Asia, which saw Turkic-origin nations strengthen their national identities following the Cold War, Turkey and the US also have a common ground, analysts say. In an apparent sign of regional cooperation, Turkey has recently offered the US to run the Kabul airport following NATO’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
A thorny issue: YPG
Despite many possibilities of cooperation, Washington’s support to the YPG, the PKK terror group's Syrian wing, fuels anger and scepticism across the Turkish establishment toward future US intentions in northern Syria. Under US tutelage, the YPG controls much of northern Syria.
The PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US, NATO and the EU, has led a decades-long terror campaign against Turkey, being responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people, including women and children.
“I don’t think Turkey and the US are going to find a common approach to the YPG anytime soon. One major reason [for that] is because President Biden’s chief advisor inside the White House for the Middle East, Brett McGurk, was the primary architect of the US policy of collaborating with the YPG,” says Bryza.
Turkey has strongly criticised McGurk’s conduct in northern Syria under the former Barack Obama administration, which was instrumental in creating the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in 2015 in the name of fighting Daesh. Since then, the US refused to acknowledge the YPG as a terrorist organisation.
“I know in general that the Obama administration understood that the YPG is a terrorist organisation. They knew it. But they had to pretend that the YPG is not a terrorist organisation, so they renamed that coalition of fighters the Syrian Democratic Forces,” Bryza says.
“There is nothing democratic about them,” he says, seeing the formation of the SDF as a political “trick”. The Obama administration saw the YPG/SDF as a useful proxy to fight Daesh, instead of losing American soldiers in the fight against the terror group, according to Bryza. He does not expect that policy will easily change under Biden.
But that policy upsets Ankara more than any other issue concerning US-Turkish relations.
“I don’t expect by any means Turkey to drop its anger or at least its opposition to the US working one terrorist group against another,” Bryza says.