Turkey’s importance as a ‘swing state’ in US regional strategy has increased dramatically as tensions rise with Russia
Less than 48 hours will separate US President Joe Biden’s meeting with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Brussels from his summit with Vladimir Putin at Geneva on June 16. In between falls the shadow of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit. This is simply exquisite as far as planning of sequential activities go in diplomacy.
Biden’s meetings in Brussels and Geneva are, arguably, the most consequential “bilaterals” he’ll be having in this entire eight-day trip to Europe. The two events have variables, but their correlation is not in doubt.
Most of the issues that will figure in Biden’s meeting with Erdogan are related to Russia. Even when some US-Turkey issues do not directly concern Russia, they do affect Russia’s vital interests.
The advantage goes to Biden insofar as the personal chemistry between Erdogan and Putin is no longer what it used to be. Turkish-Russian relations are fraught with growing friction on several fronts.
On the other hand, Turkey’s importance as a “swing state” in the US regional strategy has increased dramatically, even as US-Russia tensions spiked in recent months. The Biden administration’s diplomatic overture to Turkey needs to be assessed from such a perspective.
Without doubt, there are major differences in the Turkey-US relationship. Both sides have a long list of problems. But the good part is that the two sides are realistic and willing to focus on areas where partnership is possible. Both have a sense of urgency to mend their relationship.
Biden and Erdogan know each other well and their private conversation can help turn a new page in the relationship. Conceivably, they will aim for a relatively achievable relationship. In sum, manage differences and revive the partnership – that is going to be the leitmotif of the Biden-Erdogan meeting on Monday.
The differences are of three categories: political, geopolitical and personal. On the political-personal part, the crux of the matter is that Erdogan deeply distrusts US intentions toward Turkey and him personally. The genesis of this estrangement is to be traced to former president Barack Obama’s administration, and Biden happens to be associated with it.
The manner in which the Obama administration coaxed Erdogan, who was a close family friend of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to join the United States’ regime-change project in Syria and subsequently disengaged itself from the project, leaving Turkey in the lurch, profoundly upset Ankara.
Meanwhile, the US policy of assisting a faction of Syrian Kurds, the YPG, began under the Obama administration, in 2014, and inevitably it has been a ticking time bomb since then.
The strategic contradiction was simply far too much for Turkey to accept – that the US got directly linked to a terrorist organization that has long fought an insurgency against another NATO ally.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the failed coup attempt in 2016 to overthrow Erdogan dealt a body blow to the Turkish-American relationship. Turkey suspects that Obama was supportive of the coup attempt and blamed the US for harboring the Islamist preacher Fetullah Gulen. Washington simply stonewalled when Turks sought Gulen’s extradition.
Suffice to say, Erdogan’s efforts during the past five-year period to strengthen Turkey’s strategic autonomy, to develop relations with Russia and to work toward building up Turkey as one of the great powers in the region fall in perspective.
On the geopolitical plane, a whole lot of issues have cropped up stemming out of Erdogan’s independent foreign policies in recent years, but the issue that has driven a wedge between the US and Turkey is, principally, Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system.
Short of Turkey backing down on the S-400 missile deal with Russia, Washington and Ankara are discussing some sort of mutually acceptable formula such as the deployment of the missile system under US control at the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey, without any Russian involvement in their operation and maintenance.
Turkey has reportedly given a written assurance to the Biden administration that it will not activate the missile system. This ingenious compromise could open a pathway for the lifting of the US sanctions against Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which would revive Turkish participation in the manufacture of parts for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 stealth fighter and give gravitas to the overall relationship.
This reconciliation could well be a key outcome of the meeting in Brussels.
If the S-400 hurdle that bedeviled Turkish-American relations in recent years can be overcome, Russia will be suffering a major setback in its regional strategies all across the board – and, Putin personally risks a loss of face just before his summit with Biden, as the turnaround in Russia-Turkey relations through the past few years was Putin’s personal achievement.
No doubt, with the US backing, Turkey can be expected to revert to a role it adroitly performed in the Cold War era as the vanguard of Western strategies against Russia. Even more so, for the first time in its history, NATO can consolidate a presence in the Black Sea. Of course, with Turkish backing, Ukraine can push back at Russia with new confidence.
Overall, it will be a game changer for US regional diplomacy in Russia’s western and southwestern backyard. Interestingly, straight after the meeting with Biden, Erdogan, in a symbolic move, will be heading for the South Caucasus to visit the territories in Nagorno-Karabakh that Turkey helped Azerbaijan conquer in recent months.
Suffice to say, the geopolitics of the regions surrounding Turkey are at an inflection point. The US has an urgent need to get Turkey on board with its strategy to counter Russia in the entire region stretching from the Caucasus and the Black Sea to Ukraine and Poland, apart from West Asia proper. Turkey is potentially the best regional partner in the United States’ efforts to contain Russia and Iran.
Most important, Turkey’s cooperation is critical to counter Russia’s growing force projection in the Mediterranean where the US has been establishing new bases lately. Turkey and the US also have a congruence of interests in keeping Russia out of Libya (which NATO visualizes as the gateway for its future expansion plans into Africa).
Equally, Washington and Ankara are negotiating a deal for the deployment of Turkish troops to ensure that Kabul airport remains operational and accessible to the NATO countries even after the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan, which is expected next month.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said last Monday that Turkey is willing to undertake the mission if it receives financial, logistical, and political support from its NATO allies. This promises to be a major step in confidence-building between the US and Turkey.
Again, what role Turkey can play in Central Asia to advance US interests remains to be seen. Interestingly, just before he leaves for Brussels, Erdogan is hosting the newly elected president of Kyrgyzstan, Sadyr Japarov, who has a reputation for being a staunch nationalist and authoritarian ruler. Kyrgyzstan is a poor country with few resources, but it borders China.
Evidently, Erdogan is also under pressure internally, as his party’s popularity dropped lately and the Turkish economy is in bad shape, and the public discontent is palpable. Turkey also has lost confidence among its traditional friends and allies. Its relations with the European Union are in stagnation and with Greece and France under strain.
All said, Erdogan simply cannot afford an inconclusive meeting with Biden. Erdogan’s strategy will be to promote Turkey as the United States’ best regional partner. He has shown a willingness to act against Russian interests. Erdogan hosted the leaders of Georgia, Poland and Ukraine – all at odds with Russia – in quick succession since April.
Erdogan has pledged full support for Georgia’s bid to join NATO, sealed a drone contract with Poland and voiced all-around support for Ukraine in its standoff with Russia. Also, Turkey took an active part in NATO’s Steadfast Defender exercises in Romania at the end of May.
Make no mistake, Erdogan is playing for time to extend his rule for another five years after the next election due in 2023. And he needs Biden’s support. Erdogan is an experienced leader, and so is Biden. It should not come as a surprise if they find common ground despite the many disagreements between Washington and Ankara.