Analysis |

Biden Hasn’t Called Erdogan Yet, and They Have a Lot to Talk About

Their administrations’ relationship has started on the wrong foot, and it’s unclear how it will improve if neither side is willing to concede on key issues

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Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden meeting with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Washington, March 31, 2016.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden meeting with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Washington, March 2016. Credit: Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Following U.S. President Joe Biden’s “good” phone call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israelis can breathe a sigh of relief. For a month they were biting their nails, fuming or getting scared until the redemptive call came.

They can at least be proud that Netanyahu was the first Mideast leader Biden spoke with. True, he’s no longer in the international league, but he’s first place in the regional league – ahead of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and, above all, Turkey.

It’s interesting how Biden has turned the old-fashioned landline into a diplomatic lever capable of spurring competition among leaders. Under Donald Trump, people tensely awaited the next tweet, the caprice du jour that would set the agenda worldwide, especially in the Middle East. Everyone was certain that the tweet would come.

But Biden has adopted a tactic of diplomatic silence in which leaders wait for him to say something already – make a phone call, tweet, do anything that would indicate his agenda, or at least his personal and policy preferences.

Now that Netanyahu has passed the test of the first call, two other leaders are still waiting for Biden to call their names: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two rivals both have long accounts with Biden.

The first breakthrough happened with Turkey, but it wasn’t anything to boast about. It wasn’t a phone call but a furious, public, trans-Atlantic exchange that made clear the depth of the conflict.

A week ago, Turkish forces in Iraq discovered the bodies of 13 Turkish servicemen in a cave in the north. Twelve had been shot in the head; one died of his wounds after being shot in the shoulders.

All had been kidnapped from Turkish territory in 2015 or 2016 by the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, against which Turkey has been waging all-out war since the mid-1980s. More than 40,000 people have been killed in the war.

Turkey quickly accused the PKK of murdering the men, while the PKK said they were killed in a Turkish airstrike – a claim that obviously doesn’t explain the bullet wounds in their heads.

But what astounded and infuriated the Turks was the initial response by the U.S. State Department, which condemned the murder without blaming the PKK. “You said you don’t support terror, but in practice, you’re on the terrorists’ side and giving them backing,” Erdogan accused. Shortly afterward, Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a statement holding the PKK responsible.

Still, the initial statement made clear to Erdogan that the Biden administration wouldn’t rush to embrace his version of events without checking it, and that his policies on fighting the Kurds were likely to undergo more stringent tests. The blank check he received from Trump – who didn’t prevent Turkey from attacking inside Iraq, invading Syria or even occupying parts of the latter – is no longer valid. And that’s just the beginning.

The funeral of a Turkish soldier, one of 13 soldiers, police and civilians who were abducted by Kurdish insurgents and were found killed in northern Iraq, Erzurum, Turkey, Monday. Credit: IHA via AP

Shi'ite militia attacks

The PKK and the Kurds in Turkey are only one part of the “Kurdish problem.” Iraqi Kurdistan woke up Monday to a hail of rockets on the city of Erbil – or more accurately, on the American military base near the city’s airport.

An organization called the Guardians of the Blood Brigade – a Shi’ite militia that’s apparently supported by Iran – claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed a contractor and wounded several civilians. But it’s not clear whether this militia or some other Shi’ite group was actually responsible. Nor is it clear why the militia attacked.

The finger has naturally been pointed at Iran, which might seek to undermine Kurdistan’s stability to demonstrate its ability to undermine U.S. interests. The autonomous area, which hosts American bases and previously served as a rest and relaxation area for American soldiers, has been quiet for years.

But the missiles could also be part of the multifaceted political battle in Iraq – between the Kurds and the Iraqi government, and between the Shi’ite militias and the Kurds.

Washington has so far reacted to the rockets with restraint. White House press secretary Jen Psaki made do with saying that the United States “reserves the right to respond in the time and manner of our choosing,” adding that before any response, it’s necessary to investigate and determine who was behind the launches.

The Turkish file on Biden’s desk contains a whole list of issues, each enough to spark a diplomatic row between the two countries.

Biden, who promised during his campaign that he knew how to deal with Erdogan, is backing the European Union on the issue of Turkey’s gas drilling in parts of the eastern Mediterranean Sea where Greece and Cyprus claim exclusive rights. If the EU decides next month to impose sanctions on Turkey, Washington won’t be an obstacle as it was under Trump.

But the main issue remains Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles. Biden vehemently opposes this, as do other NATO countries. But Erdogan recently reiterated that he doesn’t intend to backtrack on the deal, especially since the first missiles have already arrived and been tested.

Yet another issue is Turkey’s human rights record. Biden stresses human rights at every opportunity, not just with Turkey. The  imprisonment of Erdogan’s political rivals, the destruction of the free press, the persecution of real or imagined followers of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, and Erdogan’s plan to break up and perhaps even outlaw the pro-Kurdish HDP party are all mines waiting to explode on the path of U.S.-Turkish relations.

And if all that weren’t enough, Washington's relationship with the Kurds as part of its war on the Islamic State defined the Kurds, rather than Turkey, as the most effective force in eradicating that Islamist organization in both Iraq and Syria. Granted, the group remains active in both countries; last year saw around 600 Islamic State attacks in Syria and hundreds more in Iraq. But the Islamic state that the group started to build no longer exists.

Biden’s election roused Syrian Kurds’ hopes that Washington would be their ally again and “correct all the mistakes the Trump administration made,” as Mazloum Abdi, commander of the Syrian Kurdish forces, told Al-Hadath, an affiliate of the Al Arabiya television station.

Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units running across a street in Raqqa, Syria, July 2017.Credit: Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

U.S. betrayal?

The main mistake Abdi was referring to was Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from Syria and let Turkey conquer the city of Afrin in Syria’s Kurdish region. The troop withdrawal was eventually halted, but Turkey’s desire to seize control of a wide, deep swath of Kurdish territory remains intact.

Washington sees Turkey’s acquisition of Russian missiles as a blow to coordination among NATO countries and a way of giving Russia entrée into NATO’s air defense and aerial intelligence systems. But Ankara sees U.S. support for the Kurds as a betrayal that supports terrorism and abets a threat to its national security. It seems neither side can compromise on these issues or reach a deal where each concedes on one of the issues important to it.

Washington can, and may intend to, impose sanctions on Turkey to force it to cancel the S-400 deal. Even Trump imposed a few sanctions on Turkey over this issue, like ousting it from the program to build F-35 fighter planes and denying the heads of Turkey’s defense industries entry to the United States. But this didn’t get Turkey to halt its attacks on Kurdish areas of Syria and Iraq.

Erdogan, meanwhile, can play the refugee card by opening his country’s borders to millions of refugees eager to go to Europe. This would generate European pressure on Biden, but it might also spark painful European sanctions that would deal a mortal blow to Turkey’s economy, which is only now starting to recover a bit.

Trump was afraid of tightening the rope around Erdogan too hard lest Ankara switch sides and embrace Russia as a strategic ally. This fear doesn’t seem well founded because Russia has said it doesn’t see Turkey as a strategic ally, though it does see it as a partner and close friend.

Moreover, the two are on opposite sides of Libya’s civil war, with Russia supporting the separatist general Khalifa Hiftar and Turkey helping the recognized government. They were also on opposite sides of the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, with Turkey supporting the Azerbaijanis and Russia the Armenians.

Both conflicts made clear that the Russian-Turkish friendship has its limits. Russia and Turkey disagree on the Kurdish issue. Russia is striving to include the Syrian Kurds in the political process designed to end the war, with a new Syrian government that would also represent the Kurds, while Turkey doesn’t want the Kurds to be part of the process.

It appears that the American stance is closer to Russia’s than Turkey’s, putting a question mark over the feasibility of Turkey’s threat that it will change allies.

Erdogan is now expected to exploit the killing of the Turkish soldiers by the PKK to leverage his demand that the United States stop assisting the Syrian Kurds, whom he says are a PKK proxy and therefore should be designated a terror organization.

But after Erdogan, following the killing of the soldiers, arrested more than 700 Kurdish-Turkish civilians and is striving to remove the pro-Kurdish party from the political arena, he’ll have a hard time convincing the Biden administration that this is a battle against terror and not a vendetta against a party and an entire community.

Unlike the belated phone call with Netanyahu, the talk between Biden and Erdogan will probably last longer and be more detailed and, well, honest. The call will dictate the nature of Turkey’s ties with the United States and the extent of its patience.

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