Background: Prior to the summit, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had chafed at the Biden Administration’s “cold shoulder.” Ever since the Clinton Administration, Turkey had been used to being treated as an American priority, and over time it came to see itself as having leverage over a United States that craved access to its territory. Biden officials, however, seemingly wanted to reverse that sense of leverage. Biden had not bothered even to phone Erdoğan until the beginning of the fourth month of his Administration, on April 23. Even then, the purpose of the call had been primarily to give Erdoğan a heads-up that Biden would make a statement the following day recognizing the historicity of the Armenian Genocide, a point long heatedly contested by Turkish governments.
For decades, both Congress and the U.S. President had been deterred from recognizing the Armenian Genocide by Turkish threats of dire foreign-policy consequences. Congressional recognition came first, in 2019, without apparent consequences, and Biden became the first President to take the recognition step on April 24 this year. In doing so, Biden was not only recognizing the Genocide but also sending a message to Ankara that it lacked the leverage it had long thought it had.
Erdoğan hoped to emerge from the Biden meeting having improved the atmosphere of bilateral ties, while not making any major concessions, and he largely achieved that low-bar goal. Rhetorically, Biden sounded a bit more upbeat than might have been expected given the pre-summit temperature of U.S.-Turkish ties. The U.S. President described the meeting as “positive and productive,” adding that he was “confident we’ll make real progress” through follow-up working-level meetings. It may not seem like much, but neither did Biden publicly allude to the problems in the relationship or to Turkey’s human rights shortcomings. That had to be a relief for the Turkish President.
Biden and Erdoğan reportedly met for about 90 minutes, the first half one-on-one and the second half with other principals and staff included. (The two leaders lack a common language, so roughly half the time was consumed by translation.) According to a Turkish source close to one of the principals in the meeting, four topics were covered in the second half of the meeting: Afghanistan, S-400s, YPG, and the two Turkish employees of U.S. diplomatic missions currently under arrest in Turkey. The atmosphere between the two Presidents reportedly was calm and free of rancor. If this source is correct, human rights was not raised in the second-half of the meeting. There have so far been no leaks about what was discussed one-on-one.
Implications: In the days just before the summit Turkey was widely reported to have volunteered to secure the Kabul airport following the U.S./NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan scheduled to be completed by September 11. Indeed, following the summit, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan confirmed that Biden and Erdoğan had agreed that Turkey would take “a lead role” in that effort, aided by support from the US and perhaps other NATO partners. Securing the airport is seen as vital to keeping the diplomatic community present in Afghanistan and, in turn, sustaining the Afghan government.
The Kabul airport issue imparted some substance to a summit that otherwise seemed destined to be a non-event and offered the parties and the public a positive agenda that distracted from painfully stalemated problems, like Turkey’s possession of the Russian-made S-400 and U.S. partnership with the Syrian Kurdish YPG. Beyond summit atmospherics, however, Turkey’s offer was important for at least three reasons: First, it seemed to mark the first time in years, perhaps since the first Gulf War, that Turkey might be positively and voluntarily associated with a high-profile issue of importance to Washington. Particularly since Turkey famously denied the U.S. use of its territory to attack Iraq in 2003, Turkish cooperation with the U.S., when present at all, often seemed begrudging. For example, Turkey’s participation in the coalition to defeat ISIS was equivocal at best, at least initially; U.S. efforts to negotiate access to İncirlik for the fight against ISIS devolved into a nine-months-long, scratch-and-claw negotiation, souring, rather than enhancing, bilateral ties. Turkish reticence before agreeing to accept a NATO missile-defense radar station in 2011 similarly left a bad taste.
In the post-Cold-War world, the underpinning of U.S.-Turkish relations has been the notion that strategically located Turkey would be central to any number of unforeseen US foreign policy concerns. That notion has steadily unraveled over the past decade-plus as Turkey and the U.S. increasingly bumped heads on regional issues. The Kabul airport issue revives awareness of Turkey’s geostrategic importance.
Second, the Kabul airport proposal is a reminder of a unique aspect of Turkey’s importance to NATO – its demography. As the only Muslim-majority nation in NATO, Turkey lends legitimacy to NATO operations in the Muslim world, particularly in Afghanistan, with which the Turks have a long history.
Third, and most important for Erdoğan, U.S. acceptance of Turkey’s offer seemed to confirm that relations with the US could be “compartmentalized” – that is, that the U.S. is still interested in cooperating with Turkey where possible, even in the absence of progress on the S-400 issue. From Erdoğan’s standpoint, that raises the hope of cooperation on other issues as well – perhaps Ukraine and Libya -- reinforcing strategic ties, and perhaps regaining some lost leverage, without his conceding a whisker on the S-400s. Erdoğan occasionally still betrays a belief that the U.S. will eventually relent on the S-400s.
Kabul airport has temporarily emerged as the centerpiece of U.S.-Turkish relations. It is not a done deal, however. Many questions remain. What exactly is the mission? Will Turkey provide security only in the airport or on the perimeter as well? Does Turkey have the will and wherewithal to carry out a major security mission in Afghanistan, considering that the Turkish army has not previously engaged in lethal action there? Ankara has said that it will need U.S. financial and logistical support and that it won’t increase the size of its roughly 500-troop contingent now in Afghanistan. Which nations will partner with Turkey? (Erdoğan suggested Hungary, Turkey’s current partner in administering the airport, as well as Pakistan, which he probably hopes will exert restraint on the Taliban. The Taliban unsurprisingly have called on Turkey to leave along with the other NATO forces by September 11.) And how do Turkey’s NATO partners, whose diplomats will depend on the airport, view the prospective Turkish mission? Only when these questions are resolved will it be clear to what extent this effort is truly a gain for U.S.-Turkish ties. And, of course, the now-feared imminent collapse of the Afghan government could make the whole matter moot.
Following the Biden meeting, a pleased Erdoğan declared that there are no U.S.-Turkish problems “that cannot be solved.” Symbolizing Erdoğan’s eagerness to keep the meeting with Biden as smooth as possible was his stunning revelation that he had not raised any concern about Biden’s April 24 statement recognizing the Armenian Genocide. “Thank God (hamdolsun),” he said, “that topic did not come up.” Erdoğan had criticized the statement when it was issued and publicly promised to protest it at the Biden meeting. No doubt many Turks were chagrined that their “tough-guy” President chose to shun the issue altogether.
Not everybody found the equivocal result of the meeting to be a plus for Erdoğan. Following the encounter, the value of the lira actually dipped slightly, from 8.47 to 8.55 – widely interpreted as the result of investors’ disappointment that no progress was made on the all-important S-400 issue. The tumble in the lira had to be a disappointment for Erdoğan, as the primary motivation for his solicitousness toward Biden, including the Kabul airport offer, almost certainly was to re-assure foreign investors that relations with the U.S. have returned to a stable and predictable course. It was likewise an indicator that agreement on the Kabul airport won’t be enough to achieve that end.
After boldly pursuing an autonomous foreign-policy for several years – Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu had hailed the 2019 arrival of the S-400 missiles from Russia as a “declaration of freedom and independence”—Erdoğan seems to have painted himself into a corner from which only better ties with the U.S. and his Western allies can extract him. Turkey’s economic struggles have caused Erdoğan’s popularity to plunge. It is clear Erdoğan hopes he can win over Western investors and begin to resuscitate Turkey’s economy by improving the tone of relations with the West and providing support to post-NATO-withdrawal Afghanistan – again, without taking the big decision to give up the S-400s. (At least twice since the Biden meeting, Erdoğan has reiterated that he’s not planning to change his approach to the S-400s and F-35s.) Turkey analyst Sinan Ülgen aptly calls this gambit “reset lite.”
As the post-summit fall in the lira suggested, this approach is unlikely to work over the long term. Unless Turkey relinquishes possession of the S-400 – as required by Congress as a condition for lifting U.S. sanctions and allowing Turkey to purchase F-35s – that issue, not Afghanistan, will remain the dominant fact of US-Turkish relations. It’s a safe bet that Congress would insist Biden not stray from this S-400 conditionality, even if he were inclined to do so.
Some analysts believe that Erdoğan, in fact, is so zealous for a full-blown reset with the US and the West that he might just consider surrendering the S-400 were he not held back by his informal coalition partner, the far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The difference in post-summit rhetoric between Erdoğan and MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli is stark. Since the Biden meeting, Erdoğan has continued to project an upbeat tone, saying that the summit had inaugurated a “turning of the page” in U.S.-Turkish relations. Bahçeli, by contrast, railed against NATO and the U.S. just three days after the summit, suggesting he opposed any page-turning.
Erdoğan relies on MHP (either to vote with AKP or to abstain) for his majority in parliament. Perhaps more important, MHP cadres have reportedly also emerged dominant in the security establishment and bureaucracy -- the “deep state” – in the wake of the post-coup-attempt purging of Gülenists, reinforcing Erdoğan’s dependence on the MHP. However, rhetoric aside, it is not at all clear that there are meaningful policy differences between Erdoğan and Bahçeli, especially on the major issues that divide the US and Turkey.
Still, “reset lite” does offer some temporary advantages for Turkey. For one, it buys time, forestalling a showdown in Turkey’s ties with the West. For another, it may also muzzle U.S. criticism of Turkey somewhat. In that regard, it is possibly noteworthy that the U.S. did not say anything in response to the resumption of the closure trial against the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) last week. That silence contrasts with Administration outspokenness about the case when it was first opened in March as well as with other public criticisms of Turkey’s human-rights situation in its first weeks in office. (Still, a State Department spokesman did tweet “concern” about “prevention” of free expression and peaceful assembly following the violent suppression of the June 26 Pride march in Istanbul.*)
Conclusion: Whether or not the recent restraint is calculated, Biden officials will certainly speak out again on human rights in Turkey. It would be glaring, and embarrassing, were they not to do so, given the centrality the Administration has previously placed on human rights – both regarding Turkey and in its overall foreign-policy vision.
For now, the overall outlook for bilateral relations is less bleak than it was before the summit, but only slightly so. Turkey’s agreement to secure the Kabul airport can buy time, but ultimately U.S.-Turkish relations will be irredeemable unless the S-400 issue is resolved to Washington’s satisfaction. Absent that, Turkey’s economy and reputation in the West will continue to suffer – and saving them will be Mission Impossible.
Alan Makovsky is Senior Fellow for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress.
*Perhaps more pertinently, the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report – issued July 1, as this was being prepared for publication – called out Turkey for supporting Syrian militias that recruit child soldiers, a designation that could make Turkey subject to certain sanctions. A State Department spokesman asserted the designation would have no impact on negotiations regarding the Kabul airport.
Image Source: The White House via Flickr. Accessed July 2, 2021