Monday, 11 March 2024

Turkey and the United States: A Relationship Restored? Featured

Published in Articles

By Barçın Yinanç

March 11, 2024

The diplomatic traffic between Ankara and Washington on handling Sweden’s NATO entry process is emblematic of the erosion of trust between the two allied countries. Nonetheless, Turkey’s ratification of Sweden’s NATO membership and the Biden administration’s subsequent acquiescence to the F-16 sale to Turkey – and the suggestion that Turkey might even be invited back to the F-35 program if it gets rid of its Russian S400 missiles – have restored the bilateral relationship, even though there is still a gap of mistrust between the two allies that will take time to bridge. The crisis in the Middle East compels the U.S and Turkey to cooperate closer but Ankara and Washington will still need to make a sustained effort to rebuild their mutual confidence that the missteps of both sides have eroded.

 

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BACKGROUND: On January 23, 2024, Turkey’s parliament endorsed Sweden’s accession to NATO, ending nearly two years of delay and leaving only Hungary standing in the way of Stockholm's membership in the military alliance. The 20 months that passed after Sweden asked to join NATO following Russia's invasion of Ukraine have seen not only negotiations between the Nordic country and Turkey but also between Ankara and Washington. Turkey initially objected to Sweden as well as to Finland which also abandoned its traditional position of military nonalignment to seek protection under NATO, accusing both of being too lenient toward groups that Ankara regards as security threats. Yet, on March 30, 2023, Turkey became the last NATO member to ratify Finland's membership as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Helsinki had secured his blessing after taking concrete steps to keep promises to crack down on groups seen by Ankara as terrorists, and to free up defense exports. The ratification of Finland also served to debunk claims that Turkey was blocking the two countries' bid to please Russia.

By contrast, street protests by the sympathizers of the Kurdistan Workers Party, (PKK) which is recognized as a terrorist organization by Sweden, as well as Quran-burning protests complicated the talks with Stockholm. Meanwhile, Turkey’s argument against Sweden that maintaining links to groups that are hostile to a NATO member as well as imposing an arms embargo on it does not align with the spirit of alliance solidarity was also valid for the United States. While Ankara’s claim that the People’s Protection Units (YPG) is the PKK’s wing in Syria is no longer contested by Washington, the Biden administration nonetheless remained deaf to Turkey’s call to stop supporting the armed group and Washington initially tried to stay away from the talks between Ankara and Stockholm.

However, Sweden’s bid for NATO accession coincided with Turkey’s demand to buy 40 F-16 fighter jets and modernization kits to compensate for the loss it suffered after Washington sanctioned Turkey for its purchase of the S400 anti-defense missile system from Russia and ejected Turkey from the F-35 program. While Turkey’s plans to acquire fifth-generation fighter jets were dashed, its neighbor Greece decided to reinforce its air force by requesting to buy 20 F-35s.

As Ankara was initially tipped by Washington via unofficial channels to request to buy F-16s, Erdoğan assumed the administration was willing to realize the sale. Yet, not only Turkey’s democratic backsliding, but the deterioration of relations between Ankara and Athens throughout 2022 put the consent of the Congress at risk, especially after the Greek Prime Minister’s 2022 May visit to Washington where he asked Congress not to sell F-16s to Turkey. Soon the issue became a chicken and egg paradox. While Ankara tried to use Sweden’s ratification to secure Congressional approval, US congressmen made the approval of the F-16 sale conditional on the ratification of Sweden’s NATO membership. Some Congressmen even made the sale conditional on Turkey taking a less belligerent stance against Greece. Fearing the Congress might not deliver even after parliamentary ratification, Ankara dragged its feet, asking the Biden administration to make the official notification before the Turkish parliament took the final step.

The Biden administration had initially put the sales to both Greece and Turkey in the same package to neutralize any possible objection to Turkey from Congress, which would have meant a delay in the sale to Greece. In the end though, Washington threatened to separate the two dossiers and send the formal notification for Greece in the case Ankara was set to further delay the ratification.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is reported to have conveyed this message during his visit to Turkey on January 6. Soon after, the vote took place in the Turkish parliament. Yet this was still not enough for Washington. The day after the vote, President Joe Biden sent a letter to leaders of key Capitol Hill committees informing them of his intention to sell F-16s to Turkey, which was short of a formal notification. However, as U.S. ambassador to Ankara Jeffrey Flake made clear in an interview, the State Department would send Congress notification of the $23 billion F-16s sale only after the Turkish formal ratification document had been received in Washington. Erdoğan did not drag his feet. He promptly signed the ratification as soon as it was published in the official gazette on Thursday, January 25. The “instrument of accession,” was rushed to Washington by special courier to make it in time before the week end. The U.S. State Department formally notified Congress of the F-16 sale to Turkey on Friday 25 January.

IMPLICATIONS: The diplomatic traffic between Ankara and Washington on handling Sweden’s NATO entry process is emblematic of the erosion of trust between the two allied countries. Turkey expected that the formal notification of the F-16 sale was going to be sent to the Congress soon after the Turkish parliament had endorsed Sweden’s NATO membership. Yet fearing a last-minute hiccup up from Ankara – and as the United States is the depositor country for all the instruments of accession – the Biden administration waited to see the actual ratification document arrive in the U.S., before it moved ahead with the formal notification. Turkey’s ratification of Sweden’s NATO accession and the U.S. green-light to the F-16 sale to Turkey removes major hurdles in the U.S.-Turkey relationship. Yet there is still a gap of distrust to bridge.

Cooperation between the two militaries was downgraded to the minimum after the 2016 failed coup attempt that Turkey suspected enjoyed U.S. support. Military exchange visits resumed only last year when the US aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford in August made a port call to Antalya on the Turkish Mediterranean coast. However, the positive air dissipated when U.S. forces on October 5 shut down an armed Turkish drone in northern Syria that the U.S. military claimed threatened its troops. This was the first time that an aircraft of a NATO member was brought down by an ally. Erdoğan was incensed. He stated that “we have a security problem with the United States,” and vowed that Turkey would “respond appropriately in due time.”

Although Turkish officials appear optimistic that the United States could soon envisage ceasing its support to the YPG, the Pentagon has denied media reports that the Biden administration may be considering a full withdrawal of American troops from Syria in 2024. Nonetheless, the war in Ukraine as well as the escalating tensions in the Middle East dictates an increased dialogue between the two allies. The day after the Turkish ratification document arrived in Washington, U.S. Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland flew to Ankara and indicated a willingness to buy 155mm artillery shells from Turkey to ship to Ukraine. Nuland also stated to the Turkish press that the U.S. could welcome back Turkey to the F-35 joint production program if a solution was to be found to the S400s that Turkey has purchased from Russia.

Erdoğan’s initial backing of Hamas diminished Turkey’s chances to play a meaningful role in the deepening crisis in the Middle East and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has notably only visited Turkey once since October 7, 2023. Yet the targeting of U.S. forces in the region followed by Washington’s retaliatory attacks on Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria has reinforced the need for closer coordination between the U.S. and Turkey. Meanwhile, Turkey’s normalization of its ties with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and most recently with Egypt – which hosted Erdoğan in mid-February – is bound to positively affect its developing dialogue with Washington.

CONCLUSIONS: The Biden administration’s approach to Turkey has been defined by what was termed “strategic patience,” indeed even “strategic indifference,” and there has been limited engagement at the leadership level. Biden and Erdoğan have had only brief bilateral meetings at the margin of international summits and it is unlikely that Biden will host Erdoğan in the White House. Nonetheless, Turkey’s ratification of Sweden’s NATO membership and the Biden administration’s subsequent acquiescence to the F-16 sale to Turkey – and the suggestion that Turkey might even be invited back to the F-35 program if it gets rid of its Russian S400 missiles – have restored the bilateral relationship, even though there is still a gap of mistrust between the two allies that will take time to bridge.

But the crisis in the Middle East compels the U.S and Turkey to cooperate closer. The fact that Turkey has normalized its relations with traditional U.S allies in the Middle East and that Erdoğan has toned down his inflammatory rhetoric against the West that he initially slammed when Israel attacked Gaza speak of a course correction that will ease Turkish-American relations. The unexplained cancellation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s scheduled February visit to Turkey may well attest to Turkey’s Western pivot.

Yet Ankara and Washington will still need to apply themselves to rebuild their mutual confidence that the missteps of both sides during the last decade have eroded.

 

Barçın Yinanç is a foreign policy commentator at the Turkish news site t24

 

Read 1561 times Last modified on Monday, 11 March 2024

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.

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