A Sense of Foreboding in Ankara
There is a sense of foreboding in Ankara regarding Joe Biden’s presidency. Presidents Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared to be kindred spirits and Trump went a long way in protecting Ankara against the bipartisan consensus in Congress to sanction Turkey. The government in Ankara will have a long list of expectations from the Biden administration, mostly things it would like it not to do. The two most critical ones are not sanctioning Turkey and not revitalizing the U.S. cooperation with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria.
Turkey has paid for and received S400 missile defense systems from Russia, a transaction that falls under the scope of the U.S. Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA.) Despite bipartisan pressure from Congress to implement sanctions immediately, Trump has held off on a decision. Other pieces of legislation for sanctioning Turkey were put on hold by Senate Majority Leader Mitch O’Connell in line with Trump’s approach. However, Turkey was removed from the F35 program and two jets it had paid for were not delivered. Another ongoing legal challenge is an indictment by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York of Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank for allegedly setting up a scheme to evade sanctions to Iran. This process could potentially lead to a massive fine imposed on Halkbank by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
Turkey’s economy is in a very vulnerable state and CAATSA sanctions or an OFAC fine could have a severe impact—and the two combined could be devastating. The government will expect the Biden administration to help on these two issues. If that help is not forthcoming, President Erdoğan can be expected to call early parliamentary and presidential elections, asking voters to “rally around the flag” in the face of an external attack.
Turkey regards the PYD as the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the EU, and organic links between the PKK and PYD are hard to miss, with the latter having the upper hand in the relationship. Therefore, the decision of the United States to work with the PYD against Islamic State in Syria has been one of the biggest thorns in the U.S.-Turkish relationship. Turkey delivered heavy blows to the PYD through its Operation Olive Branch in northwest Syria in 2018 and Operation Peace Spring in northeast Syria in 2019. Operation Peace Spring also led to the decision by the Trump administration to downsize the U.S. support to PYD. While the situation currently looks sustainable for Turkey, a decision by the Biden administration to revitalize cooperation with the PYD would almost certainly escalate tension. Hence, Turkey will expect the Biden administration to disengage from the PYD.
The Biden administration will also have a long list of expectations from Turkey. The two most urgent ones will be to realign with NATO policies and to deescalate in the Eastern Mediterranean. When people talk about Turkey drifting away from NATO, they are usually talking about its relationship with Russia, but that relationship, which can be characterized as competitive cooperation, is a complicated one. The two countries have launched a rapprochement after the failed coup attempt in Turkey in 2015, and Turkey has acquired S400 missile defense systems from Russia. On the other hand, they are engaged in proxy wars in Syria and Libya (and briefly in Nagorno-Karabakh.) The Biden administration will expect Ankara to get rid of the S400s and contribute to U.S. efforts to contain Russia.
Turkey has lately been relying on its military to manage the challenges it faces in the Eastern Mediterranean, with the intervention in Libya and the mobilization of the navy around Castellorizo Island being cases in point. The Biden administration can be expected to pressure Turkey to refrain from this policy in the future and even to take a more pro-Greece position.
One of the red lines for Turkey will be the Biden administration asking Ankara to normalize its relationship with the PYD. There is a broad consensus in Turkey that the PYD is an offshoot of the PKK and, given that Erdoğan is practically ruling through a nationalist alliance, such a course of action would diminish his chances of winning the next presidential election.
As summarized above, therefore, mutual expectations between Turkey and the Biden administration will not go beyond not making an already bad situation even worse.
This is part of our series on the policy implications of the 2020 U.S. elections for U.S. allies—you’ll find the rest of the series HERE.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.