Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting

President Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are heading into their first face-to-face meeting in Brussels with the goal of stabilizing a necessary but troubled relationship.

Washington and Ankara are strategic partners in global affairs and will meet on the sidelines of the NATO summit on Monday, but they have long-standing tensions over a host of geopolitical issues.

At the top is Turkey’s possession of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, a key point of conflict with its NATO ally members.

But Biden has signaled he wants to avoid direct confrontation with Ankara, having directly communicated with the Turkish president ahead of his decision to recognize the Armenian genocide, which Turkey rejects.

The president is also entering the meeting from a greater position of strength compared to Erdoğan, whose domestic political popularity has plummeted amid a financial crisis in Turkey and whose meddling and provocations in global conflicts have made him a NATO problem child.

“Biden doesn’t have much interest in or expectations from Erdoğan beyond pursuing a few transactional deals, such as further U.S.-Turkish cooperation in Afghanistan and Ankara de-escalating tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean in exchange for Euro-American goodwill,” said Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey program with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a former member of the Turkish Parliament.

“For Erdoğan, the stakes are higher,” he continued, pointing to the Turkish president’s push to walk back tense relations with the U.S. and NATO as a way to help relieve an economic crisis and a downturn in the Turkish lira. 

“The Turkish president is desperate to offer this meeting to domestic and global investors as proof that bilateral relations are improving,” Erdemir said.

That strategy was reinforced Friday as the lira increased in value against the dollar, Bloomberg reported, just as the Turkish defense minister suggested a detente with the U.S. is in the works over the S-400.

“We are open and transparent in all talks [on the S-400 issue]” Defense Minister Hulusi Akar reportedly said at the opening of a NATO building in Istanbul. “Reasonable and logical solutions are always possible.”

Erdoğan — whose popularity is built on a form of nationalist populism — enjoyed a large degree of impunity during former President Trump’s term.

But the relationship soured over Turkey’s offensive in northeastern Syria against Kurdish forces partnered with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.

One of Trump’s final actions in office was to lift a hold on congressionally mandated sanctions on Turkey over the S-400 system.

The Biden administration has maintained strong criticism against the S-400, saying the Russian technology is an intelligence and security threat to U.S. and NATO operations in the region.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Thursday rejected that the Biden administration is open to any sort of compromise over Turkey’s continued possession of the Russia-made system.

“It’s incompatible with Turkey’s status as a NATO ally,” Price said.

Erdoğan holds pariah status in Washington, where his security forces have attacked U.S. Secret Service members and violently beat anti-Turkey protesters, an extension of the Turkish president’s own heavy-handed tactics toward domestic opposition which has drawn criticism from the U.S., allies and international human rights groups.

Biden took a tough stance on Turkey during his campaign for president — calling out Turkey’s involvement on the side of Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia last fall and criticizing Trump for “coddling Ankara.”

Since taking office, Biden’s State Department has issued a number of critical statements against Turkey — rejecting the country’s claims the U.S. was involved in a 2016 coup attempt; labeling as “specious” criminal charges against a Turkish businessman and American academic related to the coup; criticizing the stifling of political opposition; and calling out Erdoğan for antisemitic comments amid Israel’s military conflict with Hamas last month.

But the president has also sought a more measured tone in his direct communication with Erdoğan. In April, Biden held his first call with the Turkish leader, which was widely regarded as an effort to offset tensions ahead of the president’s recognition of the Armenian genocide.

“The reaction in Turkey to that announcement wasn’t as big as one would have thought,” said Berkay Mandıracı, the International Crisis Group’s Turkey analyst.

Genocide recognition is a red line for Ankara, which disputes modern-day Turkey’s responsibility for atrocities committed by the Ottoman Empire.

“The Turkish leadership, although there were statements of condemnation about it, there was not a big hype around it.”

But Biden is under pressure to more firmly address human rights issues in Turkey. In February, a bipartisan majority of senators called on Biden to more forcefully confront Erdoğan over human rights abuses.

“We urge you to emphasize to President Erdogan and his administration that they should immediately end their crackdown on dissent at home and abroad, release political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, and reverse their authoritarian course,” the 54 senators wrote.

Likewise, a House letter sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in March and signed by 170 Republican and Democratic lawmakers called for the U.S. to prioritize human rights in its dealings with Turkey.

Deniz Yuksel, Turkey advocacy specialist with Amnesty International, said that while Biden has sought to take a more measured tone in office to create stability in the U.S.-Turkey relationship, he has committed publicly to putting human rights at the center of his foreign policy.

“Biden will definitely have to raise [human rights] issues in the meeting,” she said. “I think the question is how forceful that’s going to be, how specific that’s going to be. … But I think they have made too many commitments to promoting human rights, both globally and in Turkey, specifically, to be able to avoid the issue altogether.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a briefing with reporters on Wednesday that the Biden-Erdoğan meeting is an opportunity for face-to-face diplomacy to “constructively work together where there’s opportunity, and also areas where we have strong disagreement.”

Turkey holds the keys to important security issues for the U.S. and Europe, including in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, where Biden is working with NATO allies to coordinate the withdrawal of its forces.

Turkey also maintains close ties with Ukraine, a valued relationship in the face of Russian aggression, despite Ankara’s outreach with Moscow.

“Turkey really values its role within NATO and I think the fact that the Biden administration wants to go back to a more institutional way of dealings, and foreign policy, is emphasizing the role of NATO and the transatlantic alliance, I think that that’s something that is also in Turkey’s interest,” Mandıracı said.

Yet Ankara’s play to prove useful in Afghanistan suffered a setback on Thursday, with the Taliban rejecting an offer by Turkey to provide security assistance, Reuters reported, saying Turkish forces should withdraw alongside the U.S. and NATO.

“This is likely to force Erdoğan to come up with an alternative leverage on Monday in search of a transactional deal with Biden,” said Erdemir, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

Tags Antony Blinken Donald Trump ISIS Jen Psaki Joe Biden Kurds NATO Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Russia Turkey US Vladimir Putin
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