Erdogan’s tightrope walk between East and West may soon collapse

VP Joe Biden meeting in Ankara with President Erdogan, July 24, 2016 (Photo: US State Department/Wikimedia Commons)

Ever since Pres. Joe Biden’s election last November, hundreds of articles have been published around the world analyzing the problematic relations between Turkey and the United States. Pres. Biden has made no secret of his dislike, if not outright hostility, toward Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The main points of contention between the United States and Turkey are as follows:

  1. US support for Kurdish allies in Syria which Turkey considers terrorists;
  2. Turkey’s purchase of S-400 Russian missiles which could expose NATO’s military technology to Moscow. As a result, the United States cancelled the sale of advanced F-35 jets and imposed sanctions on Turkey;
  3. US refusal to extradite the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen whom Turkey falsely accuses of inciting the coup d’état against Erdogan in 2016;
  4. Turkey’s abysmal record on human rights with the jailing of thousands of innocent civilians, journalists and judges on trumped up charges which Pres. Biden finds unacceptable.

Pres. Erdogan is following the strategy practiced by the Ottoman Empire of manipulating rival European powers against each other, by switching sides and changing partners. For example, he has declared himself to be the defender of all Muslims and particularly Palestinians, while engaging in a military partnership with Israel until recently. Another example is Turkey’s membership in the Western military alliance of NATO, while purchasing billions of dollars of sophisticated Russian missiles which are incompatible with NATO and U.S. weapons. At the same time, Erdogan is cozying up to Russia while involved in a military conflict with Russia in Syria and Libya. Turkey and Russia, two normally antagonistic countries, have also managed to find a modus vivendi in the Artsakh conflict.

The souring of relations between the US and Turkey dates back to the time of Obama’s presidency, during which Biden served as Vice President. Erdogan was annoyed with Obama after an initial friendship. However, the Turkish leader developed a privileged relationship with the United States after Donald Trump became President. It is still unclear what prompted such a warm personal affection between the two. Was it Trump’s financial interests in Turkey or his bizarre fondness for tyrants around the world? We may never know.

Nevertheless, Biden fired the first shot in a December 2019 interview with the New York Times in which he called Erdogan an ‘autocrat’ and stated that the United States should support Turkish opposition leaders “to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan. Not by a coup, but by the electoral process.”

The next awkward situation arose when Erdogan congratulated Biden a few days after the November election. Four months later, Biden has still not contacted Erdogan even though he has called many other world leaders. Erdogan must be deeply offended by this diplomatic snub.

The first indication of the Biden administration’s tough policy on Turkey became evident on January 19, 2021, during Blinken’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing, when he pointedly called Turkey a “so-called strategic partner” and raised the possibility of imposing more sanctions on that country. “The idea that a strategic — so-called strategic partner of ours — would actually be in line with one of our biggest strategic competitors in Russia is not acceptable,” Blinken said. “I think we need to take a look to see the impact that the existing sanctions have had and then determine whether more needs to be done.”

Blinken’s critical comments on Turkey were later reaffirmed by US national security advisor Jake Sullivan who described Turkey as “an ally that in many ways… is not acting as an ally and this is a very, very significant challenge for us and we’re very clear-eyed about it.” Sullivan placed Turkey in the same category as China.

On Feb. 5, 2021, the Pentagon confirmed that the Biden administration has no intention of lifting the sanctions on Turkey for purchasing the Russian missiles. Turkey’s “decision to purchase the S-400 is inconsistent with Turkey’s commitments as a U.S. and NATO ally,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said. “Our position has not changed… We urge Turkey not to retain the S-400 system… Turkey had multiple opportunities over the last decade to purchase the Patriot defense system from the United States and instead chose to purchase the S-400, which provides Russia revenue, access and influence,” Kirby said.

To make matters worse, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soslu repeated in early February the baseless accusation that the United States was behind the abortive Turkish coup in 2016. State Department spokesman Ned Price issued a sharp rebuke, calling the allegations made by the Turkish Minister as “wholly false.” They “are inconsistent with Turkey’s status as a NATO ally and strategic partner of the United States,” added Price.

Another contentious issue is the in absentia Turkish trial of American professor Henri Barkey of Lehigh University on false charges of aiding the 2016 coup. The US State Department called the accusations against Prof. Barkey baseless.

On Feb. 10, 2021, the U.S. State Department called on Turkey to immediately release from jail Turkish philanthropist and human rights activist Osman Kavala who has been detained for more than three years without a conviction. Kavala was falsely accused of trying to overthrow the Turkish government with Prof. Barkey during the 2016 failed coup. The State Dept. urged Turkey to comply with a European Court of Human Rights ruling in late 2019 that Kavala be released.

On February 15, 2021, when Blinken finally called Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, he urged Turkey not to retain the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

Last December, when the United States placed sanctions against Turkey for the purchase of the Russian missiles, the Turkish Foreign Ministry arrogantly warned: “Turkey will take the necessary steps against this decision, which will negatively affect our relations and will retaliate in a manner and timing it deems appropriate.”

Turkey is still attempting to find a way to circumvent the U.S. sanctions. On February 1, 2021, it hired Arnold & Porter, a major American lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., to resolve the dispute with the U.S. government over the Russian missiles. The contract was signed with the Ankara-based SSTEK Defense Industry Technologies, owned by the Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB), Ankara’s main defense industry authority. SSTEK agreed to pay Arnold & Porter $750,000 for six months to give Turkey “strategic advice and outreach” to U.S. authorities.

It is highly doubtful that Turkey will be able to resolve the dispute regarding the Russian missiles through its hired lobbyist. Interestingly, the contract with SSTEK specified that Arnold & Porter “does not make any promises or guarantees” about the outcome. “If the matter does not reach a successful conclusion, for any reason, SSTEK shall still be responsible for all fees and disbursements charged by the firm under the terms of this agreement.” It is noteworthy that at a time when the Turkish economy is on the verge of collapse and the Turkish people are in dire financial straits, Pres. Erdogan is wasting $750,000 of Turkish taxpayers’ money on useless lobbying.

It remains to be seen if Turkey’s tightrope walking skills will succeed in maintaining the Russian missiles and evade the US sanctions. Should Turkey be forced to get rid of the missiles, it will have to face the consequences of a major disruption in its relations with Russia. Turkey will then have to choose either the East or the West. It will no longer be able to fool both sides. Biden and Blinken are too experienced to fall for Erdogan’s tricks.

The title of a recent article by journalist Nicholas Morgan describes best the state of U.S.-Turkish relations: “Is Turkey Biden’s Ally from Hell?” We will find out shortly.

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Harut Sassounian

California Courier Editor
Harut Sassounian is the publisher of The California Courier, a weekly newspaper based in Glendale, Calif. He is the president of the Armenia Artsakh Fund, a non-profit organization that has donated to Armenia and Artsakh $917 million of humanitarian aid, mostly medicines, since 1989 (including its predecessor, the United Armenian Fund). He has been decorated by the presidents of Armenia and Artsakh and the heads of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. He is also the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

6 Comments

  1. Lets face it. NO one likes Turks. Especially the Europeans who know all too well the Turkish traits and history of invasion, rape, murder, theft and oppression, and understand it being a most untrustworthy race. It was Turkey that thwarted the 4th US infantry during the Iraq invasion. It is Turkey that is one of the most human right violating countries on this planet. It is NATO member Turkey that today buys Russian military equipment. It is Turkey that is claiming stake to Greek territories to exploit oil and gas for its own benefit. This is all understood.

    The years of purposeful white washing comes from the Donemeh controlled media and lobbying groups and the US State department, portraying Turks as “friends”, “just like you and me”, and “a wonderful safe place to visit” and a most important “American ally”.. We all know its nonsense. Yet because of the reality of its strategic location and Incirlik air base, which was stolen from an Armenian family during the AG BTW, Turkey seems to avoid any consequences. They are politically cunning and have consistently gotten a pass from all American administrations. In Trumps case, hes morally bankrupt and admires dictators and criminal types. No big surprise there. Obama’s complete weaseling on his pledge to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide is another example of Turkish appeasement. However, the recent sanctions and American and Greek military drills near Turkish “borders”, may just be a turning point but its too early to tell. Will Pres Biden utter the word “GENOCIDE” this April 24th? Highly unlikely. As in the past, it will be used as a tool to real in Turkish expansion and adventurism and its counter productive behavior. Nothing will change, Turkey will get yet another pass and history will repeat itself. Unfortunately..

  2. It is in Armenia’s interest for Turkey to be close to the West and have bad relations with Russia. When Russia thinks it can pull Turkey away from the West, it sacrifices Armenian interests and even territory to do so. That happened 100 years ago with the Turkish-Armenian War; it happened recently with Artsakh.

  3. I don’t believe things are as simple as “Turkey bought Russian missiles so now the USA has a problem with Turkey”. It may be true, but then again it may not be true. It’s always a cat and mouse game with the USA and Russia with Turkey always getting the benefits, and Armenia always suffering because of it.

    For example, how do we know that the USA is not the one pushing for Turkey to purchase Russian missile systems? That could be to show a fake conflict between two “allies” at first, a similar game played by Turkey and Israel from time to time. It could also be to study the system. It makes me wonder if Turkey studied the Russian missile system and figured out a way to locate it as a result during a conflict, and capitalized on that knowledge on behalf of Azerbaijan against the naive and inept “leaders” of Armenia trying to use the system in the last fake war in Artsakh, albeit an inferior version of it.

    One has to also laugh how Turkey is in NATO, yet Russia sells them S-400 system, and Russia is supposedly Armenia’s “ally” and Armenia gets stuck with outdated Soviet JUNK (ineffective S-300).

    Here is another funny one, funny as in how militarily inept and impotent Armenia’s “leadership” is. After Turkey announced it’s deal with Russia to purchase an advanced missile system that can shoot down modern warplanes, Armenia announces a purchase of advanced Russian warplanes with funds that it does not have and that could probably be shot down by what Turkey just purchased. And to top it off, those planes cannot enter any combat service any time soon because they did not yet have any missiles available to Armenia.

    Seriously, are Armenian “leaders” this incompetent? A school child who plays Call of Duty video games can make better military decisions than these people with supposedly “a century of military relations with close ally Russia”.

  4. I agree with everything you wrote, except the part that Biden is “highly unlikely” he will utter the word genocide on April 24. I suggest you don’t stick your neck out to make such a prediction. Prophecy is a dangerous profession. It’s best to say, we don’t know if Biden will or will not. That way you won’t be embarrassed either way. That’s what I would say. What would you do if Biden ends up recognizing the Genocide? It will be embarrassing for you.

    • No I agree no one has a crystal ball or can predict the future. But history does have a habit of repeating itself. I remember Obama sending Susan Powers to the Armenian community proclaiming that he will acknowledge the truth of the Armenian genocide and that a policy ignoring truth is an ‘untenable policy’. Then, a Presidential candidate Obama specifically said, “Two years ago, I criticized the Secretary of State for the firing of U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, after he properly used the term ‘genocide’ to describe Turkey’s slaughter of thousands of Armenians starting in 1915. … as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.” We know in all 8 years as President, every April 24th, Obama avoided the word GENOCIDE… That is why I have doubts.

      If Pres Biden this April 24th does finally acknowledge the AG as Genocide, it wont be embarrassing at all. On the contrary, it will be a joyous day for me and for my grandparents, whose family members were destroyed and who’s lands were stolen, and for all Armenians whose lives were destroyed. If President Biden bucks the 106 year trend, I plan on law suits as I have deeds to lands stolen. Turks understand this well. That’s why State Department beck channels will take over and Biden will follow history and make a water down acknowledgment of the “Armenian massacres” like all the others, other the Reagan who said it only one time. I hope I’m wrong..

      BTW I very much enjoy your articles. They are well written and well thought out and bring great perspective…

  5. I understand that it is good to have optimism, but this is delusional. Being a human rights violator is not something that makes or breaks a relationship with the USA. Americans don’t care about that as much as people think they do. Also, Erdogan is not going to be the leader forever, and it looks like others in the Turkish government are trying to get him to tone down his vitriolic remarks.

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