Is Biden’s win an opportunity for Erdogan? The Evolving Relationship Between Turkey and the United States

Federico Jannelli

Source: Reuters

The United States and Turkey have been strong allies since 1952, as they have the first and second biggest armies in NATO. However, this friendship has suffered over recent years with the former taking on a more isolationist and unpredictable attitude and the latter disengaging from NATO, whilst taking on more “go alone” foreign policy ventures across the region.

In this article, I will argue that Erdogan will try to exploit the opportunity of having again a convinced multilateralist in the White House. Finding a compromise with Biden might bolster his image at home by solving domestic issues as well as appearing as a successful leader abroad. Biden, on the other hand, will be interested to see Turkey moving away from Russia. After years of tension, the two NATO allies might thus become closer again.

Of the various areas where Erdogan is entangled, some might be easier to find common ground with Biden. In Libya, for instance, Turkey supports the UN-recognized government in Tripoli in the decade long civil war against the warlord Khalifa Haftar. The latter is backed by an Arab coalition, composed of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Biden being a multilateralist, will also be more supportive of the government of Libya. Critically, Biden has much fewer sympathies for Saudi Arabia than Trump.

As for the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, the US is likely to be content if the situation freezes to its new status quo, which means a victory for Erdogan. It also means that Turkey and Russia remain antagonists in the Caucasus as they have been for centuries, something compatible with Biden’s preference for an encirclement of Russia.

But if Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh could be the low hanging fruits for re-igniting the old alliance, harder work will have to be done in Syria and Iraq where the Americans will be very keen to stabilize the situation, also as a means of binding the hands of Russia and Iran in that region. Today it might seem unlikely but a grand bargain is possible whereby Turkey agrees to some form of a peace deal with the Kurds and renounces the acquisition of S-400 missiles from Russia, whilst the US not only renounces all economic sanctions on Turkey but also pushes the IMF to strike an economic stabilization deal with Turkey. True, the tensions between Turkey and the Kurds have soared over the last years. Then again, in the past regional deals between Turkey and Kurdish groups have materialized, even though they never held for a long period. Critically, stabilization in Syria and Iraq would allow Erdogan to focus on the domestic economy, the troubles of which might otherwise seriously jeopardize the upcoming 2023 celebrations of the Centenary of the Turkish Republic.

Perhaps the only area where Biden might be less useful to Erdogan is in his relationship with the EU. Indeed, the territorial disputes with Greece, strongly supported by France, over control of hydrocarbon resources in the Eastern Mediterranean have no easy solution. Then again, Biden is an ally of all countries involved and thus ideally positioned to assume the role of the neutral mediator, thereby trying also to temper the tensions between Turkey and France over anti-Muslim rhetoric (Ankara’s point of view) and Muslim extremism (Paris’ point of view). As such, at a minimum Biden will find himself in the position of a mediator welcomed by all parties, including Turkey. And even if he might be unable to strike any deal that is much more than a face-saving compromise for the opposing powers, some resolution might still be possible as Turkey needs the EU as a trading partner, and the EU needs Turkey to halt uncontrolled immigration flows.

Of course, not all of the scenarios which I have just depicted are likely to unfold. There will be many possible variants. But the likelihood of a rapprochement between Turkey and Russia when Biden takes over from Trump seems quite possible and even likely.