Turkey’s political and economic agenda is locked in a meeting between President Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Joe Biden within the framework of the NATO summit on June 14. This meeting is important but not only in terms of the future of bilateral relations, which have been tested by serious crises in recent years. As a matter of fact, Erdoğan has other important bilateral contacts on the sidelines of the NATO summit on June 13 and 14 June in Brussels. These include his meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Greek Prime Minister Nikos Mitsotakis. Erdoğan wants to redefine Turkey’s relations with the West during his Brussels tour as Biden wants to retake the leadership of the West in his Europe visit which covers the G7, NATO and EU summits, three key events between June 10 and 16, before his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In fact, the Erdoğan-Biden meeting has been concluded as a result of diplomacy that has lasted for the last two months, and if no unplanned and unexpected tension comes up, what remains is a photo opportunity for the press. The framework was outlined in a phone call between Erdoğan’s Security and Foreign Policy Advisor İbrahim Kalın and the U.S. President’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on June 12:
1- Focus on NATO and other strategic cooperation fields
2- Mutual interests and respect.
These are not empty words, I will elaborate on them. Within that framework, the issues of Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus are included as well as the “bilateral” problems, especially Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles.
On the day that the statement on this framework was made, Kalın was in Libya as part of a delegation headed by Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, along with Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu and National Interrigence Organization (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan. Following his meeting with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Drian in Paris on June 7, Çavuşoğlu said on June 10 that France and the United States could work with Turkey in Africa, definitely against the Chinese and Russian influence, although Çavuşoğlu did not mention it.
In the same broadcast on state-run TRT, Çavuşoğlu said the S-400 issue was over. He also left the door open for the purchase of the Franco-Italian co-production SAMP-T missile defense systems used by NATO, although he did not speak of U.S.-made Patriots. The feasibility of the trade was about to be concluded but it was suspended by France in October 2019 after Turkey’s Afrin (Peace Spring) operation in Syria. It would not be a surprise if these issues were brought up in the Erdoğan-Macron meeting.
There is also the issue of Afghanistan. The U.S. administration keeps this issue on the agenda, especially in terms of explaining the need for Turkey to Congress.
However, Turkey should not remain as a guard on watch in Afghanistan. Another issue that the Biden administration could use to stop Congress’ insistence on sanctions on Turkey -if, for example, Turkey does not purchase new S-400 missiles from Russia, is that Ankara and Athens have started to talk again and tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, including those about Cyprus, have eased. Turkish cooperation with U.S. companies in the exploration and extraction of oil and gas in the Mediterranean and Black Seas may also come into play.
These issues concerning Turkey draw the line of NATO’s southern and easter border: Namely Libya, (in cooperation with Greece) the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus, Syria, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and Iraq within the framework of Turkey’s fight against the outlawed PKK, if we go a little north, the Black Sea and Ukraine. This is the line of balancing the Russian (and Iranian) influence.
The creation of a “South policy” for NATO is a part of the 2030 plan that will be discussed at the NATO summit. The 2030 Plan was not prepared independently from Turkey. Among those who created the plan was Turkish diplomat Tacan İldem as NATO Deputy Secretary General. Turkey’s active role in this line against a possible reaction by Russia shows its intention to redefine its relations with the West and take part in it.
Redefining ties but according to what?
And the issue of “mutual interests and respect.”
There are two aspects of Biden’s effort to redefine the U.S. role with the West (against a rising China and Sino-Russian alliance). One of them is repairing the U.S. relations damaged under Donald Trump and the other is the post-pandemic world. Finding more space in the reshaping of the post-pandemic world is among Erdoğan’s goals, too. But Erdoğan has one more breaking point other than the pandemic – the July 15, 2016, military coup attempt.
Erdoğan, like many in Turkey, sees the support of the U.S. administration through the political Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania, behind this initiative. This view has a share in even Erdoğan’s decision to buy the S-400 from Russia, despite the U.S. opposition. Erdoğan’s launch of his first military operation in Syria, just five weeks after the coup attempt, was both a show of strength that can be interpreted as “I’m not down, I’m still standing” and a manifestation of autonomy from the U.S.-NATO system. After that point, Turkey moved on to
fulfill the minimum of its NATO responsibilities, no longer asking the United States or NATO about its own defense needs.
This policy succeeded in three operations in Syria against the YPG, the Syria wing of the PKK, as well as the Libyan and Azerbaijan-Armenia conflicts amid debates on a shift of axis, Muslim Brotherhood and neo-Ottomanism. The Eastern Mediterranean moves, which have now been withdrawn, have shown that the balance of the Eastern Mediterranean cannot be established by excluding Turkey, and how important Turkey’s Black Sea support is for Ukraine. Not only diplomatic moves, but also the cooperation between the Turkish Armed Forces and the MIT also played a role in this. Erdoğan is encouraged by the results achieved in these “autonomous” military moves when he says, “If you have national interests, we have, too, you should respect us.”
The emphasis on “mutual interest and respect” after the Kalın-Sullivan talk is a reference to that.
Therefore, a realistic expectation from the Erdoğan-Biden meeting is a balance in two leading mutual problems -S-400 and Syria/PKK-YPG- to pave the way for other issues.
Still, there is another dimension. While Erdogğan made these high-risk moves in foreign policy, he retracted a significant part of the democratization steps he took in cooperation with the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the early 2000s within the framework of harmonization with the EU. The decline in the independence and impartiality of the judiciary, rights and freedoms, freedom of the press, expression and organization, and his close relations with Russian leader Vladimir Putin despite NATO, led to labeling of Erdoğan as an “authoritarian” leader and “Sultan” in the West.
Erdogan hoped that the military moves that helped him occupy a new place in international politics would cause the world to accept him as he is. This does not look that easy. I say this despite the hypocrisy of the U.S. and EU that the boundaries of interest in democracy and human rights issues in Turkey have been drawn by military and commercial interests and despite the rise of authoritarianism around the world.
While Erdoğan is waiting for Turkey to redefine Turkey’s relations with the West under his rule, he should also see that the administrative system in Turkey, which has turned into a one-man rule and makes the economy even more fragile, and the decline in democratic rights and freedoms are not sustainable. He should also see that it is no longer possible to maintain relations with the West only on a military basis.