US-Turkey relations: the past, the future

What happened in the US-Turkey relations in the year 2021 signals what might happen in 2022. In the photo from left to right: Turkey’s Foreign minister Çavuşoğlu, President Erdoğan, the US President Biden and US Secretary of State Blinken at a meeting on Oct. 31, 2021 in Rome. (Photo: Presidency)

The year 2021 was a bumpy road for US-Turkey relations. Remembering what has happened since the beginning of the year would allow us to understand what is happening more comprehensively and foresee what might happen in US-Turkey relations in 2022. 

What happened in 2021?

First, US President Joe Biden recognized April 24 as the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. He made his first phone call as the President to President Tayyip Erdogan to say this the day before. Erdogan opened the phone with an expectation that his request for a face-to-face meeting -which he already shared with the public- would be accepted. It was one of the reasons why Turkey did not react, if not protest, to this issue, for which it has spent incredible energy and money for years.

Erdogan held the first face-to-face meeting with Biden during the NATO summit in Brussels on June 14. Biden said the United States has common interests with Turkey, but the S-400 missiles purchased from Russia prevented Congress from taking any action. Biden also turned down Erdogan’s request to cut support for the PKK/YPG in Syria; they would continue to use it against ISIS.

US-Turkey relations seemed to revive in the summer months with the decision of the USA to withdraw from Afghanistan. However, this revival was not enough to meet Erdogan’s demand to hold a meeting with Biden in the USA, where he went for the UN General Assembly. So instead, Erdogan’s Security and Foreign Policy Advisor, İbrahim Kalın, met with Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan.

F-35, F-16, Kavala incident

The USA officially removed Turkey from the joint venture F-35 project, on September 23, on the grounds of the purchase of the S-400s and CAATSA sanctions against Russia. In addition, on September 30, Turkey applied to the United States to purchase 40 new F-16 aircraft and 80 modernization kits, citing NATO defense.

Erdogan and Biden held their second meeting in Rome, where they went for the G-20 Summit, on October 31. Despite Erdogan’s request for a face-to-face meeting, there was a meeting between the delegations with the foreign ministers Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Antony Blinken and security officials. The Biden administration emphasized that it favours establishing relations between states and institutions, not individuals like Trump and Erdogan.

The last crisis of 2021 was when 10 Western Ambassadors to Ankara, including the US Ambassador to Ankara David Satterfield, made a statement to release imprisoned philanthropist Osman Kavala. Erdogan first demanded the ambassadors to be deported as “persona non grata”. However, with the efforts of Çavuşoğlu and Kalın and with mutual steps, the crisis was eased.

What’s going on?

At this point, we can list what is happening in US-Turkey relations as follows:

1- Issues of disagreement: The S-400 issue is the most critical issue for the United States, and it is expected from Turkey to take a step back. For Turkey, this is not even a question. Erdogan announced that talks with Russia on the second party purchase are continuing. It seems that the way back to the F-35 program is closed.

Another point of contention is that the US does not stop supporting the YPG in Syria.

Disputes over the extradition of Fethullah Gülen also another issue. While Ankara wants Gülen’s extradition on the ground that he was the organizer of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, Washington refuses to extradite or prosecute, stating that the documents that Turkey submitted for the extradition are not in line with the standards and are not sufficient.

Turkish sources say that all three issues were discussed, but American sources do not confirm.

Issues of progression and mutual understanding

2- Issues of progress: It can be said that the US-Turkey relations on two issues were not as tense as a year ago. These are North-East Syria and the East Mediterranean.

Although the United States continues to support the PKK’s Syrian branch, YPG, against ISIS, it no longer responds to Turkey’s attack on the PKK and its affiliates in Syria (and Iraq) unless its personnel and equipment are damaged.

In the Eastern Mediterranean, the resumption of talks between Turkey and Greece has reduced the tension. Neither the US, Europe, nor Russia believes that Turkey and Greece will reach an agreement, but the tension is under control as long as they negotiate.

3- Issues of mutual ground: Turkey and the USA have similar opinions on four issues. These are Ukraine, North-West Syria, South Caucasus and Libya. The concern of balancing the presence of China and Russia in Africa plays a role in the USA’s agreement with Turkey regarding Libya.

In the other three issues, it seems that the primary concern of the USA is to take a stance against Russia. It is also important that the United States supports the rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia after Azerbaijan ended Armenia’s occupation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

What will happen in US-Turkey relations?

First of all, there will be a new US Ambassador in Ankara. Jeff Flake, appointed by Biden in July, will take over from Satterfield in the first week of January. After Erdogan appointed Murat Mercan, a political ambassador to Washington, Biden also appointed an ambassador to Ankara, who comes from a political background, not diplomatic. Flake is a name that comes from Congress. Turkey’s real problem is with Congress.

Since the summer, Erdogan switched to unsharpened rhetoric in foreign policy simultaneously with the recession in the economy. As a result, the steps of rapprochement with Greece, Egypt, UAE, Israel and Armenia are also welcomed in the USA and Europe. But will these steps soften Congress’s attitute towards Turkey? There are currently no signs in this direction.

Even though it is outside of the scope of the CAATSA sanctions and supported by the Biden administration, when the F-16 purchase is presented to the Congress, the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate can still vote while preoccupied with their strong opposition to Russia and the image of Erdogan in their heads, stuck on the S-400 issue. Moreover, technical talks on the F-16 are not expected to reach to a certain level before the summer of 2022. And as for the approval, it will probably be postponed to the 2023 elections process.


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