On October 31, 2021, during the G20 Summit in Rome, President Erdoğan is going to meet with U.S. President Biden. This will be their second meeting in a couple of months after Biden came to the White House.
SETA experts discuss the possible topics that will come to the fore during the meeting and their impact on the future bilateral relations.
Gloria Shkurti Özdemir
Coordinator, Washington DC
Biden-Erdoğan meeting, F-16 deal, and Congress’ opposition: How would this play out?
The Biden-Erdoğan meeting at the upcoming G20 Summit comes at a critical time. Turkey recently submitted a request for a major arms purchase from the U.S. and there was a diplomatic row this past week. Turkey’s request to buy 40 F-16s and 80 modernization kits is a deal that has the potential to put Turkish-American defense partnership on the right track. If the Biden administration pushes through this sale despite potential Congressional opposition, it would reassure Turkey about the U.S. commitment to maintaining the Turkish military capacity as a NATO ally. This will likely be one of the top agenda items in the meeting.
The U.S. and Turkey have had major disagreements over Turkey’s procurement of Russian S-400 air defense systems and the Trump administration imposed, albeit targeted and limited, sanctions on the Turkish defense agency. Turkey is also no longer part of the F-35 program which means the existing F-16 fighter jet fleet needs to maintain its capacity and deterrence. This is crucial for NATO as well. The deal has already created some movement in U.S. Congress where anti-Turkey lobbying groups can be quite effective. However, when it comes to such major arms purchases that is in the interest of the U.S. defense industry, the administration can weigh in to convince Congressional members through negotiations if necessary. It may certainly not be a done deal since Turkish-American relations are often confronted by occasional crises such as the most recent envoy controversy. However, there are just too many regional and global challenges that require a more stable and robust Turkish-American partnership for the national security interests of both countries.
Director, Foreign Policy
Afghanistan seems to be a converging point between the U.S. and Turkey. What can come out of the Biden-Erdoğan meeting in this regard?
Afghanistan is a common issue for both Turkey and the United States, and the two allies do not harbor large disagreements on the issue. The Afghanistan issue was already a contributing factor in establishing a positive agenda in Turkey-U.S. relations before the Taliban captured Kabul and took over the rule in Afghanistan. However, after the Taliban’s capture of Kabul and Afghanistan, the Afghanistan issue moved beyond only being a subject of Turkish-American relations.
Turkey chose to establish an approach that prioritized its own policy on Afghanistan and focused on establishing new ground with the Taliban administration. This does not necessarily mean that Turkey has moved away from the U.S.; however, due to the changing dynamics in Afghanistan, Turkey began to assess the Afghanistan issue from a different perspective. Therefore, although this issue is a topic for the Biden-Erdoğan meeting, it is not a factor that will directly affect Turkish-American relations, either positively or negatively. As such, in the meeting between Biden and Erdoğan, it is more likely that other disagreements, rather than Afghanistan, will be discussed, and it is more possible that a consensus may be found. Of course, the Syria issue tops the list. There is a possibility that Turkey will launch an offensive against the YPG due to terrorist activities in northern Syria. This, in particular, will be one of the top priorities during the Biden-Erdoğan meeting.
Turkey’s position in Afghanistan supports a process in which the Taliban administration would steadily complete the transition period and establish an inclusive government. Turkey can be expected to play an important role in Afghanistan, in addition to supporting this process. Based on Turkey’s experience in Afghanistan in the last years, it can also contribute, not only in terms of the operation of the airport but also to the political transition process as well as through economic support of projects and encouraging the inclusion of all groups in the political process. In particular, Turkey’s efforts to coordinate a policy on Afghanistan with actors such as Qatar and Pakistan could be supported and welcomed by the Washington administration. From now on, any role that Turkey would play in Afghanistan parallel with the international community would be welcomed by the U.S., and this could certainly contribute to the formation of a positive agenda in the Turkey-U.S. relations.
Editor-in-chief, Insight Turkey
Do you think that Iran (and Azerbaijan to some extent) will be touched upon in the meeting? What can a possible outcome be in this regard?
I think that the Iran issue will be extensively discussed in the meeting between the two leaders since it is not possible to discuss the developments in the Middle East without mentioning Iran. Though the Biden administration was expected to take positive steps regarding Iran, the likelihood of such steps dropped after a conservative administration came to power in Tehran after the last elections. Iran’s policy, which is directly involved in many regional crises such as Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, affects both the U.S.’ regional policy and its allies such as Israel and the Gulf states. At the same time, Iran’s regional foreign policy also affects Turkey, one of its most important rivals in the region. However, in general terms, the two countries’ perspectives on Iran differ. For instance, for the U.S., which is planning to restart nuclear negotiations, the most important issue regarding Iran is the developments in the nuclear energy production process. However, for Turkey, Iran’s expansionist and interventionist policy in the region (especially in Syria and Iraq) is a bigger issue. Similarly, while the U.S. tries to punish Iran primarily through economic sanctions, Turkey opposes this based on the observation that they negatively affect other countries in the region as well.
Since the Turkey-Azerbaijan relations have significantly affected the balance of power in the Caucasus region in the recent period, the policy recently pursued by Azerbaijan could also be a topic of discussion during the meeting. In fact, this issue is also a topic that can be discussed in the context of Iran due to the recent use of a threatening tone by Iranian authorities towards Azerbaijan. Turkey and the U.S., which are more confrontational in the Middle East region, have a clearer perspective in other regions such as the Caucasus, Black Sea and Central Asia. It is possible to develop Turkey-U.S. bilateral relations through these regions.
Syria and the American support for the YPG, on the other hand, is one of the biggest diverging points between the U.S. and Turkey. Will this topic be on the table during the meeting, and will there be any change in the stances of both states?
The meeting in Rome between President Erdoğan and U.S. President Biden is an opportunity to eliminate the distrust in bilateral ties and to continue the relations in a new format. One of the most important sources of distrust in bilateral relations is undoubtedly the Syria issue. The U.S. continues to implement a YPG/PKK-centered policy in its Syria strategy, which was established during the Obama era. Although Turkey limits the influence of the YPG/PKK on the borderline with the operations it carries out, the YPG/PKK’s attacks and threats towards safe zones in Syria and Turkish territory continue. In addition, the future of Idlib, where the tension has relatively halted since 2020 but could escalate at any moment, is also a shared point of interest for the two countries for both security and humanitarian reasons.
For this reason, the Syria issue is one of the important topics to be discussed in the Erdoğan-Biden meeting. Turkey’s main expectation from the U.S. regarding Syria is a radical change in Syria policy. The short-term stages of this expectation can be summarized in four points. First, Ankara expects open support from Washington for its policy on Idlib. With this support, the U.S. will fulfill a humanitarian responsibility on one hand and contribute to the security of its ally Turkey on the other while also counter-balancing Russia in the region.
Secondly, Turkey expects that the U.S. will not strongly object to its possible operations against YPG/PKK elements east of the Euphrates. At this point, since there is no American military presence in the Tel Rifat and Manbij regions, which have been the source of the recent terrorist attacks, it is likely that the U.S. would not object to a possible operation in this region. As a matter of fact, the U.S.’ attitude during Operation Olive Branch set an example for this.
Thirdly, it is important that Turkey’s future moves against the YPG/PKK elements west of the Euphrates do not turn into an important problem in bilateral relations. Considering Turkey’s unfinished Operation Peace Spring and the agreement reached after, there is an expectation that the U.S. will either fully implement this agreement or choose not to strongly object to Turkey’s moves.
Fourthly, there is an expectation that the U.S. will act in harmony with Turkey and support a comprehensive, realistic and applicable plan for the solution of the crisis in Syria.
The failure of the U.S. to respond to these expectations will delay and increase the cost for Turkey’s initiatives in Syria and will cause the continuation of distrust in bilateral relations.
How will the Russia “detail” unfold in the Biden-Erdoğan meeting?
One of the main issues discussed in the Biden-Erdoğan meeting will be Turkey’s relations with Russia. The U.S. and EU often point to Russia to emphasize that Turkey’s axis has shifted. On the other hand, this perception has its own contradictions. This claim is not compatible with the new pattern of the international political structure, which has changed and is now focused on multipolarity. Turkey and Russia are players in the new international political orientation who share both military “confrontation” on the ground and diplomatic meetings at the table. In other words, Russia is a permanent competitor but a temporary partner for Turkey. However, in order to understand Turkish-Russian relations, it is necessary to explain Russia’s current situation and to make sense of it in the context of Turkey-U.S. relations.
Russia, which was exposed to U.S. and European sanctions after the annexation of Crimea and for its support of the Assad regime in Syria, wants to once again reach the glorious days of Tsarist Russia and the USSR under the leadership of Putin. The grand strategy it follows in this direction needs to be understood, namely the “expansionist” strategy that Moscow has employed with a “rational” method since 2014. In this context, Russia reinforced its presence in the Black Sea and the Caucasus with the annexation of Crimea and the unilateral declaration of allegiance by autonomous regions of Georgia. In Nagorno-Karabakh and Syria, it transformed its military presence into a political initiative through “mediation” and “passive militarism.”
It has stretched its presence to Africa with a private military company in Libya, which is funded by the UAE and explained with “deniability,” and through agreements reached with sub-Saharan countries. Through these moves, it is implementing its policy of “containment” of NATO and the EU in the region. Thus, while cost-effectively achieving geographical expansion, it is also moving towards a new type of “protectionist” colonialism in the economic context. Therefore, Russia has succeeded in turning the energy crisis and regional conflicts into opportunities that serve its aim of political dominance.
On the European side, with the outbreak of the energy crisis and fluctuations in supply chains, Russia has emerged as a “competitor” that Europe must “cooperate” with. Russia, which was deemed worthy of being identified as a “rival” by the U.S. and Europe instead of a “threat” or “enemy,” has simultaneously become an actor of “cooperation” and one to reach a low-profile “Cold Peace” with. On the other hand, it is unclear whether Russia will be able to continue the same agile strategy in the post-Putin era. Although Putin’s leadership skills have helped Russia get through a period of stagnation, it seems possible that the next leadership will take the country into a period of decline. As a matter of fact, the possibility of whether the current “grand strategy” will ferment is more dependent on the skill of the leaders than the Russian state system. Considering the sensitivities of its vast geography, Russia has the status of a “rentier state” and “developing” country. Yet, it should not be forgotten that there are risks in Russia’s undeniably aggressive effort to avoid a period of decline.
At this point, if the U.S.’ perception of Russia is built on manageable competition, Turkey’s intention and purpose must be interpreted in line with the transformed international political structure.
It takes skill to manage Russia’s expansionist strategy, which has become a reality of the region, on the one hand, and to keep it at a controllable level on the other. In such a situation, Turkey may have valuable input for the U.S.’ Russia-focused policy. On the other hand, gaining the support of the U.S. as a lever against Russia can provide a significant advantage for Turkey. However, the U.S. pursuit of a Syria policy through the PKK/YPG, policies that see Turkey as opposition, and simplified attempts with prejudices lead to a situation in Turkish-Russian relations that works against the U.S. The marginalization of Russia, which is hovering between stagnation and decline, depends on the U.S.’ understanding of the Russian “picture” and its willingness to overcome its problems with Turkey going forward. As a matter of fact, Russia’s withdrawal from its current geography is inversely proportional to U.S.-Turkish relations, which Russia is aware of. For this reason, Russia wants to create a fissure in NATO through Turkey. Therefore, the Biden-Erdoğan meeting may actually answer the question: “What will happen to Russia?”
Gloria Shkurti Özdemir
Climate change will be the headline of the G20 and COP26 summits. How will this issue develop in Biden-Erdoğan meeting?
The U.S.-Turkey relations have been marked by ebbs and flows of tensions where issues such as S-400, YPG and FETÖ have dominated. However, the interests of two states converge in other areas such as energy and climate change policies. Considering the general theme of both summits, it is probable that both state leaders focus on these topics during the meeting.
Biden has made climate change a key priority for his presidency. Among others, he reversed Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement and announced that the U.S. will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions at least 50% by 2030. Indeed, this is one of the policies through which the Biden administration is trying to reestablish U.S. leadership in the world. Even though not fully supported at home, Biden will reiterate his commitment, trying to rebuild the credibility that the U.S. has lost lately.
Turkey, on the other hand, has just ratified the Paris Agreement and by 2053 plans to reach net-zero emissions. Concurrently, Turkey is a leading country in its region in renewable energy use, due to the effective policies of the Turkish government. As these policy agendas remain in harmony, LNG trade and investments in renewable energy may be on the agenda of the Biden-Erdoğan meeting. Leaving aside possible conflictual issues and focusing on cooperation opportunities will provide an opportune occasion for greater cooperation between two states.
In this article
- Experts Respond
- 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties
- Anti-Turkish Sentiment | Anti-Turkism | Turkophobia | Turkish Fear
- Central Asia
- Climate Change
- European Union (EU)
- F-16 Fighter Jet
- F-35 Fighter Jet Program
- Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETÖ)
- Insight Turkey
- Islamic Republic of Iran
- Joe Biden
- Kurdistan Workers' Party Terrorist Organization (PKK)
- Middle East
- People's Protection Units (YPG)
- Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
- S-400 Triumph Air Defence Missile System
- SETA Experts Respond
- Soviet Union | Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)
- Turkish Foreign Policy
- Turkish-American Relations
- Türkiye-US Relations
- Türkiye's Foreign Policy
- UN Climate Change Conference (COP)
- United Arab Emirates (UAE)
- United States (US)
- US President
- US-FETÖ Relations
- US-PKK/PYD/YPG/SDF Relations
- US-Terror Relations
- Vladimir Putin