Will Biden make Erdoğan pay a ‘heavy price’?

During a presidential primary debate one week after Turkey launched its last campaign into northern Syria last year, then-presidential hopeful Joe Biden promised that if elected he would take a hard line with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan specifically and make him pay a heavy price.

“Turkey is the real problem here and I would be having a real lockdown conversation with Erdoğan and letting him know that he’s going to pay a heavy price for what he has done,” Biden said.

A year later, Erdoğan offered his congratulations to President-elect Biden four days after his victory in the polls on Saturday. 

Erdoğan expressed hope that Biden’s victory would be beneficial to friendlier relations and that both nations could work together in the face of shared challenges, according to a statement released by his office.

“I believe that the strong cooperation and alliance between our countries will continue to contribute to world peace in the future as it has been until today,” Erdoğan said. “I congratulate you on your election success and express my sincere wishes for the peace and prosperity of the people of the United States of America.”

Turkey has been among the countries that many expected to benefit the least from the election of Biden over President Donald Trump. Observers interpreted Erdoğan’s slowness as hedging his bets, but this move signalled that he no longer believed Trump’s efforts to challenge the U.S. election outcomes would be successful. 

Biden and Erdoğan are familiar with one another from Biden’s time as President Barack Obama’s vice president. He was the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Turkey in the aftermath of a 2016 failed coup in the country and delivered an empathetic speech to reiterate American support to Turkey. Biden was the point-person handling relations with Erdoğan, especially in the last two years of the Obama administration, due to the worsened ties between Obama and Erdoğan.

During the Trump administration, Biden’s positions on Turkey took on a new oppositional tone; as a candidate, he condemned Turkey’s actions in Syria, the eastern Mediterranean and in the South Caucasus. 

The rancour only deepened when a video clip surfaced of Biden telling the New York Times in a January 2020 interview that he would support the Turkish opposition to defeat Erdoğan in elections, slamming him as an autocrat. Turks across the political spectrum rejected the remarks as a threat to interfere in Turkish politics.

Now that Biden has been named president-elect, Turkey is faced with an incoming administration that is certainly going to be less friendly than the Trump administration. 

Biden has not named his nominees for any of the foreign policy positions just yet. However, in the months following his nomination as the Democrats’ presidential candidate, reports have trickled out naming advisers who may be in line for roles under a Biden presidency.

Many of those involved with Biden’s campaign come from the Obama administration including former Pentagon policy chief Michele Flournoy, former national security adviser Susan Rice and former Deputy State Secretary Anthony Blinken. According to Politico, all three of these ex-officials are under consideration for top jobs in Biden’s cabinet. 

Already, some of the officials under consideration for cabinet positions have shared their views on Turkey through articles, statements and interviews in recent years.

Rice, who is among those favoured to lead the State Department, described Turkey as a “hungry wolf” looking to kill America’s Syrian Kurdish allies after Trump pulled back U.S. troops last October.

Blinken, a long-time aide widely expected to be named Biden’s national security adviser, wrote a 2017 op-ed in the New York Times that encouraged the U.S. to continue arming the Kurds against Turkey’s objections.

There has also been unanimous opposition within the Biden camp on Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defence system. Washington has threatened further economic and political reprisals for Ankara’s purchase of the missiles, which it says could be used by Russia to garner sensitive information on the F-35 and other NATO weapons.

Brian McKeon, who held a Pentagon policy post during the Obama years and is believed to be in line for a new job under Biden, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Turkey was “making a bad bet”.
Julianne Smith, a former adviser to then-Vice President Biden that was invited to speak at the same event, agreed, saying the decision will leave Turkey only more isolated for undermining NATO interoperability.

Biden may arrive in office with a Senate majority still held by Republicans, but perceptions of Erdoğan in Congress have remained frosty at best. Opposition to Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria and S-400 purchase are rare bipartisan points of agreement with many senators frustrated by Trump’s refusal to act against Erdoğan. 

Some pro-government columnists in the Turkish media commented that Turkey’s positions would not change regardless of who was president. Before Biden won the election, Erdoğan himself defiantly goaded the U.S into sanctioning Turkey. 

“The U.S does not know who they are dealing with. Impose the sanctions already, whatever they may be,” Erdoğan told members of his ruling Justice and Development Party on Oct. 25, a week before the U.S. election.

Behind this bravado, there is likely concern that Biden will go ahead and deliver what could be a critical blow to Turkey’s laggard economy. The dollar has continued to rise steadily against the Turkish lira in the last year.

And on Saturday, Erdoğan sacked the head of the Turkish central bank and a day later his son-in-law, Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, resigned in a manner that was politically embarrassing. Albayrak was also known with his close ties to the Trump family via Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey programme at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), said that Turkey’s economic struggles will force Erdoğan to seek some way to avoid antagonising Biden’s administration. 

“Erdoğan knows that Biden’s election victory has already increased Turkey’s country risk since most global investors expect a rocky relationship between Washington and Ankara over the next four years,” Erdemir said.

U.S. support will be necessary if Turkey enters a fiscal crisis in 2021, he said – a scenario several analysts expect.

Despite the bad blood between Erdoğan and Biden, there is still room for some cooperation under a new administration. The Biden camp has been clear that it looks to reinvigorate NATO after Trump’s disregard of the institution, something that some in Turkey already see as an acceptable starting point for cooperation.  

Turkey’s foreign policy in its region poses “a set of problems that require a lot of attention” at the start of the Biden administration that will require transatlantic coordination to resolve, Biden adviser Michael Carpenter said on Monday.

Daily Sabah said in a column that Turkey could play a part in limiting Russia’s influence in the Middle East and that Turkey could help the U.S. rebuild relations with Europe through NATO.

Biden’s past experience with Erdoğan may also be an asset in finding some common ground together. In a 2016 interview, Biden described his philosophy in a way that sounded remarkably similar to President Trump, emphasising personal rapport with counterparts. Blinken, Biden’s expected national security adviser, said in July that this experience showed interpersonal diplomacy to be the most effective when dealing with Erdoğan. 

“I suspect you’d see some significant engagement on the part of President Biden with his Turkish counterpart to see if we can work through a host of issues that we need to find ways to tackle together,” Blinken said told Walter Russell Mead in an interview at the Hudson Institute. 

Biden may possess a predilection towards personal diplomacy, but that does not mean it would translate into something resembling Erdoğan’s relationship with Trump. The president-elect is at heart an institutionalist who was elected as a candidate of ‘normalcy’, something that Erdemir said will limit Erdoğan’s chances of replicating the previous relationship. 

“To his surprise, Erdoğan is likely to discover that as U.S.-Turkish relations take an institutional turn under Biden, there will be hardly any opportunities to cut transactional deals and enjoy impunity for his earlier actions,” Erdemir said.