Turkey’s pairing with China in White House-EU call signals trouble for Ankara

U.S. National Security Chief Advisor Jack Sullivan, in a phone call on Thursday with Bjoern Seibert, the head of cabinet of the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen, placed Turkey in the same category as China. 

The pair discussed U.S.-EU cooperation while also agreeing to “work together on issues of mutual concern, including China and Turkey,’’ according to the White House briefing of the call.

In December, EU leaders had postponed the decision of harsh measures against Ankara, banking on the new Biden administration to take the lead after taking office in January. 

The 35th article of the European Council conclusion on Dec.11, said the EU will seek to coordinate on matters relating to Turkey and the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean with the United States. 

Perhaps the first indication of how that coordination will proceed was signalled in Sullivan's phone call, which placed Turkey concerns alongside those of China. 

Turkey, the U.S.’ “so-called ally,” as described by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his confirmation hearings at the U.S. Senate, has been placed into a non-ally rank, alongside Beijing. And this was also announced in loud fashion in a White House statement.

There is no doubt that Sullivan’s approach is aligned with that of Brett McGurk, the Middle East and North Africa coordinator of Biden’s National Security Council. It is most likely that Biden and Blinken also share similar views, as it is impossible to imagine that such a description can be put in a statement without full consensus.

We have seen the first signs of this stance a few days after the U.S. presidential elections in the remarks by Michael Carpenter, managing director of Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy & Global Engagement. Carpenter said Turkey and its allies need “frank conversations to set right the bilateral and multilateral relationships”. He also added that NATO member-states should present a “united front”, which may persuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “that there is room for cooperation, but there are also very negative consequences to pursuing a more aggressive policy.”

At this point, it is important to note that Biden’s National Security Council does not entirely consist of a team with deep sympathies for Syrian Kurds looking to bring Ankara in line. Another name of the council, Amanda Sloat, for instance who oversees the Turkey portfolio, had published an article in the Washington Post in Oct. 2019, backing the former U.S. President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Turkey's “Fountains of Peace” military operation against Syrian Kurds, at a time when even Trump’s own allies in his party were condemning him, in a rare show of opposition. 

“A strikingly bipartisan array of politicians slammed President Trump for his surprise announcement that he would withdraw U.S. forces from Syria’s border with Turkey,” Sloat began her article, but added that “...the situation is complicated.” The whole article read like it had been penned by an Erdoğan adviser.

Despite Turkey’s reporting its problems over Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to the U.S. administration at the very beginning, former U.S. President Barack Obama helped to save Syrian Kurds in the Kurdish town of Kobane, Sloat said. Sloat wrote in the article that this policy angered the Turks who saw YPG’s ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) dangerous, which is designated as a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington. However, Sloat, in the same article, failed to mention Turkey’s direct talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) continuing those years, while the delegations were arriving in the Qandil Mountains to meet with the PKK leadership with Erdoğan’s blessing or to the island of Imrali where PKK leader Ocalan lives. 

In the same article, Sloat said that the YPG was waving Abdullah Öcalan’s posters after liberating Raqqa from the Islamic State’s (ISIS) control. But she failed to mention the Kurdistan flags raised in Newroz celebrations held in Turkey’s own southeastern Diyarbakır province between the years 2013- 2015 along with Öcalan posters during the same years when Erdoğan’s government was negotiating with the PKK. 

What is more, Öcalan’s ‘’peace message’’ was being read with the microphones to the tens of thousands of people in Diyarbakir square while being broadcasted on television in those years. Perhaps a little bit of context and perspective would have been helpful.

For now, it appears though that the Biden team is pursuing the Turkey policy with the Sullivan-Blinken-McGurk coordinates. We see this over the EU-Turkey debacle from the latest aforementioned readout. So far though, we have yet to see a concrete policy announcement by the White House on Syria, Syria’s Kurds or Syria’s Kurds’ relations with Turkey. We do have some predictions when we look at McGurk’s track record or Sullivan’s recent writings on Syria and Erdoğan as recent as 2018 in which, Sullivan, along with the former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman, complained that the Trump administration’s “lack of clear messaging has only reinforced Erdogan’s conviction that the United States will not meaningfully challenge him.”

Sullivan, in that co-authored piece, as though describing what he was doing today, said:

“Washington’s goal should not be confrontation with Ankara for confrontation’s sake, or just because it is “mad” at Erdoğan. Rather the aim should be establishing the conditions—and the ground rules—for constructive engagement.” We will wait until a clear policy announcement is made by the White House before concluding where the relationship will go from here with regards to Syrian Kurds but the early expectations are not very positive for Ankara. 

On the other hand, the start of the Turkey- U.S. relations in the Biden era should be giving some chills to Turkey's strongman. While Biden, Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have been making calls with dozens of foreign counterparts for a week now, Ankara has been on the waitlist. As one Turkey-US relations expert conveyed to me, “If Blinken is talking to the head of the African Union (more an aspiration than an organization) before Turkish Foreign Minister, Turkey is really in the doghouse.”

Erdoğan is not waitlisted just because he was late in congratulating Biden for his victory, however.

In the run up to the elections, top Erdoğan officials, one after another, got in the line to slam then presidential candidate Biden with rare insults. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, for example, right after meeting with then U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the Dominican Republic, on Aug. 16 to be precise, said, "I think during the years of Obama when [Biden] was the Vice President, they were engaging with terrorist elements, and with terrorists, leading him to use the term "elements," Çavuşoğlu quoted as saying by German broadcaster DW. 

In the same remarks to reporters, Çavuşoğlu also accused Biden as a perpetrator of Turkey’s July 2016 failed coup attempt. Perhaps he heard such assurances from Pompeo in the meeting about the election chances of a second Trump term that he was unable to give a pause and imagine a possible Biden victory before using such a language, but again, it was not only Çavuşoğlu. From Erdoğan’s top spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin to other spokespeople such as Ömer Çelik or Fahrettin Altun, Biden was reminded that he would “pay a heavy price” for his statements that “are a product of a political pro-coup mindset.” 

Erdoğan officials appeared to be very angry after footage emerged from a New York Times interview which revealed Biden speaking on U.S. relations with Erdoğan, saying that he would support the Turkish opposition to defeat Turkey's strongman in elections if he became president. Biden also called Erdoğan an "autocrat" and criticised his domestic and foreign policies during a campaigning period in Dec. 2019.

It should be noted however that the Erdoğan government has been making some real attempts to dump the Trump baggage to get ready for the Biden administration. Former Turkish Ambassador to the U.S., Serdar Kılıç, who had what can be called a big Trump baggage was removed from the job and replaced with Murat Mercan, who is known to be more soft-spoken than his predecessor. Before Mercan, Erdoğan’s son-in-law and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, who happened to be a close ally of Trump’s son-in-law and the top adviser to White House Jared Kushner, was also removed from duty.

The outlook of the hawkish Turkish government appears to be also changing to accommodate the Bidens. For example, Ankara now began making policy announcements coming from Turkish National Security Council and announcing that dialogue and diplomacy are the priorities in the new era. 

Meanwhile, some other leftovers of the Trump-era cast a shadow on U.S.-Turkey relations and known to be radical MAGA followers and Trump supporters trying hard to cling their seats, such as old friend of Trump, the head of the Turkish-American Business Council (TAIK) Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ (MAY).

Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ

It was revealed last summer that MAY was using TAIK lobbyists to get appointments for Finance Minister Albayrak, while simultaneously protesting a Washington Post columnist David Ignatius for his depiction of the business group as pro-Erdoğan. MAY continued his PR attempts, right after the elections by inviting his own TAIK’s lobbyists and misrepresenting them as Turkey-US relations experts to paint a rosy picture. 

MAY is a powerful Turkish businessman with good connections in the industry due to his years-long role as executive of the most powerful media group for decades in Turkey, the Doğan Media Group. So, naturally, even critical journalists or opposition figures do not want to cross him and convey his messages.

MAY had to resign from his position when leaked emails showing he had been reporting daily developments at his private media conglomerate to a staunchly rival pro-Erdoğan media group. Since becoming the TAIK head in 2018, MAY has been continuing his PR campaign over the Turkey-U.S. relations with the same speed, charged with high-salary paid U.S. lobbyists. He was very self-confident during the Trump era with no need to show up for interviews to explain how great a job he is doing even though Erdoğan was losing an ally after ally from both parties in Washington. The prospects of his position must be precarious for him now as he feels the need to go on record and explain himself, but what is more, even attempting to distance himself from Trump, saying that he did not even meet with the former U.S. president during his time in the office. 

MAY is well aware that in order to be able to cling power, he now needs to prove that he was not that close to the Trump White House after all. And this is understandable in a climate in which even Jacob Chansley of Arizona, who calls himself the “QAnon Shaman,” who showed up in a fur hat with horns to invade the Congress, is now willing to testify against his former hero Trump at the former president’s impeachment trial.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.