What has the Biden-Erdoğan relationship been like in the past?
U.S. President-elect Joseph Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have already had a rocky relationship, both under the Obama administration and during Biden’s run for the presidency, when he called Erdoğan an “autocrat”. Judging by this history, the future does not look bright for U.S.-Turkey relations.
In 2014, Biden “officially apologized... for remarks suggesting that Turkey helped facilitate the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group,” according to the New York Times. This was after Biden had made the following remarks at the Harvard Kennedy School in response to a student question:
“The Turks were great friends. And I have a great relationship with Erdoğan (whom) I just spent a lot of time with. The Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down (Syrian President Bashar) al-Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war. What did they do? They poured hundreds and millions of dollars and tens and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were (Jabhat) al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
As Al-Monitor reported at the time, Biden also said: “President Erdoğan told me… 'You were right, we let too many people through'”.
Erdoğan responded by saying: “If he did say those words, Biden is history to me. I never told him such a thing. Second, we have never helped any terror organisation in the slightest bit. No one can ever prove that. No foreign fighter has penetrated into Syria through our country. Our sensitivity continues on that issue.”
Turkey has certainly been very sensitive to suggestions that the government in any way helped extremist groups. It has repeatedly targeted journalists like Can Dündar, who published reports suggesting Turkish security services had allowed weapons to cross the Syrian border to arm militant groups. When Turkey blocked Wikipedia for two and a half years, one of the articles they were reportedly unhappy with was the English Wikipedia article “Foreign involvement in the Syrian Civil War”.
Biden met with Dundar’s son Ege Dündar in 2016. “He told me that I have a very brave father. He said I should be proud,” Ege reportedly said afterwards.
Biden made a two-day visit to Turkey in early 2016, where he openly criticised Turkey for “setting a poor example” on freedom of expression. Reuters reported that “Biden said the strength of Turkey’s democracy had a direct impact on its ties with the United States.” He also stated: “When the media are intimidated or imprisoned for critical reporting, when internet freedom is curtailed and social media sites... are shut down and more than 1,000 academics are accused of treason simply by signing a petition, that’s not the kind of example that needs to be set.”
The remarks revealed the disappointment of a Western liberal perspective which had for years held Turkey up as an example of a country which could successfully integrate Islamic religious conservatism into a democratic system.
Biden visited Turkey again following the failed coup attempt in 2016. In remarks at the presidential palace in Ankara, Biden said: “I can understand, Mr President, how some of your countrymen would feel that the world didn’t respond to the existential crisis your country was facing rapidly enough, or with the appropriate amount of solidarity and compassion and empathy… I want to make unmistakably clear that the United States stands with our ally, Turkey. We support the people of Turkey. And our support is absolute and it is unwavering.”
From the Turkish perspective, the U.S. refusal to extradite Fethullah Gülen, who it says masterminded the coup attempt, was an insult, but one that continued beyond Obama and through to the Trump administration. Obama’s support for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) also led to worsening diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Turkey. Both of these issues will continue into Biden’s presidency.
The other major issue that Biden will confront upon assuming office will be what to do about Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system. A key Biden advisor said recently that the move was “not the actions of an ally” of the United States.
Comments Biden made in January 2020 about supporting Turkish opposition parties also caused considerable annoyance to the Turkish government and their supporters, who saw them as interference in domestic Turkish politics. But it can be little surprise that a Democrat president like Biden would prefer to work with the Republican People’s Party rather than Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party.
To put the Biden-Erdoğan relationship in context, it’s worth remembering that Erdoğan reportedly threw a letter from Donald Trump in the bin in 2019. The letter, in which Trump said: “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”, warned Turkey not to attack the SDF in Syria. This despite the U.S. troop withdrawal Trump ordered effectively giving the green light for such an attack.
The relationship between Trump and Erdoğan was certainly warmer than that between Biden and Erdoğan, with Trump saying he was a “big fan” of Turkey’s president. But that good personal relationship was not very successful at achieving either peace in the region or even the more limited strategic goals of the U.S. (whatever they were under the Trump administration).
As Hişyar Özsoy recently told Ahval in an interview, the U.S. “has been trying to develop an American policy on Syria, which still does not exist. The U.S. had a policy on Iraq, but it failed terribly.” If Turkey and the U.S. are to improve their relationship, efforts need to be made by both sides to find areas where positive-sum solutions to ongoing problems are possible.
Biden and Erdoğan at least know what to expect from each other. They almost certainly dislike each other’s style of politics, but Erdoğan is at heart a pragmatist, and will want to avoid triggering the sanctions that Biden could use as a last resort. The unknown factor now is what a Biden administration’s foreign policy priorities will be and how much pressure it is willing, or able, to exert on lukewarm allies like Turkey to achieve those aims.