Deciphering Erdoğan's goals remains a challenge for Joe Biden

In his first month in office, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has run into the challenge of how to decipher the goals of Turkey and its mercurial President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

After Biden won the November election against Donald Trump, Erdoğan offered his congratulations to the president elect and expressed his faith in the decades-long U.S.-Turkey partnership. His officials followed up with positive assessments about Biden’s foreign policy and Turkish media commentators offered up areas of possible convergence on NATO, Russia and elsewhere. 

However, in the month since coming to office, Biden’s administration has clashed with Turkey over Ankara’s treatment of student demonstrators at Boğaziçi University. More rancor followed a conditional condemnation by the United States of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey’s avowed enemy, for what Ankara said was its execution of 13 Turkish hostages. Erdoğan blasted the United States for these remarks, but only days later cooled down and declared that mutual interests outweighed any bilateral differences.  

“If I were a Biden official working on Turkey, I would have whiplash in just the four weeks I’ve been in office,” said  Blaise Misztal, Vice President for Policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) in Washington D.C in a recent podcast. 

For his part, Biden stuck to a tone that has been consistent with his campaign promises and U.S. foreign policy of previous administrations towards Turkey, Misztal said. To that end, he said, Biden’s stance on matters like sanctions on the Turkish defence industry over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems follow policies of the Trump administration, with the only notable difference being the voicing of human rights-related concerns.

What separates Biden so far from Trump has been his more de-personalised approach to Turkey. Unlike his predecessors, Biden has yet to speak to Erdoğan by phone after a month in office, despite overtures from the Turkish side to make one happen. Misztal said that this in itself is noteworthy for the message such a cold shoulder conveys. 

“To withhold that call I think is a signal from the Biden administration about how it wants to structure relations, but I think it's also an important signal to Erdoğan,” he said. “By denying him that, it's another subtle but real form of leverage and distance that this administration is building.” 

Beyond top-level relations, the United States and Turkey remain troubled by all of the issues that accrued over the years. However, now a new administration cool to Ankara has entered at a time when the country is much more isolated geopolitically, divided at home, and economically challenged. 

It is troubles at home more than abroad that Misztal insists inform Erdoğan’s current approach to the United States. To this end, he believes any warm words are more of a means to an end than meant with any genuine intent. 

“What we’re seeing in the repeated outreach attempts is not really sincere. It is not really an attempt to patch things up,” said Misztal. 

Analysts watching Turkey since Biden was elected have identified a few incidents where they believed Ankara was acting to win points with Washington. One example of this has been actions taken in Turkey against Iran.

In December, Turkey exposed an Iranian intelligence network in Istanbul involved in the kidnapping of Habib Chaab, an exiled Arab-Iranian dissident. On February 11, Turkish authorities announced the arrest of an Iranian diplomat who they say had been involved in the 2018 assasination of Masoud Molavi Vardanjani. 

Misztal brushed off the suggestion that these sort of actions would be effective in winning Biden’s favour. Targeting Iran in this way to Misztal is a “day late and a dollar short.” 

“If Turkey wanted to work with the United States against Iran, it had four years of a Trump administration that was desperately asking Turkey to do exactly that,” he added, pointing to efforts from Trump’s officials to draw Turkey in against Iran.

Biden does not hold the same confrontational approach towards Iran, seeking primarily to renegotiate the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that Trump unilaterally exited. On this front, Misztal believes Turkey would be in favour of seeing a new agreement, but for its own reasons rather than a shared interest with Washington. 

Turkey has long maintained strong trade links to Iran and has found itself in recent years on the same side as Tehran in the region. The two backed Qatar when it was subject to a blockade by its neighbours, and opposed the growing Arab normalisation processes with Israel after the Abraham Accords in September 2020. During the Trump era, rather than side with the United States like others in the region did, Erdoğan openly slammed U.S. sanctions against Iran. Even in recent meetings with Iranian officials, Erdoğan has highlighted a lifting of sanctions on Iran as a prime reason to seek a dialogue between Tehran and Washington. 

“Turkey prefers to see Iran unfettered and strengthened through the JCPOA,” Misztal stated plainly. 

For whatever value still remains in Washington-Ankara relations, it may be challenged by a trend of growing disinterest on part of the United States in the Middle East. Recently, Politico cited anonymous Biden aides as saying the administration didn’t see the region as a priority. 

This may not bode well for either the United States or Turkey if it translates into less engagement with the region, at a time when other powers like Russia and China embed themselves deeper.  

“The Middle East is not confined to the Middle East anymore, and it's spilling out over its boundaries,” said Misztal. “To say we’re going to ignore the M.E and it’ll ignore us is not the way that region works.”