Weeks ago, the state-run Turkish Anadolu Agency reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on pins and needles as he awaited his first phone call from President Biden. The irony was lost on no one that the same applied to Recep Tayyip Erdogan who, as opponents of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) observed with undisguised sarcasm, had not heard from Biden either. Twisting the knife further, opposition outlets relayed statements by a Republican People’s Party (CHP) politician which confirmed that, while Biden had not responded to the Turkish president’s letter of congratulation, he had phoned General Mazloum Kobani, the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that have led the fight against ISIS, to offer condolences over the death of Kobani’s mother.
But an opportunity did arise for Erdogan to try another tack to attract Biden’s attention. After the White House announced that it would declassify the report on the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the pro-Erdogan media pool revisited that gruesome incident, which took place in Istanbul in 2018. AKP opinion pundits and officials lined up to echo the remarks of one presidential spokesman: “Democratic Turkey, which supports the freedom of expression under Erdogan’s leadership, is keen to uncover the mystery behind this heinous crime. At the same time, it would like to remind the new occupants of the White House how Turkey had demanded that the perpetrators should be brought to justice. It even initiated judicial procedures against them in absentia while strongly criticising Donald Trump’s lenience towards the Saudi rulers.”
The message is obvious: Ankara and Washington under Biden are on the same page. So why doesn’t the latter take the steps needed to thaw the ice between them?
By this time, the Turkish president’s place on the new American president’s “To Call” list had become such a subject of general interest that CNN Türk programmed a talk show around the theme: “The Biden-Erdogan phone call: How soon?” The satellite station had barely posed that question when its “Breaking News” reported that Biden had spoken with the Saudi monarch, King Salman. That must’ve driven the Anatolian strongman into a deeper depression.
Some observers believe that it will be a while before the presidential phone in palatial Aksaray receives a ring from the presidential phone in the Oval Office. One reason might have to do with the controversy surrounding the 13 Turkish POWs killed during a Turkish military operation against a Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) location in northern Iraq, where the POWs were held. The operation was launched on Wednesday 10 February. Two days before this, Erdogan announced he would have “good news” to deliver on that Wednesday. There was some confusion over its aims and whether it was a rescue operation. By the time the smoke of intensive aerial bombardment cleared, several days afterwards, the Turkish authorities were claiming it was the PKK that killed the POWs. Many were sceptical, including the US. Ankara accused Washington of “supporting terrorism” and summoned the US ambassador to the Foreign Ministry to hand him a letter of protest.
Some analysts close to the ruling party were worried about Ankara’s escalatory tack against the US so early on its relationship with the new administration in Washington. They could not figure out how it might serve Turkey’s interests at a time when their economy was in a shambles and their country was on the threshold of US and EU sanctions regimes in response to what Western officials have described as Turkey’s “belligerent” and “illegal” behaviour in the Eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has since modified Washington’s position on the tragic outcome of that operation, offering his condolences to his counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu. However, this concession will not alter the fact that the “heir to Obama,” as the pro-AKP press has dubbed Biden, will cancel the blank check that former president Trump had given Erdogan. In so doing, Biden will not just be responding to bipartisan appeals to curb Erdogan’s despotic ambitions. He will also be responding to the political, humanitarian and security needs of the Kurds, whether those being penalised for representing or voting for the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey or those living in the predominantly Kurdish regions in Syria and northern Iraq.
Biden, who sympathises with Kurdish causes and has visited Iraqi Kurdistan, is expected to stand firm against the intolerant ultranationalist tendencies of the Erdogan regime. He has even said that Turkey will “pay the price” for its malign actions in the region. Many forecast a stormy time ahead. Given Turkey’s economic ailments in particular, Erdogan’s advisers must have counselled him to bend with the wind and, for a change, he must have listened, seeing how quickly he shifted gears from strident to mollifying.
“Despite occasional differences of opinion, our partnership has managed to overcome all kinds of difficulties so far,” Erdogan told reporters on 20 February. Common interests outweighed differences, he said, and that is why he felt it was possible “to strengthen our cooperation with the new US administration in the long term on a win-win basis”. He added that Turkey would continue to do its part “in a manner worthy of the strategic partnership” between the two countries. He then returned to grievances, such as the continued presence on US soil of the Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan has charged with masterminding the coup attempt in 2016. More frustrating to Erdogan is the US’s continued support for the Kurds in Syria. “Recently, Turkish-American friendship has been seriously tested” due to “lack of support and solidarity against terrorists,” he said, referring to Syrian groups he claims are linked with the PKK. He held that previous painful experiences had proven how wrong it was to try to defeat ISIS by using another terrorist group, here referring to the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its People’s Protection Units (the YPG and sister YPJ). He did not mention what these experiences were, though he reiterated his belief that the rioters who stormed the Capitol building in Washington were connected with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a predominantly Syrian Kurdish federalist party that Erdogan claims is linked to the PKK.
How would Washington respond to Erdogan’s softened tone?
The answer was not long in coming. From the Pentagon came another reconfirmation of its position on Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian-made S-400 missiles systems: Turkey would not receive any of the new generation F-35 fighter planes unless it relinquished the S-400s. But this is only one of the issues that could still prevent a thaw. Washington under Biden will be expecting Ankara to take serious steps towards the restoration of political rights, democratic checks and balances, and judicial autonomy. That is a tall order from Erdogan, who continues to push in the opposite direction.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly