U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration should pursue a firmer transactional relationship with Turkey to deal with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s unilateral policies, according to Max Hoffman, associate director of National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress (CAP).
Hoffman said that U.S.-Turkey relations have been on a steady downward trajectory since 2013. With Biden unlikely to emulate former President Donald Trump’s laissez-faire approach towards dealing with Erdoğan, several simmering bilateral disagreements could bubble over in 2021, leading to a deeper rupture in relations, Hoffman told Ahval’s editor-in-chief Yavuz Baydar in a podcast.
Hoffman cited three traditional pillars of U.S.-Turkey relations – human rights, democracy, and the rule of law; defence procurement; and strategic alignment and regional conflicts.
Washington has traditionally considered Turkey as a regional ally vis-a-vis Russia. However, that perception has been dramatically undercut by Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missile defence systems from Moscow.
Hoffman said the Biden administration is likely to de-personalise relations with Erdoğan. But if Erdoğan chooses to take a more independent course in foreign affairs, that would not make Turkey an enemy of the United States, Hoffman said.
Beginning in 2015, Erdoğan had a sense of being besieged and started to pursue a more independent foreign policy in an aggressive manner, Hoffman said. If Turkey buys more S-400 missiles from Russia, Biden is very likely to approve sanctions against Ankara, he said.
On human rights issues and democracy, Hoffman said Erdoğan and his supporters have narrowed the definition of democracy to the ballot box and undermined democratic ideals since the Gezi Park protests of 2013, when an estimated four million people took to the streets against police brutality and government repression. But Washington has lost a lot of credibility in this regard during Trump’s time in office, and Biden’s team is well aware of this, Hoffman said.
The third traditional pillar of U.S.-Turkish relations is linked to regional conflicts – or what Hoffman termed as revanchism.
The United States has been supporting the majority-Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in its fight against Islamic State (ISIS). Yet, Turkey considers the YPG to be a security threat, seeing it as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting an insurgency against the Turkish state for decades.
Hoffman said he expected the Biden administration to re-engage with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG constitutes the main fighting force, in order to stabilise eastern Syria.
Biden is expected to get more engaged in the eastern Mediterranean, and will attempt to mediate and hence avoid any further escalation between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, according to Hoffman.
Hoffman said that the United States’ stance on Turkey would rely on the compartmentalisation of issues, meaning it would deal with various issues separately rather than attempt to establish a grand bargain. For instance, the United States may re-engage and embrace the EU process in Libya, thus supporting Turkey in that respect. However, Biden is likely to reverse certain trends, and he is almost certain to de-personalise the presidential relationship as well as close the gap between the White House’s stance on Turkey and the U.S. government bureaucracy.
Hoffman said the United States’ compartmentalised approach, along with a firmer and less personal line, would be difficult for Erdoğan to manage.