Turkish leader remains thorn in Biden’s side
Erdogan a military ally who is often at odds with the West
WASHINGTON — When Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement last week to unblock Ukrainian grain exports, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey played the role of benevolent statesman.
Seated next to the United Nations secretary-general in an Ottoman palace in Istanbul, Erdogan said the deal, which Turkey helped to broker, would benefit “the whole of humanity.”
President Joe Biden’s administration welcomed the agreement, which could relieve a global food crisis intensified by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and blockade of its ports. Officials expressed skepticism about whether Russia was acting in good faith, and Russian missiles struck the Ukrainian port city of Odesa less than a day after the pact was signed. Still, a White House spokesperson had commended Erdogan for his efforts.
But privately, Erdogan has remained a source of substantial irritation for Biden administration officials.
Days before presiding over the grain agreement, the Turkish autocrat renewed a warning that he might veto NATO’s plans to accept Sweden and Finland as members in the coming months — an act that would deeply embarrass the alliance and the Biden administration as they work to counter Russia. And Congress this month expressed misgivings about Biden’s pledge at a June NATO summit in Spain to sell dozens of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.
On July 19, Erdogan traveled to Tehran, Iran, for meetings with President
Ebrahim Raisi of Iran and President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
The images of two prime U.S. rivals with Erdogan, the leader of a NATO country, clashed with the Western narrative of a deeply isolated Iran and Russia, analysts said.
Then last Friday, a White House spokesperson reiterated U.S. concerns about Erdogan’s threats to mount a new invasion of northern Syria targeting U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters whom he considers terrorists.
Taken together, Erdogan’s actions — and Biden’s limited ability to restrain them — underscore the Turkish leader’s unique position as a military ally frequently at odds with the agenda of his Western allies.
To U.S. officials, it is an often maddening role.
“Erdogan is basically the Joe Manchin of NATO,” said Elizabeth Shackelford, a former Foreign Service officer, referring to the conservative Democratic senator from West Virginia who has
stymied Biden’s domestic agenda. “He’s on our team, but then he does things that are so clearly not good for our team. And I just don’t see that changing.”
But Biden administration officials say that writing off Erdogan would be self-defeating. His nation’s position at the crossroads of East and West is strategically important and allows him to be an interlocutor with even more troublesome neighbors — as evidenced by the grain deal, which created a demilitarized corridor through the Black Sea for Ukraine’s agricultural exports.
A senior U.S. official said that much of Erdogan’s problematic behavior was a function of his political weakness in Turkey, where the inflation rate climbed to almost 80% last month.
Hoping to shift attention from his mismanaged economy, Erdogan has turned to chest-thumping displays of nationalism and demagoguery over the threat from the PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey, and
Kurdish groups in Syria.
Major NATO initiatives, like the proposed expansion of the 30-member alliance to include Sweden and Finland, require unanimous consent.
Biden said in May that he hoped the two countries could “quickly” join in what would be a major strategic blow to Putin.
But Erdogan raised objections, complaining that both potential new members have lent political and financial support to the PKK, which the United States has designated as a terrorist organization because of its history of violent attacks.
U.S. and NATO officials worried that the planned expansion could collapse in a major propaganda win for Putin, who has long worked to divide the alliance.
NATO leaders were relieved at last month’s summit as Erdogan reached an agreement with the leaders of Sweden and Finland, who pledged to act against terrorist organizations and join extradition agreements with Turkey, which wants to prosecute PKK members living in those countries.
On July 18, Erdogan warned that he could still “freeze” NATO’s expansion if his demands were not met.
Biden also told Erdogan in Spain that he supported the sale of 40 U.S. F-16 fighter jets that Turkey requested last fall, along with technology upgrades for dozens of fighters it already owns.
Turkey wants those planes in part because the Trump administration canceled plans to sell the country advanced F-35 fighter jets in 2019 after Erdogan — in one of his more confounding recent moves — purchased Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system in defiance of U.S. warnings.
Biden denied that he offered the planes to buy Erdogan’s support for NATO’s expansion.
“And there was no quid pro quo with that; it was just that we should sell,” he said. “But I need congressional approval to be able to do that, and I think we can get that.”
Congress’ approval may not be a given. And it was unclear whether Erdogan might block NATO’s proposed expansion until he reaches a deal on the F-16 jets.
This month, the House approved an amendment to an annual military policy bill requiring Biden to certify that any sale of the fighter jets is in the United States’ vital national interests and that Turkey will not use the jets to violate the airspace of Greece, its neighbor and fellow NATO ally, with whom Turkey is engaged in a bitter territorial dispute.
Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., the amendment’s sponsor, also cited Erdogan’s purchase of the Russian missile system and equivocal position toward Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Erdogan has called the invasion “unacceptable” but has not joined sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies on Russia.
“Enough is enough,” Pappas said. “Turkey has played both sides of the fence in Ukraine. They have not been the reliable ally that we should be able to count on.”
Some of Erdogan’s harshest critics warn of an endless cycle, in which the Turkish leader wins concessions from the United States and other NATO allies, such as new fighter jets and a tougher line against Kurdish militia fighters, only to escalate his demands in the future.
“This dance around the F-16 — it’s jet fighter diplomacy, and that is a mask of what’s truly at play here,” said Mark Wallace, founder of the Turkish Democracy Project, a group highly critical of Erdogan and his turn to authoritarianism. “A good ally — much less a good NATO ally — doesn’t use blackmail to get what it wants at key moments in the alliance’s history.”