US President Joe Biden met with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Rome on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in late October 2021, at a tense time in the relations between the two NATO member countries. Although Biden stressed the importance of the defense partnership between the two countries and Ankara’s importance to the US as a NATO member, US-Turkish relations are going through a crisis in light of the US president highlighting Washington’s concerns about Ankara possessing the Russian S-400 missile defense system.
The US-Turkish strategic partnership has gone through difficult times over the past five years. This is not only due to Turkey’s determination to buy the S-400 system, its removal from the American F-35 joint strike fighter program, and the imposition of US sanctions on Turkish military institutions. The list of contentious issues is long – most notably differences on Syria, Ankara’s strengthening ties with Russia, its naval ambitions in the Mediterranean Sea, the US accusing a state-owned Turkish bank of helping Iran bypass American sanctions, US support for Kurdish forces in Syria that Turkey considers terrorist organizations, and finally the decline of Turkish human rights and freedoms. There is also the US position on the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, who the Turkish government believes to be behind the failed coup attempt in July 2016. This is in addition to many other issues that impose a number of constraints on American-Turkish rapprochement.
A New Approach
US President Joe Biden’s administration has adopted a different approach towards Turkey from that of previous administrations (Democratic or Republican), amid the entanglement and complexity of contentious issues between the two allies. The highlights of that approach are as follows:
1. Absence of American escalation and stable bilateral relations: Since President Biden took office on 20 January 2021, relations between the US and Turkey have not experienced any new crisis, despite simmering tensions, strategic disagreements, and many potential flashpoints. The current calm in American-Turkish relations compared to previous US administrations is an achievement. The current US administration’s rhetoric has blended criticism of Turkey’s domestic and regional policies while underscoring Ankara’s importance to Washington at the same time, stressing the need to resolve shared disputes and take serious steps to reach consensus on contentious issues between the two countries.
2. Military communications to settle the consequences of strategic disputes: US Department of Defense (Pentagon) officials met with Turkish Ministry of Defense representatives in Ankara on 27 October 2021, in an effort to resolve the dispute over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system and the country’s removal from the American F-35 fighter program. Turkey was a participant in the US fighter program at its launch, and was supposed to receive 200 fighter jets from the program, but was excluded by Washington in 2019 after Ankara bought the Russian defense system. The October meeting also aimed to settle issues arising from Turkey’s exclusion from the F-35 program, which was finalized on 23 September 2021. It was agreed to continue negotiations over this issue to reach a suitable solution, and an upcoming meeting between American and Turkish military officials is expected in Washington in November 2021.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan both spoke with their Turkish counterparts by phone on 27 October 2021. According to a Pentagon statement, Austin discussed the shared goal of increasing long-term defense relations with his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar. He also thanked Ankara for hosting the Defense Department team to begin dispute resolution discussions to address outstanding issues arising from Turkey’s removal from the US F-35 program.
3. Threatening sanctions under the CAATSA act: The administration of former US President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on the Turkish Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB) and its head İsmail Demir under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The act imposed sanctions on countries that cooperate with enemies of the US, headed by Russia. The SSB and Demir were sanctioned for their purchase of the Russian missile defense system. The Biden administration, under pressure from the US Congress, has threatened to impose further sanctions under CAATSA if Ankara continues to retain the Russian defense system, especially given the Turkish president’s announcement that his country may plan to purchase a second Russian defense system.
4. Turkish efforts to buy various American weapons: Turkey has submitted a request to the US to buy 40 F-16 fighters produced by Lockheed Martin and around 80 modernization kits for its current aircraft, after it was denied participation in the F-35 fighter program for buying the Russian missile defense system. Reuters and Bloomberg reported that US President Joe Biden told his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during their latest meeting in Rome that the request should be made in accordance with US procedures for the purchase of American weapons by a foreign country.
Despite joint American-Turkish efforts to find solutions to the escalating contentious issues between the traditional allies – which threaten to cause more tension in bilateral relations – there are many constraints that could undermine chances to restore relations. These can be described as follows:
1. Strained personal relations between the American and Turkish presidents: Unlike the personal relationship between former US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the relationship between Erdoğan and current US President Joe Biden is strained at the personal level. The Turkish president expressed that while attending the UN General Assembly in September 2021, saying his relationship with the US president "remains strained." He added, "I worked well with the son of Bush, I worked well with Mr. Obama, I worked well with Mr. Trump, but I cannot say that we started well with Mr. Biden." The statements were made after he failed to meet his American counterpart on the sidelines of the meetings. On the other hand, before becoming president Biden described Erdoğan as an "autocrat" and supported his removal by Turkish voters. He also noted that Ankara helped the rise of the terrorist organization ISIS by allowing foreign fighters to cross the Turkish border into Syria.
2. Congressional opposition to American-Turkish rapprochement: US lawmakers from both the Democratic and Republican parties in both the Senate and the House of Representatives are increasingly critical of Turkey’s domestic and regional policies. The express concerns about growing ties between Ankara and Russia, especially after the former acquired the Russian S-400 missile defense system. They also call for further CAATSA sanctions to be applied to the Turkish government. In a bipartisan letter to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, 11 members of the House of Representatives have urged President Biden not to sell a package of F-16 aircraft to Turkey. They expressed confidence that Congress would block any such deal, following reports of Turkish demands to buy American fighter jets and equipment to modernize the aircraft they already have.
3. Turkish determination to buy new Russian defense systems: Despite the impact that Ankara completing the Russian missile defense deal in 2017 had on American-Turkish relations, Erdoğan has announced that his country is open to buying a new Russian defense system and that Turkey is free to buy the weapons it deems fit for its security. The announcement served to increase pressure on the US administration, which did not deliver F-35 fighter jets to Ankara even though it had paid $1.4 billion.
4. Impeding the transfer of American weapons to Turkey: Turkey is demanding F-16 fighter jets in exchange for the money it paid to acquire F-35 fighters. But the US faces a problem if it decides to meet Turkey’s demand: The SSB is the party that will obtain those fighters, and it is subject to American sanctions under CAATSA. While Turkish officials argue that there are other ways to transfer American fighter jets to Turkey without dealing with the SSB, members of Congress have indicated that they will obstruct any such alternatives, as they would be a circumvention of US law.
In conclusion, despite shared American-Turkish endeavors to put an end to the contentious issues between the two strategic NATO allies, they are not expected to disappear or be resolved overnight. The two countries’ visions diverge significantly, pushing relations between them to their lowest level in decades. Additionally, current relations between Ankara and Washington are characterized by a great lack of mutual trust. The Joe Biden administration adopts the same approach in its relations with Turkey that it takes with its strategic adversaries (Russia and China). This approach is based on Washington not ceding its firm stances in order to preserve a more favorable climate for bilateral relations, while at the same time aiming to cooperate in other areas where their policies can converge.