Joe Biden has started his presidency by notably taking a harder line on Turkey. During his first month as US president, he made routine calls to other world leaders, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not receive such a call. This quiet phone line is believed to be a result of perceived slights on the part of both countries, from Turkey purchasing a Russian air defense system as well as their jostling over Syria. President Biden, who in 2016 guided the relationship between the US and Turkey through a point regarded by many as low after Erdogan withstood an attempted coup, has vowed to prioritize democracy promotion during his presidency.
Just over a month ago, 170 members of the US House of Representatives signed a bipartisan letter that was sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the Biden administration to address human rights issues in Turkey as they formulate a policy to deal with Turkey. The representatives characterized the issues as troubling in nature. In their letter, dated February 26, they note Turkey has been an important partner to the US over the years but that Erdogan’s administration has strained the relationship through democratic backsliding and gross human rights violations.
That House of Representatives letter followed an earlier call by 54 US senators urging Biden to confront Erdogan over Turkey’s hostile behavior and democratic backsliding. In their letter, the senators accused Erdogan of silencing critical media, marginalizing domestic opposition, purging independent judges and jailing journalists. They urged the Biden administration to push Ankara to immediately release prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, end its crackdown on dissent at home and abroad, as well as reverse its authoritarian course. These letters highlight the congressional support of the bipartisan, bicameral nature of the call for tougher action against the authoritarian government in Turkey.
In his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Blinken called Turkey a strategic partner of the US but also criticized Ankara for aligning with one of the country’s biggest strategic competitors through the purchase of the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia. During a call with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on February 15, Blinken reiterated his concerns regarding the S-400, urging Turkey to abandon the Russian system. He also emphasized the importance of respect for human rights, inclusive governance and democratic institutions. The State Department followed Blinken’s lead by condemning Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu’s anti-LGBTI rhetoric in a statement by spokesperson Ned Price.
Erdogan has pointed the finger of blame for the 2016 coup attempt at the United States. Ankara also has the perception that the US needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the US and has demonstrated that by using its geostrategic position as Syria’s neighbor and the host of US military assets at Incirlik as a means of leverage to exert pressure on the US. However, according to the Turkish Embassy in Washington, Ankara attaches “the utmost importance” to its relations with the US and is willing to work on strengthening ties with the Biden administration. The Turkish president has said that Turkey wants to improve its cooperation with the US. In televised comments, Erdogan said Turkey believes that its common interests with the US far outweigh their differences in opinion and that Ankara wants to strengthen the relationship through “a long-term perspective on a win-win basis.”
He added that Turkish-US ties had recently been seriously tested and that his government would continue to do its part in a manner that is worthy of the strategic and allied ties between the two countries. Turkey wants improved ties with the Biden administration but has recently called on the US to end its support for the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. It accused the US of siding with fighters who they believe executed 13 Turks in northern Iraq.
Apart from the US-Turkey relationship, Ankara has a challenging, threatening and dangerous expansive policy vis-à-vis all its neighbors. Under Erdogan, Turkey has militarily intervened in Syria, Iraq, Libya and the Caucasus while establishing military bases in Qatar and Somalia and is trying to expand its influence in the Red Sea. Turkey also helped its close ally Azerbaijan against Armenia. With Greece, it sustains a relationship which has been characterized by alternating periods of hostility and reconciliation. Recently, there has been a rise in military tensions due to their conflict over the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean maritime zones. Another example is Cyprus: the ongoing occupation of the island since 1974, the recent violation of UN Security Council resolutions on the town of Varosha, the illegal exploration for hydrocarbons in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone and its obstructions which still impede progress for peace. The traditional conflicts between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus have been exacerbated by other energy disputes and geopolitical tensions between Turkey and other countries like Egypt, France and the United Arab Emirates.
US Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has often urged the US to stand firm against Turkish aggression on Cyprus. He pressed for the defense of Cyprus’ right to conduct energy exploration in its own waters. He also accused Turkey of impeding the progress of peace and argued that if it were not for Turkish meddling there could be peace between the two communities with a prosperous future. He also stated that Turkey is the source of instability on the island through its activities characterized as disgraceful behavior. These include laying the groundwork in Varosha to exploit the area economically and illegally exploring Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone. Turkey is also sending Turkish citizens to settle in the island’s north with the aim of changing the demographics of Cyprus.
All of these issues will have huge effects on Europe, as expended on by Max Hoffman in his report “Flashpoints in US-Turkey Relations in 2021,” published in January of this year. Turkey’s decision on the S-400 and the US response under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and sanctions imposed on December 14, 2020 will have an impact on NATO cohesion and European defense. Washington’s line on TurkStream 2 is tied to the Nord Stream 2 dispute and will reverberate through European energy markets. The situation in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean will shape the migration issue and the internal politics of the European Union. These complex crises cannot be disentangled, and the coordination of actions between the US and the EU is really important.
The Biden administration argues that it can hold Turkey to account on the issues of backsliding democratic values as well as keep it aligned with NATO principles on critical issues. However, unless Turkey changes its approach, the US should toughen its position of criticizing the Erdogan regime. For instance, in addition to the CAATSA sanctions, it can use the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and impose sanctions on Turkish officials who engage in corruption and human rights abuses. Additionally, the US should seek to find alternatives to Turkey’s geopolitical role as Turkey has become less stable as well as less friendly to the US. As a result, the US should seek the possible alternatives to Incirlik. Building on the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Partnership Act, the US should also examine the opportunity of actively contributing to a new alternative security system which will be created with stable, democratic states in the Eastern Mediterranean, like Greece, Cyprus and Israel, key allies and partners in the region.
Elias G. Hadjikoumis is a foreign, security and defense policy expert and a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.