Max Hoffman is the associate director of National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress and his work is focused on Turkey, Europe and the Middle East. A few days ago he published an authoritative report titled “Flashpoints in US-Turkey Relations in 2021.” In an interview with Kathimerini, Hoffman highlights specific flashpoints and describes the different dynamics that are set to shape the near future in Turkey’s relationship with Greece and the West.
In your report you highlighted three main flashpoints: the possible recognition of the Armenian genocide by the US, the emphasis on democracy on a global scale that US President Joe Biden is expected to project, and the Halkbank trial. What are the chances the new administration in Washington will proceed with all three in 2021 and risk a deterioration in US-Turkey relations?
In the field of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, there will be a change in tone from the new administration – President Biden cares about these issues and will raise them with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a way that Trump did not. So whereas the Trump administration would never say anything about, for example, the jailing of political opponents or the removal of duly elected Kurdish officials, the new team will at least lend rhetorical support to the forces of democracy. Erdogan will not like that. Beyond this overall shift, there are some specific foreseeable flashpoints. Congress will likely pass a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide, and the new administration will have to gauge how to respond. That is a manageable problem but may provide an early clue to Biden’s approach. A bigger issue is the Halkbank trial, where a US district court in New York will likely convict the bank of sanctions evasion and levy a large fine. Erdogan has been pushing the White House to intervene for years now, but there’s no chance Biden will interfere in the judicial process. Biden had already rejected Erdogan’s pressure regarding the case when he was vice president, and he will now be focused on rebuilding norms eroded by Trump. Erdogan doesn’t believe that the US president is limited in his ability to shape judicial outcomes, so he will be angry and defiant. And the fine could have a meaningful impact on Turkish financial markets, which Erdogan will likely use to spin nationalist support against foreign interference.
Beyond these issues, there are also some “hard policy” flashpoints.
Yes. Beyond these democracy and rule of law questions, however, there are a number of other potential flashpoints. The biggest issue is the possibility of further Turkish-Russian defense cooperation and, specifically, Turkey’s stated desire to buy more S-400 air defense systems. The US has already sanctioned Turkey under CAATSA [the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act], of course, and is in the process of ejecting it from the F-35 program for its dealings with Russia. The initial CAATSA sanctions were meaningful but not too tough – more of a warning shot not to go further with Russia. But absent moves from the Turkish side to resolve the crisis – and certainly if Ankara buys another system from Russia – there may be a steady escalation of US punitive measures against Turkey.
What would happen then?
Then there is the potential for one of the regional flashpoints – Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean – to flare up into a major crisis between the US and Turkey. In Syria, Biden will likely revive the US commitment to stabilizing the East in cooperation with the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces], and that will infuriate Turkey. If Turkey makes a military move on Ain Issa or other SDF-controlled towns, it will spark a new crisis and possibly provoke Congressional action. In Libya, there’s a bit of a chance for cooperation – the new team may embrace the ceasefire and support Turkey in backing the UN-backed Government of National Accord. In the Eastern Mediterranean, Biden has long familiarity with the issue and will want to de-escalate and push the parties toward meaningful negotiations. Across all of these issues, then, the US will want to compartmentalize and de-escalate as part of a broader effort to put out some fires across the region. And on many of these fronts, the US sees the ball in Turkey’s court – that means Erdogan will be the main factor in determining whether things escalate or cool down.
The situation is this: First, Turkey is seeking to elevate occupied northern Cyprus to sovereign nation status. Second, Turkey is seeking to control half of the Aegean Sea in terms of continental shelf rights and exclusive economic zones (EEZ). Ankara persistently disputes that Greek islands in the Aegean Sea have their own continental shelf and EEZ. Greece deems both claims unacceptable as a basis for any negotiations with Turkey but it accepts that its continental shelf might be different in different sea regions according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). What stance is the US likely to take in this evident standoff that persists beneath the surface of diplomacy, causing recurring naval tensions and conflicts of words between the two countries?
It’s not clear to me how far Erdogan will go, but he will likely escalate slowly until he elicits a punitive response from the European Union that seriously hurts his economic prospects, at which point he may pause. It is clear that Ankara’s assertive line in these maritime and energy disputes has pushed its neighbors to deepen their cooperation, and this in turn has deepened Turkey’s sense of isolation or containment. The US is unlikely to want to explicitly take a side but will want to claim the role of fair arbiter to push for peaceful, negotiated resolutions to these disputes in line with international maritime law. The EU is more likely to adopt punitive measures on Turkey’s unilateral actions before the US, since its member-states are at stake. I suspect the EU and US would both like to slow down the escalatory cycle and try to deter Turkey in the hope that political changes in Turkey could defuse the crisis. But if Turkey pushes too far that may change the calculus.
In the runup to the 2023 Turkish presidential elections, do you think that Erdogan will soften his stance or proceed in an even more defiant manner?
Erdogan and the Turkish government are in a conciliatory phase right now, waiting to see how the new administration will approach Turkey and not wanting to antagonize them too much or elicit more punitive actions under CAATSA or regarding Halkbank. But it’s unlikely to last – this is a cycle we’ve seen several times with Erdogan. The structural realities of his domestic political arrangements and his own worldview mean he is very likely to escalate on a few fronts in the runup to his re-election campaign. After the resumption of the Kurdish conflict in 2015, Erdogan lost a lot of Kurdish support and pivoted to the hard nationalist right. This worked for five years but has left him politically cornered and entirely reliant on the far right to maintain his rule. He therefore can’t soften on the Kurdish issue domestically or in Syria without losing the support of his ultranationalist coalition partners in the MHP. That Erdogan will also want to play on the fault lines in the opposition’s electoral coalition also points to a continuing hardline approach. Still, his support is eroding among young people and some center-right swing voters, and it is a real toss-up whether he can win the next election.
How will this delicate balance affect Erdogan’s policies in the near future?
On democracy and rule of law, as well as in Syria, it’s hard to see moderation. Erdogan’s AK Party is also reliant on a patronage system and has built a crony capitalist system that makes meaningful economic reforms or an improvement in the rule of law hard to imagine. And the argument that an economic collapse will change Erdogan’s behavior may be true if things get bad enough, but that has not yet been the case – it’s just as likely he will resume the rhetoric we saw in the 2018 currency crisis of a resistance economy against so-called imperialist aggression.
This all fits with Erdogan’s worldview as he has himself outlined it. He sees a multipolar world and wants to chart a more independent course, making Turkey into a major power and showing less deference to Western powers, which he feels do not respect Turkey. That is why he has been so transactional in his dealings with traditional allies and deepened cooperation with Russia and others. And what we may see under Biden is the US begin to return that attitude, treating Turkey as a more independent power to be dealt with in more straightforward transactional terms, and less like a strategic partner with whom the US shares values and a strategic outlook. That shift will have ramifications for both sides that may be painful at times.