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Will Erdogan's Turkey turn into Biden's foreign policy nightmare?

Audio 05:21
Old friends are best: US president-elect Joe Biden will look to strengthen global alliances. But will Turkey show any real interest?
Old friends are best: US president-elect Joe Biden will look to strengthen global alliances. But will Turkey show any real interest? ROBERTO SCHMIDT AFP
By: Dorian Jones
9 min

Turkey is set to be one of the thorniest issues facing US president-elect Joseph Biden. Biden has pledged to restore international alliances and traditional ties with America's friends in Europe. But Nato member Turkey's deepening relations with Moscow are casting doubt over its loyalties to Washington.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan belatedly sent Joe Biden a brief note on his success, while sending a warm message to Donald Trump thanking the out-going US leader.

Under Trump, Erdogan had a free hand to confront fellow Nato members and, at the same time, cozy up to Moscow, while the US president blocked Congress calls for sanctions against Turkey.

But a Biden victory is seen as ending the party for Ankara. "The message will be to Turkey, do behave like an ally," warns international relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University.

"A lot will depend on Turkey, how Ankara actually decides to move," adds Ozel. "A Biden presidency gives you the opportunity to actually change tracks, not necessarily giving up on your interests but changing your style. But if Turkey insists on defying everyone, I don't think we can get anywhere, and the key to that is the S-400."

From Russia with love

The S-400 is an advanced missile system that Turkey has bought from Russia in the face of warnings from Washington, which claim it compromises Nato defense systems.

In defiance of Washington, Ankara last month test-fired the system, despite the US Congress warning such a move would trigger sanctions.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu further ratcheted up tensions, belligerently listing what Ankara expected from Biden, including dropping objections to the S-400. Cavusoglu also underlined that Turkey's strategic alignment with the United States should not be taken for granted.

In the first months after assuming office Biden is likely to face calls for sanctions against Turkey, for violating US Iranian sanctions, as well as Ankara's purchase of Russia's S-400 missiles.

Delicate balance between friendship and feuding

But a hardline stance by Biden toward Turkey could prove counterproductive. "These hostile actions against Turkey will eventually align Turkey with the Eurasian and Asian powers like Russia and China," warns retired Turkish admiral Cem Gurdeniz. "This is going to be inevitable because they are threatening the very existence of Turkey."

The legacy of the 2016 failed coup by disaffected Turkish military officers could complicate Biden's relationship with Turkey. In Ankara, suspicions linger that the Barrack Obama administration, in which Biden served, was involved in the botched military takeover, a charge strenuously denied by Washington at the time.

But Biden has experience working with Erdogan, "Biden himself emerged as an Erdogan whisperer," says Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "It was Biden who was dispatched to Turkey after the failed coup attempt in 2016 to repair the relationship...So the one-on-one relationship between the two may not be so bad."

Negotiating tactic or political option?

Ankara's uncompromising stance towards Washington could be a negotiating tactic, suggests Aydintasbas.  She says Erdogan is aware that Biden's presidency's likely key goal is to confront Moscow and that Ankara can play a critical role, for a price.

"No doubt, there is a lot of anger (in Washington) directed at Turkey, at president Erdogan himself. But there is also the larger geopolitical issues of very uncertain rivalry going on. There will also be a tendency to see if the US can peel Turkey back from its reliance on Russia, from the larger geopolitical rivalry with Russia. And I think Erdogan knows how to play this game; he knows how to play the US against Russia and vice versa, and that will be an interesting dance to watch," says Aydintasbas.

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