After Election Disappointment, Erdogan Faces Difficult Meeting with President Biden

April 26, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: TurkeyRecep Tayyip ErdoganJoe BidenKurdsHamas

After Election Disappointment, Erdogan Faces Difficult Meeting with President Biden

Erdogan’s upcoming trip to Washington may not be exactly a “come to Jesus” meeting, but it will certainly involve a frank exchange of views.

 

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington on May 9. Perhaps this time, the Turkish head of state can persuade his security detail not to attack pro-Kurdish demonstrators, an incident that overshadowed a previous visit.

Saturday’s dramatic passage of a number of foreign aid bills marks a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy. As President Biden duly noted, “Members of both parties in the House voted to advance our national security interests and send a clear message about the power of American leadership on the world stage.”

 

May’s meeting with Erdogan may not be a “come to Jesus” meeting but should undoubtedly involve a frank exchange of views. Turkey’s fence-sitting with regard to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also similar to its attitude to the Axis powers in the Second World War, when Turkey safely waited until February 1945 before declaring war on Germany and Japan.

Turkey’s purported neutrality, especially as a member of NATO, needs to be challenged. For example, in March, Turkey’s oil imports from Russia reached the highest point, placing Turkey, along with China and India, as one of the top three importers of Russian discounted oil.

This ambiguity led to election losses for Erdogan’s governing AKP (Justice and Development Party) in Turkey’s local elections at the end of March. The son of Erdogan’s former mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, the father of political Islam in Turkey, has resurrected his father’s party under the name Yeni Refah Partisi (New Welfare Party).

A former ally, Fatih Erbakan, turned on the AKP and gained 6.19 percent of the votes, accusing them of continuing trade with Israel and agreeing to Sweden’s NATO  membership. Consequently, Turkey has restricted trade with Israel, and Erdogan, to calls of “Death to Israel,” has informed the Turkish parliament he intends to host Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’s politburo.

A bone of contention between Turkey and America is continued U.S. support for the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) militia, which, as the backbone of the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF), plays a leading role in Operation Inherent Resolve to prevent the resurgence of ISIS.

In October 2019, President Donald Trump reversed U.S. policy when he, in a telephone call with Turkey’s President Erdogan, greenlit a third Turkish incursion into Syria and ordered the withdrawal of the special forces. Trump considered the move “strategically brilliant,” although the then-special presidential envoy Brett McGurk panned it as “strategically backward.” Nevertheless, the special forces have maintained a foothold in the region.

Erdogan was the first Turkish leader to admit Turkey had a Kurdish problem in a speech he made in Diyarbakir in 2005. In 2013, Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned Kurdish leader, called for a cease-fire in the war with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), and the Dolmabahce Agreement in February 2015 paved the way for a settlement. However,  the success of the mainly Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) in the June elections blocked the way for Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions and led to a renewal of the conflict.

The HDP’s co-chair, Selahattin Demirtas, has been in prison since 2016, and despite rulings from the European Court of Human Rights, Erdogan has said he will never be released while he is president.

Since August 2016, Turkey has launched four military operations in northern Syria, partly in an attempt to boost Erdogan’s electoral support. In October, Erdogan called on Turkey’s allies for a clear stance against terrorism, and with a clear reference to the United States, he spoke of “the overt support given to terrorist entities in northern Syria.”

Following the local elections in Turkey, it seemed like business as usual. In the regional capital of Van, the Kurdish candidate, who won with over 55 percent of the votes, was replaced by the AKP candidate (earlier, democratically elected Kurdish mayors had been replaced by government-appointed trustees). But after mass demonstrations, the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) decided to reinstate him.

As President Erdogan admitted in his balcony speech that the March 31 elections were not the end but the turning point.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, the SDF’s Kurdish commander, Mazlum Kobane, warned against an ISIS resurgence and that security in the region hinges on the continued presence of an estimated 900 U.S. Special Operation forces in Syria. He also said that the main purpose of the Shia militia attacks on U.S. bases was to force their withdrawal. However, the SDF’s efforts were undermined by Turkey’s campaign to destroy critical infrastructure with drones and fighter jets.

Given the upheaval in the region as well as the precarious state of Turkey’s economy, President Erdogan is hard-pressed on all sides.

The fact that the World Bank has doubled its exposure to Turkey to $35 billion in an attempt to restore macroeconomic stability should provide food for thought. Likewise, Turkey was among the world’s top military spenders in 2023. At the same time, Erdogan makes no secret of Turkey’s arms buildup, both at sea and in the air (augmented by the F-16 deal with the United States).

Whatever the outcome, Biden and Erdogan will have many discussion items on their agenda next month.

Robert Ellis is a Turkey analyst and commentator. He is also an international advisor at the Research Institute for European and American Studies in Athens.

Image: Shutterstock.com.