Event Summary: US-Turkey Relations: Previewing the Biden-Erdogan Meeting at NATO
On Tuesday, June 8, 2021, The SETA Foundation at Washington, DC hosted a virtual panel of experts to discuss ‘US-Turkey Relations: Previewing the Biden-Erdogan Meeting at NATO.’ The discussion featured Luke Coffey, Director at the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation, and Muhittin Ataman, Director of Foreign Policy at the SETA Foundation and Editor-in-chief of Insight Turkey. The panel was moderated by Kilic B. Kanat, Research Director at SETA DC.
Coffey opened the discussion by recognizing the importance of the upcoming NATO summit – not only is this the first summit since the pandemic, but it also marks the ending of military operations in Afghanistan, which has been the biggest military operation occupying the alliance. The summit also takes place prior to the publication of the next strategic concept – the last one was written in 2010. Further, this is President Biden’s first summit. According to Coffey, while Trump’s rhetoric was off, his policies were good – so far Biden has arguably represented the opposite (he has notably lowered the budget for Nord Stream 2). Regarding agenda items for the summit, Russia is always a top issue – Central and Eastern Europe are focused on deterrence in the Black Sea, while the US and Western Europe will push for climate change discussions. He expects that China will be discussed, but that until China becomes a military threat, the alliance is limited in what it can do to counter China. Coffey also said that it is important to manage expectations on the Biden-Erdogan meeting. For the meeting to be successful, rhetoric should be cooled down and contentious issues such as YPG support and the S-400 should be compartmentalized – it is important to focus on the historic depth of the US-Turkish relationship. Coffey also thinks that the meeting will go well if the two sides focus on issues such as Ukraine and Afghanistan, as well as NATO issues in general, such as enlargement, especially as it pertains to Georgia. Focus should also be placed on recent increased US LNG exports into Turkey. When asked about the controversial S-400 sales, Coffey stated that the crisis could be resolved through a creative and flexible approach. He proposed that Turkey send the S-400 to Azerbaijan, and the US lifts restrictions on Patriot missiles and gets Turkey back in the F-35 program. He noted that this would anger Russia and Iran. Coffey did not believe that recent tensions between Biden and Erdogan as they pertained to the Israel-Palestine conflict would impact their meeting, as Biden and Erdogan have had a personal relationship stemming from Biden’s days as Vice President. Coffey ended his remarks by affirming his belief that Biden will not budge on support for the YPG in Syria, though Coffey’s personal opinion is that arming YPG is a bad strategy for the US, and that the US should differentiate between the PKK and other Kurds.
Ataman affirmed Coffey’s belief that this NATO summit is of particular significance. He believes that it will create an opportunity to repair the rupture among member states, particularly between Turkey and the US. He also thinks that the eastern Mediterranean issue will be a feature of the summit given Russia’s growing presence in the area. Ataman believes that the Biden-Erdogan meeting can be a venue between both leaders to rescue relations from the turbulence of the last decade. The discussion could go two ways – either Biden could make an effort to repair relations, or it could be a diplomatic meeting where both sides recite respective talking points about areas of disagreements and inform counterparts of their concerns. He hopes that discussion of NATO itself will give a better chance for a positive start, and set the tone for Turkish relations with the US. Regarding the S-400 issue, Ataman believes that the American viewpoint is largely guided by political rather than technical considerations – it has been explained that the S-400 sale will not create a big problem for the NATO alliance. It will be difficult for Turkey to abandon the S-400 process, and Turkey expects goodwill from the US to solve this problem through dialogue and negotiation. Ataman disagrees with Coffey’s proposed Azerbaijan solution. For Turkey, there is also a domestic dimension – it will be difficult to persuade the Turkish public after spending billions of dollars on this program. He thinks the main issue regarding the S-400 is that there is no trust or confidence between the two sides. Ataman believes that the Biden Administration is no less anti-Turkey than Trump, though recent unconditional support for Israel has increased anti-American sentiments in Turkey. He laughed off the notion that Erdogan’s recent comments regarding Israel are anti-Semitic, and believes that we must stop equating criticism of Israel to anti-Semitism. Ataman also affirmed that US support for the YPG in Syria is one of the most important issues in the US-Turkey relationship.