Q&A: Turkish Foreign Minister’s Visit to Washington
What is the background and significance of the Turkish foreign minister’s visit to Washington? What are the differences and similarities between the two countries’ Ukraine policies? Will the U.S. sell F-16s to Türkiye? What is Türkiye’s position on Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership? What is Washington’s view on Türkiye’s engagement with the Syrian regime?
What is the background and significance of the Turkish foreign minister’s visit to Washington?
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu paid a visit to Washington as part of the Strategic Mechanism established in October 2021 in Rome after a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Joe Biden. The U.S.-Türkiye relationship has been through quite a few crises in the past decade due to disagreements and policy clashes over regional developments and defense issues. In its last year, the Trump administration ended up imposing sanctions against Türkiye even though the Trump-Erdoğan relationship was seen as close and largely positive. The continued U.S. support for the PKK terrorist group’s Syrian wing, the YPG, in northern Syria and Ankara’s procurement of Russian S-400 air defense systems created two significant crises between the two allies. When President Biden came to power, his administration tried to freeze existing crises and avoid new ones. The haphazard U.S. departure from Afghanistan, the conflict in Libya, and most significantly, the war in Ukraine demonstrated to Washington and Ankara that there were many areas they could still explore cooperation. While the Biden administration’s “crisis management” approach prevented the emergence of new bumps on the road, it was not enough to resolve significant differences, some of which Türkiye considered a direct threat to its national security. The lack of an ongoing institutional strategic dialogue provided the rationale for the creation of the Strategic Mechanism. Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu’s announcement that the Turkish side suggested holding strategic mechanism meetings at least twice a year indicates the urgency of such talks given the wide range of issues of common concern for the U.S. and Türkiye. Formalization and continuation of this mechanism, I would argue, is the most significant part of this visit that would enable ongoing and comprehensive strategic dialogue.
What are the differences and similarities between the two countries’ Ukraine policies?
In terms of regional issues with global implications, the war in Ukraine was at the top of the agenda as it has serious implications for both countries as well as for unity within the NATO alliance. Türkiye has been very active since the beginning of the Russian invasion in trying to support Ukraine alongside NATO allies but also in finding a resolution to the conflict as soon as possible. Türkiye brought together the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers early in the conflict to broker a ceasefire and potentially create a peace plan. However, neither side was ready for meaningful talks, and both Russia and Ukraine presented drastically different positions. This dynamic has not changed, and in fact, it has arguably deepened over the past year. Türkiye supported Ukraine militarily, logistically, economically, and politically while maintaining its relationship with Russia. The U.S., in contrast, focused on creating unity within NATO and mobilizing military support to Ukraine through diplomacy with European allies. Türkiye participated in all NATO decisions and was a critical actor in enabling NATO effectiveness while brokering deals such as grain exports and prisoner exchange agreements. The U.S. neither spent a lot of political capital nor encouraged diplomatic engagement with Russia, appearing convinced that it would support Ukraine “to the end.” However, this might change soon given a certain degree of skepticism against aid to Ukraine coming from the ranks of Republicans domestically. The U.S. and Türkiye’s policies of supporting Ukraine and keeping a unified front within NATO certainly overlap, but Türkiye’s engagement with Russia is probably the main difference. This difference, however, might come in handy if Ukraine and Russia are ready for potential peace talks. It was important for the U.S. and Türkiye to discuss, as part of the Strategic Mechanism dialogue, how to support Ukraine and strengthen NATO’s response.
Will the U.S. sell F-16s to Türkiye?
In terms of the bilateral defense relationship between the U.S. and Türkiye, the F-16 procurement issue was the top agenda item. On this front, the military-to-military talks have been completed and the Pentagon recommended the sale to Türkiye. Just as President Biden had expressed to President Erdoğan that he would support the sale, the Biden administration has already unofficially notified Congress that this sale was in the U.S. national interest and important for NATO’s military capacity. The next step will be for the administration to assuage any concerns congressional members, such as Senator Robert Menendez, might have about the sale. If the administration is convinced that the sale will go through Congress, it can then issue the official notification. However, congressional members will likely continue to ask questions about Türkiye’s position on Finland and Sweden’s membership in NATO, and they may want this process to finish before authorizing the F-16 sale. Although proponents of the sale argue that there should be no linkage between the two issues, neither Congress nor the White House may want to give President Erdoğan a “win” before the May elections in Türkiye. At the same time, stalling the sale will likely erode mutual trust and further cooperation areas. This is true especially if the F-35 sale to Greece sails through Congress, while the F-16 sale is conditioned on Türkiye’s acceptance of Finland and Sweden’s NATO memberships. It should be noted that Türkiye will likely insist on the satisfactory implementation of the terms of the trilateral agreement between Türkiye, Finland, and Sweden, which was meant to assure counterterrorism cooperation between these countries. The F-16 sale should have no issues in terms of the merits of the deal given that Türkiye has been using this aircraft for decades and it would help NATO’s capacity as well. However, the political considerations described above might serve as a significant hindrance.
What is Türkiye’s position on Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership?
Türkiye’s reservations about the approval of Finland and Sweden’s NATO memberships derive from the fact that terrorist groups like the PKK have found it easy to operate in these countries as well as in much of the rest of Europe for decades. Türkiye has been raising this issue for many years with European allies as well as the U.S. The Western support for the YPG, the PKK’s Syrian branch in northern Syria, in recent years made this issue even more urgent and Türkiye wants NATO unity regarding the fight against international terrorism. The rationale is that if NATO allies are supposed to be committed to one another’s security concerns and run to the aid of each other when attacked, terrorism should be a major part of the NATO agenda. Türkiye has been pushing for the inclusion of international terrorism issues in NATO’s strategic concept and demanding sensitivity over the issue from allies. The same logic applies to Finland and Sweden, which sought a fast-track membership in NATO following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Türkiye has supported NATO’s open-door policy to new members and has even advocated for Georgia and Ukraine’s inclusion in the alliance for years. So, the reservations about Finland and Sweden are not due to Türkiye’s position on enlargement but over these countries’ approach to terrorist activities on their soil. Türkiye appears to have more issues with Sweden than Finland, as Swedish authorities appear less receptive to Turkish requests about the extradition of individuals Türkiye has accused of being members of terrorist groups. The fact that PKK sympathizers continue to organize anti-Türkiye demonstrations in Sweden and Swedish authorities refuse to restrict their activities is not helping the situation. It is not clear, as of now, if a common ground can be established that would enable the inclusion of Sweden in NATO.
What is Washington’s view on Türkiye’s engagement with the Syrian regime?
Washington’s immediate reaction to Ankara’s efforts to engage the Syrian regime was to state its opposition to legitimizing the regime. This seemingly principled stance does little to offer a path toward achieving the political settlement needed to end the conflict in Syria. The Biden administration continues to argue that its support for the YPG in northern Syria is to fight against a potential resurgence of ISIS and to deny ceding the territory to Russia or Iran if the U.S. were to leave. This counterterrorism strategy does not amount to a Syria policy that could achieve what the U.N. 2254 resolution calls for. For Türkiye, there are several security and political considerations in engaging the Syrian regime. If the regime were to classify the PKK and its Syrian branch YPG/PYD as a terrorist group, this would be a win for Türkiye. The safe return of refugees from countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Türkiye through negotiations with the regime would also be in the interest of Türkiye. Finally, a more robust peace process could bring about a political solution through negotiations between the regime and the legitimate opposition groups in Syria. These interests likely influence the Turkish rationale for engaging the regime, but none of them are easily achievable and will require painstaking negotiations over the coming months and years. In the meantime, there has been very little effective political effort put forward by the U.S. or European allies to facilitate a political resolution in Syria. Türkiye’s engagement with the regime can potentially be a game changer, but it will neither be easy nor quick. The ongoing U.S. support for the YPG continues to poison the Turkish-American relationship, which is a major hindrance to cooperation on their respective Syria policies.