Erdogan's victory: Implications for the Turkey-US alliance
Analysis: Many sensitive issues pit Ankara and Washington against each other, but compartmentalising these concerns and finding areas for deeper cooperation will be critical to the health of their alliance.
May 30, 2023
By Giorgio Cafiero
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s win on 28 May extends his rule until 2028. Shortly after securing another term, which may have been his biggest political challenge, he addressed hundreds of thousands of people outside the presidential palace in Ankara.
Erdogan announced that “the only winner today is Turkey” and referred to the “century of Turkey”.
The outcome of this election will have important implications for the future of Turkey’s alliance with the US. With so much tension between the two countries, both Ankara and Washington will need to work hard to improve relations and find more productive ways of cooperating together in pursuit of common interests.
Many sensitive issues pit Ankara and Washington against each other. Given Erdogan’s consistent determination to chart an independent course for Turkey in an increasingly multipolar world, it can be taken for granted that the country’s interests will not always align with US foreign policy agendas.
"Probably the most notable trend that will continue through the next term is Turkey will look for ways to diversify itself away from the Western alliance system"
Compartmentalising issues and finding areas for deeper cooperation while mitigating existing tensions will be critical to the health of this alliance.
“Probably the most notable trend that will continue through the next term is Turkey will look for ways to diversify itself away from the Western alliance system,” said Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North African analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, in an interview with The New Arab.
“Overall, Turkey is looking to take advantage of the slow drawdown of US forces and influence in the Middle East. As the world becomes more and more multipolar, Turkey under Erdogan has full intention of becoming a great power in this new geopolitical order.”
Issues related to Russian foreign policy, the enlargement of NATO, and the situation in Syria are three of the most important ones that policymakers in Ankara and Washington will need to address in the upcoming period.
Balancing Russia and the West
Turkey’s ties with Russia have created significant tension in the Ankara-Washington alliance. A major foreign policy challenge for Turkey has been to balance itself between Russia and its traditional NATO allies amid a period of growing East-West bifurcation in the international landscape.
Yet, these geopolitical dynamics have also been a unique opportunity for Ankara to assert its independence and gain leverage as an influential diplomatic player which is capable of bridging East and West.
The complicated and multidimensional relationship between Turkey and Russia is both confrontational and cooperative. On one hand, Ankara views Moscow’s revisionist foreign policy as a threat and fears Russia’s long-term intentions in the Middle East and Europe.
By the same token, Turkey’s problems with the US and other NATO members have incentivised Ankara to turn to Moscow to counterbalance the West. The 2016 coup plot against Erdogan and his government did much to push Turkey closer to Russia.
This was especially so given Vladimir Putin’s strong support for the Turkish leadership amid that crisis’s aftermath, which contrasted with the reaction from Western states - some of which Ankara believes had a nefarious hand in that failed coup attempt.
There are also deep economic links that Turkey has with Russia. Moscow can also create major problems for Turkey that could undermine stability in the country. Therefore, for Ankara to embrace a foreign policy that is excessively antagonistic toward Moscow would be dangerous from the standpoint of Turkey’s economy and national security.
Under Erdogan’s leadership, Ankara has pushed back against Russia in some ways, while also maintaining a respectful relationship that has entailed cooperation in certain domains.
Cases of Turkey countering Russia’s foreign policy include Ankara’s support for anti-government forces in Syria, Libyan factions fighting General Khalifa Haftar in the Libyan civil war, and the Ukrainian government in the aftermath of Moscow’s February 2022 invasion.
"During Erdogan's third term, Turkey will probably maintain its deep economic relations with Russia while supporting Ukraine militarily"
Indeed, Ankara providing Kyiv with drones since an early stage of the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian War illustrated how Turkey is a strategically important ally of the West situated on NATO’s eastern flank.
To be sure, Ankara’s stance against Russian violations of Ukrainian sovereignty didn’t begin in 2022. In fact, going back to 2014 Erdogan has been particularly outspoken against Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
Yet, Erdogan’s administration has refused to support the West’s financial warfare against Russia post-February 2022. Turkish-Russian trade has remained high since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
This has upset the foreign policy establishment in the US and one of the reasons why many in Washington were hoping for Erdogan’s opponent to win had to do with expectations that Kemal Kilicdaroglu would realign Ankara more closely with its NATO allies against Putin.
One year after Russia’s overt invasion of Ukraine, Brian Nelson, the US Treasury Department’s top sanctions official, went to Turkey and urged officials in the government and private sector to be more cooperative with Washington in relation to efforts aimed at squeezing Russia.
Nelson warned Turkish bankers that exports to Russia will make Turkish entities “particularly vulnerable to reputational and sanctions risks” as well as lost access to markets in G7 countries. The Treasury issued a copy of his speech, in which Nelson said Turkish banks must “take extra precaution to avoid transactions related to potential dual-use technology transfers that could be used by the Russian military-industrial complex”.
As the Ukraine war rages on, there is every reason to expect Erdogan’s government to continue its balanced approach to the conflict, US pressure notwithstanding. During Erdogan’s third term, Turkey will probably maintain its deep economic relations with Russia while supporting Ukraine militarily.
“In the Ukrainian crisis, from the very beginning Ankara wanted to stop this conflict [from] turning into a war,” explained Dr Nurşin Ateşoğlu Güney, a professor at Nişantaşı University and a member of Turkey’s Presidential Council for Security and Foreign Affairs, in an interview with The New Arab.
“[Turkey] tried to use every means of diplomacy and [Ankara’s] position of neutrality - I call this [the] third way approach, meaning not to side with any of fighting sides but try to maintain dialogue and good stand[ing] with both [Moscow and Kyiv]—to continue the dialogue so that it can mediate for [a] ceasefire and hopefully [bring the two countries] to peace,” she said.
“This approach of [Turkey] to stay neutral in this war gave way [to] the solving of a global issue like, for instance, [the grain] deal [brokered by the United Nations and Turkey in July 2022].”
Dr Güney went on to describe Ankara’s balancing strategy as a “rational conduct of foreign policy” that Erdogan’s government “will continue to do in the next five years”.
Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system in 2017 has fuelled high levels of tension between Ankara and Washington with the US going as far as sanctioning the Turkish defence industry and removing Turkey from the F-35 joint strike fighter program in response.
For the Turks, this purchase of the S-400 has been about national pride and asserting their national sovereignty, which is why Ankara hasn’t budged. Most recently, Turkey turned down a US proposal for Ankara to send the air defence system to Ukraine, citing its sovereign rights.
During Erdogan’s third term, Ankara and Washington will need to work through these issues, including the fact that Turkey already paid for the F-35 fighter jets before Washington suspended Ankara from the program. Despite the Biden administration wanting to sell Turkey F-16s, there is significant opposition from US lawmakers who point to human rights issues in Turkey and certain aspects of its foreign policy which they see as problematic.
"If President Erdogan agrees to Swedish membership in NATO, the Biden administration may well decide to proceed with a sale of F-16 aircraft to Turkey"
The question of NATO’s northward expansion has contributed to serious tension between Ankara, on one side, and Washington as well as other Western capitals, on the other. Although Turkey eventually agreed to Finland’s accession to the Transatlantic alliance, the issue of Sweden remains open. Experts agree that Erdogan deciding to accept Sweden as NATO’s newest member could bode well for the Turkey-US relationship, with implications for other issues such as the F-16 sale.
“A decision by President Erdogan to allow Swedish accession to NATO to move forward - particularly before the 11-12 July NATO summit - could lead to a reset in the bilateral relationship,” said Gordon Gray, former US ambassador to Tunisia, in an interview with TNA.
“If President Erdogan agrees to Swedish membership in NATO, the Biden administration may well decide to proceed with a sale of F-16 aircraft to Turkey. US congressional approval of such a sale is unlikely, however, if Turkey continues to block Sweden’s accession to NATO.”
According to Bohl’s assessment, Erdogan will probably remove Ankara’s block on Sweden’s accession to NATO given that the election is now over. Though if that’s not the case, Bohl explained how friction between Ankara and other NATO members could intensify.
“In the unlikely event [Erdogan] does not [agree to Sweden’s accession to NATO] it will exacerbate tensions between the West and Turkey.”
Probably the most problematic and challenging issue in Turkey-US relations is Washington’s support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)’s Syrian offshoot, the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), which is the dominant actor in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
That multiple US administrations have given support to a PKK-linked entity in a country bordering Turkey has enraged many Turks across the country and political spectrum.
“It is a matter of security survival matter for Turkey and hence there cannot be any concessions on this matter,” Dr Güney told TNA.
Ankara’s hardline stance against the PKK/YPG will continue throughout the next five years, although it is unclear how the Kurdish organisation will adapt to new realities in Syria. Perhaps it will have to come under the Damascus government’s sovereignty within the framework of a Turkey-Syria renormalisation deal.
"What will be important to see is how the potential scenario of a Republican winning the 2024 presidential race could impact the Turkey-US alliance vis-à-vis northern Syria"
Without Ankara and Damascus reaching a rapprochement, Turkey could possibly carry out more military operations against the YPG against the will of not only Bashar al-Assad’s government but also the US and most other NATO members.
What will be important to see is how the potential scenario of a Republican winning the 2024 presidential race could impact the Turkey-US alliance vis-à-vis northern Syria.
“The Biden administration will continue to maintain a modest troop level in Syria to support the SDF in their fight against the residual Islamic State presence,” said Gray.
“While President Erdogan chafes at US military support for the SDF, he is likely to bide his time, perhaps hoping that Donald Trump returns to the Oval Office and pulls all US forces out of Syria, thus ending US support for the SDF and giving Turkey a free hand in northern Syria.”
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero