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'Totally transactional': US-Turkey ties unlikely to reset after election

Biden administration will have to exhaust political capital to seal F-16 deal for a Turkey that's more dependent on Russia
An AKP supporter holds a portrait of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan while waiting for election results in Istanbul, on 14 May 2023 (AFP)
By Sean Mathews in Washington, DC

The US is reconciling itself to another five years of ruptured ties with Turkey, as Recep Tayyip Erdogan heads into a presidential runoff on Sunday as the election favourite.

Washington and its allies may have hoped for a fresh start with Turkey after polls showed opposition leader Kemal Kılıcdaroglu in striking distance from the presidency, but following a strong showing by Erdogan, they are now resigning themselves to closure from a heated election season.

“People are starting to understand that Erdogan is here to stay,” James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Turkey, who now chairs the Middle East programme at the Wilson Center, told Middle East Eye. “And the best that we can hope for is a better relationship.”

If Erdogan does claim victory on Sunday, his approach to the West will face an early test in July when Nato members meet for a summit in Lithuania.

At the top of the agenda will be Sweden’s ascension into the alliance, which Turkey has been blocking over allegations that the country supports the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a designated terrorist entity according to Turkey, the US, and the European Union.

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“If we see a Kilicdaroglu win, there’s a pivot to the West by Turkey of about 60 percent,” a senior diplomat from a Nato member state told MEE. “With an Erdogan victory, there is still a pivot, but it’s 20 percent - and a big chunk of that is approving Sweden’s Nato bid.”

Diplomats and analysts are hopeful that whoever wins on Sunday, Sweden will finally be admitted into the alliance.

Erdogan's 'pound of flesh'

In June, Sweden is expected to roll out an updated anti-terrorism law that Turkey has pushed for. The Nordic country has also nodded to Ankara's complaints by extraditing at least one Kurdish man with alleged links to the PKK.

“If Erdogan does win on Sunday, these steps will be enough for Stoltenberg (Secretary-general of Nato) and a few others to call him up and say, 'You’ve got your pound of flesh, now is the time to do it'”, Jeffrey told MEE.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the back and forth over Sweden’s Nato bid epitomises the “transactionalist” approach to policy Washington can expect if Erdogan secures another five years in office.

“The message to the US and Europe will be ‘we can do business’, but he will have the same message for Russia.”

'The most worrying trend for the West is the growing power of ultra-nationalists' 

- Senior diplomat from Nato country

Erdogan, who surprised pollsters and analysts by winning 49.5 percent of the vote in the first round of elections, heads into Sunday's run-off in a strong position. On Monday, he received a further boost by securing the backing of ultra-nationalist, third-party candidate, Sinan Ogan, who received just over five percent of the vote.

Cagaptay says that a decisive win could make it easier for Erdogan to reach out to the US. “He will use the victory to secure a phone call with Biden and then a face-to-face meeting, perhaps on the sidelines of the Nato summit.”

Murmurs of a reset in Turkey-US ties have surfaced before.

Some predicted Washington would lean on Ankara as a Central Asian security partner after the Afghanistan withdrawal. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine put a spotlight on Turkey’s defence ties to Kyiv. Even Biden’s 2020 election was seen as a fresh start after Turkey was sanctioned for its purchase of a Russian missile system and jailing of an American pastor.

“Every time a major event happens, whether it's the outbreak of war or an election in the US and Turkey, people predict an opportunity for a reset, but it never happens and it definitely won’t this time,” Nicholas Danforth, a US-Turkey expert at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, told MEE.

Some say that Turkey and the US have drifted too far apart to bridge differences that now transcend Erdogan. They point to the strong showing of ultra-nationalists in Turkey’s first round as proof. “The shift away from Nato is bigger than Erdogan,” the senior western diplomat told MEE.

“The most worrying trend for the West is the growing power of ultra-nationalists in government. These guys are opposed to the West on almost every single issue,” the diplomat added.

'No F-16s for you'

Erdogan campaigned on his projection of Turkish military might and foreign policy independence. Over his two decades in power, he flexed Turkey’s muscles from Libya to the Greek islands and the Caucuses. Turkey's move in 2017 to acquire the Russian S-400 missile system encapsulated the country's shift away from the West. 

But the deal sent strained ties with Washington plummeting to new lows. Turkey was kicked out of the US's F-35 fighter jet programme and sanctioned under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act in 2020.

And the S-400 has plagued Turkey's efforts to acquire new F-16 fighter jets.

Omer Ozkizilcik, a foreign policy and security analyst based in Ankara, told MEE that the F-16 deal will be a key bellwether of US-Turkey ties after Sunday's election. 

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“The last, best working angle the US has with Turkey is military to military,” he told MEE. “If the US won’t even approve the sale of F-16s, the relationship will be dead.”

The Biden administration has signalled support for the deal, but it faces stiff opposition in Congress where a bipartisan group of senators wrote to President Biden in February saying they would oppose the sale until Turkey approves Sweden’s ascension to Nato.

Even with analysts cautiously optimistic that Ankara will approve Sweden’s Nato bid, the sale still needs to pass through Senator Robert Menendez, the powerful Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He said in May that Secretary of State Anthony Blinken assured him the White House would not override his veto over the deal. 

Menendez’s disapproval of the sale, along with Democratic lawmakers like Senator Chris Van Hollen and Congressman Gregory Meeks, ranking member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, is tied to concerns over Turkey’s military incursions into northern Syria against Kurdish fighters and military overflights of Greek islands.

'The US-Turkey relationship will depend on Turkey’s relationship with Russia'

- Gonul Tol, Middle East Institute

A congressional aid familiar with the matter who spoke with MEE on condition of anonymity said getting the F-16 deal across the finish line would likely require the Biden administration lobbying those lawmakers at a time when the White House is gearing up for other policy priorities in the region, reportedly a normalisation deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

“How much political capital will the administration exhaust on an arms sale to Erdogan who is unpopular across the political aisle when it needs Congress' support for action with another unpopular Middle East leader (Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman),” the aid said. “And when the administration is entering an election year.”

Despite resistance on Capitol Hill, some analysts believe the Biden administration will look to salvage the relationship with Turkey by getting the F-16 deal done. 

“The US needs Turkey more now than it did after the last election in 2018,” Ozkizilcik told MEE. “Because of Russia’s poor performance in Ukraine, Turkey is now the strongest naval power in the Black Sea.” 

'Totally transactional'

Erdogan is one of the only world leaders to maintain good ties with both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Putin. 

Three days after Turkey’s first-round election, Erdogan announced a two-month extension to a UN-backed deal under which Ukraine grain ships can cross the Black Sea to global markets. CIA director Bill Burns used Ankara as a meeting point with his Russian counterpart to warn Moscow against the potential use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

But Turkey’s closeness to Russia is a double-edged sword in Washington.

'How much political capital will the administration exhaust on an arms sale to Erdogan?' 

- Congressional aid

In the lead-up to the election, Erdogan spent billions of dollars on handouts like free gas, early retirement, and wage increases which helped cushion the sting of sky-high inflation for ordinary Turks but drained state coffers. In May, Turkey's foreign currency reserves fell by $7.6bn to $60.8 bn in one week alone, according to the central bank, the biggest drop in more than two decades.

“I can’t see how Erdogan did it except with money coming from the Gulf and Russia,” Cagaptay told MEE.

Markets already appear to be pricing in an Erdogan win Sunday, with bets against the Turkish lira growing. Economists say Turkey’s economic challenges are largely of Erdogan’s own making due to his unorthodox view that high-interest rates cause inflation.

“The economic crisis in Turkey is going to get worse and the country is going to be more unstable," Gonul Tol, founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey programme, told MEE.

She says Erdogan’s economic policies will deter much-needed western investment, “making Erdogan even more dependent on autocrats in the Middle East and Russia for financial support". 

“And basically the US-Turkey relationship will depend on Turkey’s relationship with Russia. It’s totally transactional now,” she said. 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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