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For the love of Washington
Published in Ahram Online on 08 - 06 - 2021

When US President Joe Biden made his first phone call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since taking office, it was not to discuss how to patch up relations. It was essentially a courtesy call to notify Erdogan that Biden planned officially to recognise the Armenian Genocide the following day. The ultra-nationalists whom Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) now counts among its staunchest allies were left fuming. They issued ultimatums (described as "irresponsible") to the effect that the NATO summit in June was Washington's last chance as an ally. If Washington did not repent, Turkey would confiscate the 50 US nuclear bombs stored at the Incirlik Airbase in southeastern Anatolia. This was topped by death threats against those who do Turkey wrong. True, such reactions do not reflect the official position. But they confirm the Erdogan regime's increasingly widespread negative not only at the Capitol but also at the Pentagon, once one of Ankara's greatest supporters.
Erdogan had been kept waiting that first phone call for three excruciating months, and sources now say he is now worried that the US president will break his promise to meet with him on the fringe of the NATO conference next week. After all, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeatedly passed through Turkey on his way to the Middle East without once stopping at Ankara. During the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, Erdogan said Biden had blood on his hands. Yet Biden himself called his Russian counterpart a killer before phoning him to arrange a summit this month.
One question is what can Ankara might do to find its way back into Washington's good graces. The answer has been obvious for some time, and the Turkish government knows it: change. But because of its refusal or inability to act on this, in Brussels on 14 June Erdogan will probably have to listen while Biden cites a list of steps to be taken. According to US news reports, Biden is likely to focus on the Erdogan regime's dismal record in human and civil right. As David Phillips, director of the Human Rights and Peacebuilding Programme at Columbia University, suggested in an article for Ahval, Biden might call for the immediate release of thousands of political prisoners, mentioning such causes célèbres of international human rights organisations as the Turkish businessman, philanthropist and rights advocate Osman Kavala and the former co-chairs of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ. He might suggest a revival of the political – rather than the current, attempted military – solution to the Kurdish problem, perhaps with international mediation.
The US president will certainly also address the many facets of Erdogan's belligerent foreign policy since he abandoned the Ataturk maxim, "Peace at home; peace in the world." After Turkey invaded and occupied Afrin in 2018, Turkish and Turkish-backed forces unleashed a systemic campaign of forced expulsions in which hundreds died, reducing the indigenous Kurdish population in that northwestern Syrian province from 90 to 35 per cent. The militia forces that the Turkish occupation backs in Syria include Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham and other jihadist organisations that Turkey recently assembled into what it calls the Syrian National Army. "An accountability mechanism is urgently needed for [these] jihadist mercenaries," Phillips writes, noting that the UN Commission of Inquiry reported more than 150 cases of abduction, rape and/or murder in Afrin, including the rape of 30 women in February 2020, alone.
In northern Iraq, Turkey has established 41 military bases, destroying 50 villages on the pretext of fighting the PKK. "Biden should tell Erdoğan that if Turkey continues bombing," Phillips writes, "the United States will enforce a no-fly zone in the skies above Iraqi Kurdistan. He should also warn Erdoğan to stop supporting proxies such as Sunni Turkmen militias in Kirkuk Province and Sunni Arab militia forces in Ninewa."
To the north, where Turkey instigated and militarily backed Baku's war on the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, Phillips stresses that Biden should insist on Ankara halting its transfer of drone technology to Azerbaijan. He should also make it clear that Washington will not tolerate more of Turkey's provocative behaviour in the Eastern Mediterranean and that Turkey should not obstruct the reunification of Cyprus.
For two years, the ruling AKP government has refused any discussion of its controversial acquisition of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system, which is incompatible with US and NATO defense systems. It's a done deal, Ankara officials have insisted. Most recently, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, "we will have full control of the S-400 systems. Our technicians went to Russia to undergo training but there will be no Russian military experts in Turkey. So, other countries' demands not to use S-400 are unacceptable."
Why Turkey went ahead with this purchase despite repeated American warnings not to, can be explained in a number of ways. According to Henri J Barkey, on the National Interest news site, "Erdogan was confident that the Americans would eventually relent as they have on most occasions when there has been a disagreement between the two sides. In Washington's traditional assessment, Turkey with the second-largest NATO army and a valuable geostrategic emplacement ought not to be alienated." This appears to be one of those cases in which Erdogan's gamble is not paying off.
Recently there have been signs that Turkey is backing down on the S-400 question, though. For one, its battered economy can not take much more pressure. Last week, Ankara announced that it would be sending home the Russian missile experts assisting in the operation of the S-400s, something that Moscow immediately denied. Valeria Reshetnikova, spokesperson for the Russian Federal Service of Military-Technical Cooperation, told the Sputnik news agency: "The return of Russian technical experts who are in Turkey in connection with the S-400 contract will be carried out in accordance with a previously approved schedule."
But perhaps there is a glimmer of hope for Ankara on this matter. During her visit to the Turkish capital a few weeks ago – the first diplomatic visit by a senior member of the Biden administration – Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told CNN Turk that she hoped "we can find a way forward" and that the US had "offered alternatives to Turkey... if they want to get out from underneath these sanctions." This conciliatory tone, together with the fact that she did not mention the possibility of further sanctions, have fed speculation that Washington would be satisfied if Turkey expelled the Russian experts and trainers, vowed never to make a similar arms purchase and remained within certain well-defined red lines. As one observer put it, Sherman was in Ankara to lay certain ground rules for the forthcoming phase of relations between Ankara and Washington. There will be little love in that relationship, but when interests will it, there is always a way.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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