Erdogan’s latest dispute leaves ‘bitter aftertaste’ in US-Turkey relations

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Ankara seeks to downplay the damage caused by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threat to expel 10 ambassadors, despite a carefully choreographed descent that averted the worst crisis in decades between Turkey and the West.

But the episode creates awkward background music as Turkey tries to forge better relations with Joe Biden and hopes for a meeting with the US president on the sidelines of the upcoming COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

Ankara’s agenda is a request to purchase several dozen new F-16 fighter jets to fill a gap in its air force that analysts say could help prevent Turkey – largely seen as an important buffer between Europe and the Middle East – to look to Russia instead. But a lot will depend on Biden’s attitude towards the Turkish leader after their nations narrowly avoided a diplomatic catastrophe.

“A crisis of perhaps unprecedented magnitude was possible if this problem were not resolved,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund, an American think tank. “Corn [the fact] that it’s resolved doesn’t mean it didn’t leave a bitter aftertaste.

Turkey’s relations with its traditional NATO allies were already strained before Erdogan was so enraged by a joint statement from envoys from 10 nations, including the United States, that he calls for their expulsion from the country .

The Turkish president’s deep concerns for the United States were likely compounded by their coordinated support for Osman Kavala, an imprisoned philanthropist, said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala has been jailed for seeking to overthrow the government © Anadolu Culture Center / Handout / Reuters

Kavala, who was arrested in 2017 and denies charges of seeking to overthrow the Turkish government, is viewed in the West as a political prisoner. His release has been requested by the European Court of Human Rights.

But the Turkish president described him as a “terrorist” and his angry response to the call of the 10 nations for a “just and swift” resolution of the Kavala case was “not really irrational if you accept that he think the West is trying to overthrow him, ”Stein said.

A diplomatic collapse was averted after both sides ceded ground. The United States proposed a way out by declaring its commitment to a clause in the Vienna Convention stating the duty of diplomats not to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations. This allowed Erdogan to reverse his threat of deportation.

Ankara was pleased that the mediation efforts were led by the US ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield, according to several people familiar with the thinking of the Turkish government.

In remarks released to Turkish media on Wednesday, Erdogan said he believed Biden had decided to “show courtesy” by offering an olive branch. He added that he expected to sit with Biden in Glasgow. However, a meeting has not been confirmed by the White House.

Afghanistan and efforts to secure air operations at Kabul airport, which Turkey has expressed willingness to support, would be high on the US agenda. Washington also wants to discuss Ukraine and Syria.

Ankara, meanwhile, is looking to purchase around 80 new US-made F-16 fighter jets and F-16 modernization kits to modernize its air force. Turkey, which has NATO’s second-largest army, leaned on an aging fleet after the United States banned it from taking delivery of more than 100 next-generation F-35 planes as punishment for its purchase of an S-400 air defense system from Russia.

Turkish F-16 fighter jet pilots flying aboard a C-295M Casa military cargo plane from Poland as part of the mission

Turkey hopes to buy new US-made F-16 fighter jets to bolster its air force © Cuneyt Karadag / Anadolu Agency / Getty

Erdogan has hinted that he could buy Russian fighter jets if the request is rejected, alarming NATO allies already concerned about the S-400 acquisition.

The US State Department has recognized Turkey’s request for an F-16. Ankara says the $ 1.4 billion it has already put into the F-35 program could be redirected to purchases of F-16s. Washington is seeking to resolve the F-35 dispute but has “made no funding offer” on Turkey’s F-16 request, according to the US State Department.

A key stumbling block is that any sale of F-16s would require congressional approval. Unluhisarcikli said there was a US national security argument for the deal that could be used by the White House to persuade skeptical members of Congress, but wondered if Biden would want to spend political capital on behalf of from Turkey.

Asli Aydintasbas, senior member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, predicted that Washington would nonetheless seek congressional support for the deal. “The F-16s are seen as a way to improve relations by the Americans,” she said. “They want to engage in this process as much as the Turks are.”

A senior administration official Biden did not comment on the F-16 talks, but said the administration was seeking to strengthen relations with Turkey because it is “a long-time ally of Turkey. NATO “which is” strategically located “and involved in many of Washington’s regional interests.

“We continue to seek cooperation where we can and push back where we need it,” the official said.

But others were more cautious. A person familiar with discussions within the Biden administration said that many U.S. officials who believed in engaging with Erdogan had lost ground as a result of the debacle.

“It really is a blow to US-Turkish relations as a whole, and especially given that the blow came to the State Department,” the person said, adding that it was the agency that supported the more solid bilateral relations with Turkey.

James Jeffrey, an advocate for good relations with Ankara during his tenure as a diplomat in the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, said Erdogan’s threat of expulsion had failed, but showed his “instinct is to provoke his allies Westerners, not its Russian and Iranian enemies. ”.

“In reality, NATO and Turkey need each other,” he said. “But Erdogan’s instinct to punch his Western partners in the eye – a combination of his own ideology and the sentiments of his political base – plagues what should otherwise be a good relationship.”

Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley


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