US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Monday came in the wake of the devastating earthquakes that have rattled the Turkish leader’s projection of his country as a regional hegemon. With Turkey turning into a recipient of generous US humanitarian aid, will Ankara play the role of Washington’s friend rather than foe?
Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and head of the powerful US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, took the floor on December 19 to deliver a scathing inventory of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s domestic and foreign policy misdeeds.
“The United States must take the Turkish president’s actions seriously,” Menendez told the Senate. “We need to hold Erdogan accountable for his behaviour when he violates international laws, or challenges democratic norms, or allows his forces to commit human rights abuses,” the US senator continued before hitting the objective of his speech.
“That is why, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I will not approve any F-16s for Turkey until he [Erdogan] halts his campaign of aggression across the entire region,” said Menendez.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee head was referring to a $20 billion sale of new F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.
The Biden administration has said it plans to seek US Congressional approval for the sale. Menendez is part of a bipartisan group of senators who have tied approval of the F-16 deal to Turkey retracting its opposition to Sweden and Finland’s acceptance into NATO.
Erdogan has blocked the Nordic countries admission to the North Atlantic defence pact following the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, citing what he calls Sweden’s harbouring of terrorist groups.
Two months after Menendez’s address, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was at a news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara on Monday when he was asked about the F-16 deal.
“The Biden administration strongly supports the package to both upgrade the existing F-16s and to provide new ones,” said Blinken, adding that as a defence ally, Turkey should have “full interoperability” with NATO systems.
When it was his turn to reply, Turkey’s top diplomat was quick to declare his country’s objections to the likes of Menendez, who have linked the F-16 deal to Turkey’s NATO expansion approval.
“It would not be right to make Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership a condition for the F-16s. They are two different issues. Our hands should not be tied,” said Cavusoglu in Turkish. “It would not be possible for us to purchase the F-16s under these conditions.””
The Turkish foreign minister, in effect, was demanding an arms sale without any conditions and insinuating that a US failure to comply would compel Ankara, “under these conditions” to give up on the deal and seek military hardware elsewhere.
Cavusoglu’s tough talk reflected some of the geostrategic incompatibility that has marked US-Turkish relations in recent years. As Ankara flexed its regional muscles in the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean seas, conducted incursions in northern Syria, and purchased Russian missile defence systems, US analysts questioned whether Turkey was a friend or foe.
Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, Erdogan played hardball on the Nordic nations’ bid to join NATO, and the US-Turkish chasm reached a peak.
But that was before the earthquake rattled Erdogan’s power chokehold and overturned Turkey’s position as a stable disburser of foreign aid and destination for the displaced.
Just hours after Blinken met with Erdogan in Ankara on Monday, a 6.4-magnitude quake struck southern Turkey, killing eight people and injuring 294, according to the country’s disaster management authority.
The quakes could trigger seismic shifts in US-Turkish relations, according to some experts.
Old foes, new help
The US secretary of state arrived in Turkey over the weekend at the Incirlik air base in the southern Adana province, not far from the Syrian border.
Built by US army corps of engineers after World War II, the sprawling base has been frequently used by the Erdogan administration as a leverage at times of bilateral tensions. In July 2019, for instance, Cavusoglu warned of retaliatory measures on the use of the base in response to “America’s very negative steps towards us”.
Today, the Incirlik base is being used to coordinate humanitarian flights arriving after the February 6 earthquakes killed more than 47,000 people and uprooted millions from their homes in Turkey and Syria.
US aid following the quake has been generous. Arriving in Turkey, Blinken pledged an additional $100 million in assistance, taking the total US humanitarian contribution to $185 million.
“The Americans have been the greatest supporter and have provided the biggest help to the Turks after the earthquake,” said Henri Barkey, international relations professor at Lehigh University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The truth is, the earthquake changes everything in the sense that the response of the world, especially Turkey’s allies, has been incredible. It’s going to be very difficult, after American and Greek teams have been supporting Turkish lives, for Erdogan to say nasty things,” Barkey added.
The devastating natural disaster has triggered unusual diplomatic scenes over the past two weeks.
Just days after the quake, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias arrived in Turkey, becoming the first European minister to visit after the disaster. He was greeted by his Turkish counterpart with a huge smile, a bear hug and a message that the Greek populace found stunning. “We should not have to wait for an earthquake or some sort of natural catastrophe to improve relations between us,” said Cavusoglu.
Greece and Turkey have been at odds for decades over competing rights to the Aegean Sea that divides them. Last year, Erdogan broke up bilateral relations and publicly swore he would never speak to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsokakis again. On February 6, just hours of the quakes shook the region, Erdogan took a call from the Greek leader.
‘Time for the Turks to start behaving like allies’
Anti-Greek and more broadly, anti-West, diatribes have been the staple of Turkey’s ruling AK Party (AKP) officials, particularly before elections.
In the lead-up to the 2023 presidential and general elections, with the AKP facing its biggest challenge since it swept to power in 2002, Erdogan was on a campaign roll.
Confronting a major economic crisis, Erdogan last month brought forward the election date from June 18 to May 14.
Despite US opposition, Erdogan threatened to send “tanks and troops soon” into northern Syria, targeting Kurdish groups cooperating with the US in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group.
He also threatened strikes against Greece and Cyprus over what he called the “militarisation” of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea.
After Ankara made the extraordinary decision to buy Russian S-400 missile defence systems, the US kicked Turkey off a stealth F-35 fighter jet project.
So when Sweden and Finland declared their NATO accession bid, it was like “manna from heaven”, providing Erodgan a trump card in his hardball games with Turkey’s Western allies.
It reached the point where the US Congress had to say “enough is enough,” according to Barkey. “The Turks have been indulged year after year after year,” he explained. By linking the sale of F-16s to the Nordic NATO bid, the US Congress was signaling that “it’s time for the Turks to start behaving like allies”.
While Cavusoglu on Monday railed against Washington linking the F-16 sales to the Nordic accession bid, Ankara has been doing its own quid pro quo positioning behind the scenes, according to Asli Aydintasbas from the Washington DC-based Brookings Institute.
“The Biden administration wants to use the F-16s as a carrot to get Sweden and Finland NATO membership,” explained Aydintasbas. “The idea of using the F-16s as a bargaining chip is not something Turkey is opposed to. From the very beginning, Turkey wanted more than what Sweden can give. Opting for a triangular position is what Turkey had in mind. Ankara likes to pretend it’s a bilateral issue. But a three-way deal is what Turkey wanted all along – it’s hoping for the F-16s.”
No votes to win, only votes to lose’
The upcoming Turkish elections are a critical factor in how Turkey’s relations with the US and its NATO partners shape up as the Ukraine war enters its second year.
Barely a month after Erdogan brought forward the elections to May 14, there are speculations over whether the earthquakes will force a poll postponement.
While there has been no official announcement, Barkey can’t imagine how elections can be held on schedule after the earthquakes.
“The place is devastated, we don’t know if election offices were destroyed. Around a million-and-half people have moved away from their homes. More than 13% of the population come from the four provinces most affected by the earthquake and they have traditionally been pro-Erdogan, pro-AKP provinces. From Erdogan’s perspective, he has no votes to win, he only has votes to lose,” he noted.
Public anger has been mounting in Turkey following the devastation of the quakes and the government’s failure to implement construction standards in an active seismic zone.
On the foreign policy front, the earthquake has also shaken Erdogan’s vision of Turkey as a regional hegemon. For over a decade, Turkey, as a relatively stable and prosperous state in the troubled Middle East, has waged a soft power battle for hearts and minds in the Muslim world, offering packages of development projects, humanitarian aid and hosting millions of Syrians fleeing the civil war.
Following the earthquake, thousands of Syrians have gathered at the border, waiting to cross back from Turkey to their country of origin, according to news reports.
While the US has been driving a hard bargain on the F-16s to push Ankara to accept the Nordic NATO bids, the EU has also strengthened its bargaining position after the quake, according to some experts.
Sweden currently holds the rotating EU presidency until June 30, giving it control a NATO summit in July, when the Nordic nations’ inclusion is expected to be placed on the table.
“Sweden holds the EU presidency and has organised all the European aid to Turkey. Stockholm has itself given aid. If the Turks really want to upset the Europeans, for example, by demanding that a journalist they view as a terrorist be returned from Sweden, it’s not going to hold. The Turks are going to really create problems for themselves,” said Barkey, referring to Bulent Kenes, a Swedish-based Turkish journalist-in-exile. Ankara has labeled the prominent Erdogan critic a “terrorist” and has demanded his deportation.
Behind the scenes there have been suggestions that if the Turkish elections are held in May or June, it would make it easier for Erdogan to greenlight the NATO accession in July.
Whatever the outcome, Senator Menendez is not about to ease the pressure. With the US helping quake-hit Turkey “very significantly…there has to be a discussion about getting Finland and Sweden in NATO,” he said.
Speaking to the Wall Street Journal at the Munich Security Conference, the New Jersey Democrat once again warned that, “using this as blackmail is not something that we should accept”.
But when it comes to Turkey, the US has said enough is enough before only to have Erdogan play foe while enjoying the benefits, rights and security pacts between friends.