The long-awaited U.S. presidential race has witnessed a cut-throat competition between incumbent President Donald Trump and his rival Democrat candidate, Joe Biden. The outcome of the race is expected to have major influence over the future of the country, as the two candidates represent the opposing ends of the spectrum, with each pledging contradicting promises to the American people.
Diplomacy is also one of the major points that the two candidates disagree on. This is especially true when it comes to ties with Washington's NATO ally, Turkey. There are multiple controversial topics concerning Ankara at stake, waiting to be solved for a stronger alliance between the two.
As Ankara's determination to preserve its stance on certain crucial issues, including the fight against terrorism, S-400 missiles and regional politics, resumes, now it's up to the upcoming U.S. president to determine his position and strengthen the well-established relations with Turkey.
Personal ties matter
The personal relationship between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Trump has been well-documented during the latter's presidency, suggesting that the two are the key actors that overcome the bilateral problems between the two countries. Trump has expressed multiple times that he and Erdoğan are getting along very well, while Erdoğan stated more than once that compared to the Barack Obama era, the ties with the Trump administration are much better.
Ties between Turkey and the U.S. were especially strained in the late-Obama era, as the U.S. has been reluctant to arrest and extradite U.S.-based Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) head Fetullah Gülen, while also insisting on backing YPG/PKK terrorists under the guise of fighting Daesh in northern Syria. Damaging the bilateral ties, the era left a permanent mark on Ankara's memory to the extent that Trump has been warned multiple times not to make the same mistakes.
Trump himself also criticized his predecessor for his past policies and lack of communication with Turkey and bragged about his dialogue with Erdoğan by saying, "He (Erdoğan) listens to me." Trump even claimed that Biden does not have the mental capacity to get along with leaders such as Erdoğan.
Although that is a bold claim to make, certainly, Biden has not had a good start with Turkey, as he dared to suggest meddling in the country's domestic issues during his election campaign.
In a video that surfaced in August, the current frontrunner in the U.S. presidential race said he would seek a regime change in Turkey and expressed his willingness to work with "opposition leadership" in the country to topple Erdoğan in Turkey's 2023 elections.
"We can support those elements of the Turkish leadership that still exist and get more from them and embolden them to be able to take on and defeat Erdoğan. Not by a coup, not by a coup, but by the electoral process," he said.
The Turkish presidency and several opposition parties slammed Biden's remarks, stressing Turkey's sovereignty and independence despite internal differences.
Biden's remarks "reflect the games being played over Turkey and their interventionist attitudes," said Turkish Communications Director Fahrettin Altun on Twitter.
While criticizing Biden's remarks, Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın challenged Biden to "order" Turkey around.
Still, the ties between Turkey and the U.S. are going far beyond personal relations between the leaders since the two allies have a conflict of interest on multiple issues.
YPG/PKK is a national threat, period
One of the major issues that undermine bilateral ties is the country's stance on YPG/PKK terrorists.
The U.S. has primarily partnered with the YPG/PKK in northeastern Syria in the anti-Daesh fight. On the other hand, Turkey strongly opposed the terrorist group's presence in northern Syria, which has been a major sticking point in strained Turkey-U.S. relations. Ankara has long objected to the U.S.' support for the YPG/PKK, a group that poses a threat to Turkey and terrorizes local people, destroying their homes and forcing them to flee.
Under the pretext of fighting Daesh, the U.S. has provided military training and given truckloads of military support to the YPG/PKK, despite its NATO ally's security concerns. While underlining that one cannot support one terrorist group to fight another, Turkey conducted its own counterterrorism operations, over the course of which it has managed to remove a significant number of terrorists from the region.
Gülen's extradition a must
However, Turkey's insistence on the fight against terrorism and the U.S. negligence on the issue is not limited to the YPG/PKK terrorists as FETÖ is still waiting to be recognized as a terrorist group by Washington.
FETÖ has a considerable presence abroad, particularly in the U.S., including private schools that serve as a revenue stream for the group. The U.S. is home to a large community of Gülenists, including Gülen. Gülen has lived in self-imposed exile on a secluded compound in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania since 1999. The United States received the most extradition requests from Turkey. It has sent seven extradition requests for Gülen to Washington but has seen little progress in his extradition.
The terrorist group, which disguised itself as a charity movement with religious undertones for years, sought to seize power in 2013 with an investigation into people close to the government under the guise of a graft probe. Three years later, it tried to topple the government again with its military infiltrators. The coup attempt in 2016 was ultimately foiled and was followed by a state of emergency. Tens of thousands of people were detained or arrested following the coup attempt.
S-400: Done deal
Another matter of conflict is Turkey's purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia, a constant friction point in bilateral ties, with both sides insisting on preserving their stance.
Ties between NATO allies were badly strained last year over Ankara's acquisition of the advanced S-400 Russian air defense system, prompting Washington to remove Turkey from its F-35 Lightning II jet program.
The U.S. argued that the system is incompatible with NATO systems and could be used by Russia to covertly obtain classified details on the F-35 jets. Turkey, however, insists that the S-400 would not be integrated into NATO systems and would not pose a threat to the alliance.
Previous talks between Turkey and the U.S. on the purchase of Patriot missiles collapsed over a host of issues, from the S-400s to Ankara's dissatisfaction with Washington's terms. Turkey has said it will only agree to an offer if it includes a technology transfer and joint production terms.
Ankara has repeatedly stressed it was the U.S. refusal to sell it Patriots that led it to seek out other sellers, adding that Russia had offered a better deal that included technology transfers. Turkey even proposed setting up a commission to clarify any technical issues. During a visit to Washington last November, Erdoğan met with Trump where the two agreed to set up a working group.
Still, the U.S. continued to threaten Turkey with sanctions, as many expect the issue to be one of the first topics that the newly elected president will have to tackle.
"Some Americans called my brother Ilham (Aliyev) and told him that if Turkey stands by Azerbaijan, they will impose sanctions on Turkey," Erdoğan said Sunday. The comments were regarding Turkey's support of Azerbaijan amid clashes with American separatists over the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region and the acquisition of Russian S-400 missile defense systems, both reasons the president said the U.S. is using as a pretext to impose sanctions on Turkey.
"The U.S. does not know who they are dealing with. Impose the sanctions already, whatever they may be," he added.
The U.S.-based foreign policy analyst Ali Çınar underlined that whether Trump or Biden wins, the activation of the S-400 missiles will certainly create a major problem between the NATO allies.
“It will be difficult for either to avoid sanctions as soon as Turkey activates the S-400s. Even President Trump will not able to push back Congress to avoid sanctions against Turkey,” he said.
Biden's victory may harm ties
The vote will take place on Nov. 3. Although the latest surveys claim that Biden is expected to edge out Trump overall, in the 13 swing states that are expected to determine the election results, the race is ongoing at par.
So far, it seems like Ankara and Biden, who worked for 36 years as a senator and eight years as a vice president, are contradicting at almost every point of discussion between Turkey and the U.S., from Syria to S-400 missiles, suggesting that his win may cause further trouble in bilateral relations.
Biden openly suggests that the YPG/PKK should be supported in Syria while questioning the presence of the NATO missiles in Turkey's Incirlik Air Base.
“Of course leader changes would affect the ties between the two countries that have had relations for over 70 years,” said Dildar Baykan, the Washington D.C. reporter for Anadolu Agency (AA).
“If Biden wins,” Baykan said, “we can say that we will witness a third term of Obama.”
In Baykan’s opinion, the biggest problem with this is the continued U.S. support for YPG/PKK terrorists.
“Although Trump also continued this support, we know that he backed Turkey in some points. In Biden’s era, the division would be even larger on this issue,” she added.
Baykan also mentioned the importance of Biden’s choice of names in security and diplomacy areas as they would also be significant in determining the course of ties with Turkey.
“So far, as the leaked names suggest, we cannot say that these names will be much different from the Obama era,” Baykan continued.
Known for his close ties to the Greek lobby in the U.S., Biden has also commented on Turkey's activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In his latest anti-Turkey remarks this month, the candidate said he supported NATO efforts to defuse tensions between the two Aegean neighbors and that agreements to establish a military deconfliction mechanism and resume diplomatic talks were steps in the right direction.
"The Trump administration must press Turkey to refrain from any further provocative actions in the region against Greece, including threats of force, to create the space for diplomacy to succeed," Biden said in a statement.
Biden is also considered to be more likely to pressure Turkey on topics such as human rights and democracy while using the threat of sanctions as constant leverage at his hand.
It is expected, considering all these topics, Biden might want to distance himself from Erdoğan and Turkey, which would harm the alliance between the two NATO countries.
However, it is also known that Biden prioritizes the strategic struggle against Russia and Iran, which means the U.S. needs versatile allies, such as Ankara.
Although many pundits foresee a quick return to the policies of the Obama era in the case of Biden's win, others suggest that the circumstances have changed drastically since then, and thus, it would not be logical to hold on to the same policies today.
Çınar underlined that no matter what the differences are, the ties will still not fall apart under Biden, if he wins, as he will have to have an open dialogue with Erdoğan.
Pointing to the fact that Biden visited Turkey four times during his position as vice president, Çınar reiterated that during this time frame Biden apologized to Turkey twice. The first one came following his remarks claiming that Turkey is the most “problematic” ally of the U.S. in the Middle East. He later called Erdoğan and offered his apology. The second one came during his latest visit to Turkey, back in 2016, after FETÖ’s failed coup attempt. Biden expressed that he apologizes for not coming to the country earlier, although Obama did call and express his sadness over the incident to Erdoğan.
Biden is expected to prioritize the U.S.' international agreements and revive NATO, which would make Turkey a significant ally for the U.S., forcing him to look for ways to reconcile with the country.
Trump's win does not guarantee alliance
If Trump, who calls Erdoğan "my dear friend," wins, many pundits expect that the ties are likely to flourish, entering a period of cooperation and dialogue.
According to Çınar, if elected, Trump’s foreign policy will mirror his first term, meaning that he will preserve his good relationship with Erdoğan.
However, despite these close personal ties with Erdoğan, Trump's possible win in the upcoming elections is actually not an immediate solution to the bilateral problems between the two NATO allies. In fact, the Trump era witnessed crises as much as cooperation with Ankara.
One of the biggest crises took place when Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring in Syria, only to be responded to by Trump with a letter to Erdoğan saying "Don't be stupid."
Still, the leaders' unique bond has enabled quick resolution to such scandals, even to the point of making Trump the focal point of criticism within the U.S. for "favoring" Erdoğan.
Biden also expressed his unhappiness with Trump administration policies toward Turkey.
Trump "yielded" to Turkey, said Biden, adding: "The last thing I would've done is yielded to him with regard to the Kurds. The absolute last thing."
Apart from personal relations, another reason why Trump's possible win may enable better ties with Turkey is seen as the fact that Trump's policies often contradict the U.S. foreign policy institutions.
Many pundits claim that the Trump era has witnessed some kind of a two-headedness in the U.S. foreign policy, where Trump has acted per his own policies while, often, his words and promises were challenged by the other U.S. institutions, including the Pentagon and the U.S. secretary of state.
For instance, following his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and announcing that Ankara is getting ready for an operation back in 2019, Trump had to deal with a wide range of domestic protests, especially from Congress and the Pentagon, causing the president to step back while still trying to hold on to his initial decision.
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