What does the US really want from Turkey?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and US President Joe Biden (R) meet at the NATO summit in Brussels, on 14 June, 2021. [Getty]
6 min read
Washington, DC
28 June, 2021
Analysis: After a historically close relationship, US-Turkey relations are at a low point, though stable. Though the two countries are at odds over Russia, Syria, the Armenian genocide, and human rights, there is some promise for reconciliation.

On 13 June, US President Joe Biden met with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for a bilateral summit in Geneva. Observers are asking:

"What does the US really want from Turkey?"

Nicholas Danforth, a senior fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, tells The New Arab, "It wants it to go back to what it was - a reliable ally."

Turkey has historically been a steadfast NATO ally for the US for decades. However, these days, as the country grows closer to Russia, pursues its own policy in Syria, and bans opposition parties, its relationship with the US remains stable but is more distant than usual. 

The US under Joe Biden would like to maintain stability and is hoping to cooperate on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, it is unlikely that much cooperation will occur beyond that.

"They helped the US against Russia. Now the bar is lower. Now the US just wants Turkey to stop destabilising the region."

"With the S-400s, Turkey were willing to make bad choices to signal they were more independent"

Turkey and Russia 

One of the more important aspects of the recent Biden-Erdogan meeting was their discussion of Turkey's recent purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia. The US disapproved of the deal, but was unable to change Turkey's mind. 

"They discussed it; there was not a resolution of the issue. There was a commitment to continue dialogue on the S-400s," National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters after the meeting.

"Turks and Russians historically hate each other. With the S-400s, they were willing to make bad choices to signal they were more independent," Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, tells TNA. "They've needed each other in Syria."  

Syria Insight
Live Story

"I get the sense Russians and Turks are tired of each other, don't trust each other. The diplomatic fruit has run its course. They have a necessity to talk because they're intertwined. They have compartmentalised relations with Russia, like the US has with Turkey." 

Right now, the US will likely do its best to prevent Turkey from moving closer to Russia.  

"The US realises Turkey is a key player in the Middle East, on the periphery of Europe and in Russia's neighbourhood," Tozun Bahcheli, a retired professor of political science at King's University College at the University of Western Ontario, told TNA

"Even though Biden has serious reservations about Turkish foreign policy, he doesn't want to push Turkey into the embrace of Russia."

"What the US really wants from Turkey now is for it to stop causing problems. This particularly applies to Syria"

Turkey and Syria 

In Syria, the US and Turkey continue to pursue different interests. Though they have cooperated in working to eradicate ISIS, they differ sharply in their approach to the Kurds.  

Following a series of attacks in 2015 from ISIS and the PKK, Turkey deployed troops near its southern border and into Syrian territory, where they have been ever since. 

"What the US really wants from Turkey now is for it to stop causing problems. This particularly applies to Syria," says Danforth. 

A Russian military helicopter during a joint Russian-Turkish patrol near the border with Turkey in Syria's northeastern Hasakah Province on 7 December, 2020. [Getty]
A Russian military helicopter during a joint Russian-Turkish patrol near the border with Turkey in Syria's northeastern Hasakah Province on 7 December, 2020. [Getty]

"It wants [Turkey] to quit invading the YPG in Syria. The impasse continues. Washington wants Turkey to accept the YPG autonomous region, and Turkey wants the US to abandon the YPG... These are irreconcilable positions." 

In Syria, the US and Turkey appear to be at a stalemate, with no apparent areas of compromise on their differing positions.

"There's no more left to go. We've reached a stable status quo. The dynamic between the Turks and the PKK will never go away," says Stein. "I just see things as remaining status quo, which is bad." 

"The fact is that the US only recognised Turkey's genocide once relations got bad. It's tragic that by not doing the right thing when there would have been political consequences, it undermined the action"

Recognising the Armenian genocide 

Three months after assuming office, Biden became the first US president to recognise the Armenian genocide, keeping a campaign promise that none of his predecessors had managed to uphold. 

It is estimated that in 1915, around a million Armenians died on the orders of Ottoman Turks as the Ottoman empire was falling. With Armenians dispersed throughout the world since then, there is little doubt in their home countries of what happened. 

Turkey, however, continues to maintain that the death of the majority of their Armenian population was not due to genocide. Following the news of America's recognition, Erdogan threatened to recognise the US genocide of Native Americans, something that has long been acknowledged by the US government. 

Analysis
Live Story

Since then, there has been little said about America's recognition of the genocide. In this already-strained relationship, it was possibly an opportune time for the US to make this acknowledgement, with nothing much to lose. 

"The tragedy with Armenia is that for so long the US government refused to recognise it in deference to Turkey, afraid that it would destroy its relationship with a NATO ally," says Danforth. 

"The president belatedly did the right thing, after decades of fear of how they'd respond. Erdogan didn't seem to bring it up when he met Biden." 

He adds, "After all the concerns of an apocalyptic reaction, the fact is that the US only recognised Turkey's genocide once relations got bad. It's tragic that by not doing the right thing when there would have been political consequences, it undermined the action."  

"So far, Erdogan has maintained the veneer of democracy… without having to resort to fraud"

Human rights and democracy

Turkey's record on democracy and human rights continues to be abysmal.  

In March, Turkey banned the pro-Kurdish HDP opposition party on the pretext that it supported militants, a move the Biden administration condemned at the time, with the State Department issuing a statement saying it could "unduly subvert the will of Turkish voters." 

This followed a years-long crackdown on Kurdish politicians and activists, in addition to the free press and academics.

"Biden really does care about democracy in Turkey," says Danforth. 

"Turkey closed one of its biggest political parties. As long as Erdogan is committed to staying in power autocratically, there are real concerns about fair elections."  

He adds, "So far, Erdogan has maintained the veneer of democracy. So far, he's had to hold elections, with votes counted fairly, and he's always been able to maintain a real majority, without having to resort to fraud."

Cooperation in Afghanistan

Even at this low point in their relationship, the US will need Turkey's help with its ongoing withdrawal from Afghanistan. With Turkish Airlines being one of the very few commercial carriers that fly out of Kabul, it has been instrumental in helping Afghan interpreters who worked with the US military leave the country. Turkish Airlines will continue to help evacuate interpreters, and Turkey has recently committed to secure Kabul International Airport after the withdrawal. 

Analysis
Live Story

Beyond that, Turkey has no plans to work beyond the airport, as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda will likely dominate the rest of the country.

"A more cooperative relationship remains impossible. The one exception might be Turkey running the airport in Afghanistan after the US leaves," says Danforth. "If the US and Turkey could work out a deal on that issue, it would show some minor degree of practical cooperation is possible."  

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business and culture. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews