With Turkey, Biden Must Pursue Mutual Interests through Strength

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan gives a statement after a cabinet meeting in Ankara, Turkey, May 17, 2021. (Murat Cetinmuhurdar/PPO/Handout via Reuters)
To do otherwise in his meeting with Erdogan would send a message of weakness — and not just to Turkey.

One of many unique privileges of serving in the White House on the staff of the National Security Council is the opportunity to help prepare the president of the United States and the national-security adviser for meetings with foreign delegations and foreign heads of state. President Biden’s team should not take lightly the opportunity to make firm stands for U.S. interests in scheduled discussions over the coming days during the president’s first trip abroad, particularly with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The complicated task of preparing a president for high-level meetings, a vanguard of foreign policy, diplomacy, and national security, requires a synthesis of myriad global issues as they pertain to an individual foreign country’s leader, or leaders, with whom the president will meet, delivered in a (very) concise memorandum with brief, can’t-miss points included. Appropriate preparation and delivery reward an administration with an opportunity to move the needle toward resolution of an issue in furtherance of U.S. interests. To flub or to underestimate how seriously foreign leaders take their audience with a sitting U.S. president is a gross disservice to U.S. national-security interests.

As President Biden’s team prepares the president for his coming visit to the NATO summit in Brussels where Biden will meet privately with Erdogan, and to Geneva to meet with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, the administration should brace for the standard onslaught of rhetorical Turkish-focused talking points from Erdogan and his likely after-action report to Moscow, and be prepared for a swift and informed American counterpunch. To do otherwise, be it an attempt to mollify as the administration has done of late with its proffered pacification of Iran in nuclear-deal talks or its pretty-please approach to designated terror organizations Hamas and the Taliban, would miss an opportunity to continue a Churchill-esque peace-and-progress-through-strength approach as regularly demonstrated by the last administration.

In his private meeting with Erdogan on June 14, Biden will almost certainly hear about Turkey’s concerns regarding the U.S. partnership in Syria with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic, Kurdish-led group that Turkey generally conflates with the designated terrorist organization the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). President Biden would be wise to disambiguate the SDF from the broad brush strokes of Erdogan’s prepared points, just as a Vice President Pence–led delegation did in Ankara in October 2019 following Turkey’s unilateral incursion into northeast Syria.

To be bulldozed by Turkish talking points on the threat of the U.S.-chosen partner in Syria would pave the way for Erdogan to push Biden around on Turkey’s other near-certain topics for the U.S. president: relief from U.S. sanctions that the Trump administration  imposed as a result of Turkey’s procurement and operationalization of the Russian S-400 air defense system and a return to the U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program whereby Turkey could again assist in the manufacturing of the jet and procure the advanced fighter aircraft from the United States.

Were Biden to serve the best interests of U.S. national security in his meeting with Erdogan, he would underscore the repeated warnings of the United States and our allies over Turkey’s S-400 deal and the fundamental incongruence of a Russian defense system alongside NATO defense assets. Relief from the December 2020–issued sanctions under the bipartisan-passed 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act serves no U.S. or NATO interests and would further embolden Ankara’s flirtations with Moscow, despite the coalescence of U.S.–Turkish interests in much of the Syrian conflict (including a Turkish bulwark against Russia’s advance in northwest Syria).

Similarly, rejoining the prestigious F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, from which the U.S. expelled Turkey also on the heels of the S-400 deal, should be a bargaining chip that President Biden resists throwing on the table save for a complete mothballing and return of all S-400 components to Russia. After all, the S-400 deal was never only about adversarial air-defense systems — the deal punctuated Ankara’s longing geopolitical looks east to Moscow coupled with Putin’s returned interest. For Biden to cave on either gift-wraps Putin’s Ankara checkmate against the U.S. in Eurasia and the Middle East.

Notwithstanding prudential moves on behalf of the United States, Biden can expect that Erdogan will exploit the Biden administration’s ongoing Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiations with Iran. Erdogan and his national-security adviser–equivalent Ibrahim Kalin are certain to point to the ludicrous stock the Biden team has put in any good-faith negotiations with Iran as Iran continues to flout the terms of the Obama JCPOA while accurately pointing out the grave insult that sanctions relief for adversary Iran would suggest to ostensible NATO ally Turkey. We reap, though, what we sow.

Regarding Syria, Biden should carry home the message that his ambassador to the United Nations conveyed on a recent trip to the Turkey-Syria border. On that trip, the senior administration official highlighted the necessity of renewing international humanitarian access to the suffering people of northwest Syria, via the July United Nations Security Council vote on the matter. Specifically, Biden should establish for Erdogan Russia’s certain, and recycled, argument for Syrian sovereignty as a rationale for Russian and Chinese obstruction of humanitarian access into Syria as the matter again comes before the Security Council and how such Russian obstruction directly harms Turkey.

In that vein, the Biden team must consider that Ankara will almost certainly convey to its air-defense patrons in Moscow an after-action of the Biden-Erdogan meeting in advance of Biden’s planned June 16 meeting with Putin in Geneva. Ankara is, of course, likely to include any exploitable weakness it senses from the Biden-Erdogan meeting, but so too will the Turkish national-security team convey points to Moscow in its own national interest with which Biden could equip Erdogan. All the more reason for Biden to negotiate with Erdogan from a position of strength.

Case in point: Biden’s national-security team should encourage Biden to seek Erdogan’s leverage to Moscow regarding the aforementioned July Security Council vote. Biden’s objective should be to empower Erdogan to make the case that greater humanitarian suffering in northwest Syria only puts further strain on Turkey — making a byproduct of Russian interference still another thorn in the side of the Turkey–Russia relationship.

This is a nuanced point, but one that President Biden shouldn’t miss: Erdogan should walk away from his meeting with Biden emboldened with the accurate understanding that Russia’s U.N. meddling with humanitarian access to northwest Syria gives Erdogan greater reason to pack up the S-400 program and to make the case to Putin to not interfere with humanitarian-access renewal. Such would be a win for the United States and NATO, and, as important, could help put Moscow back in its corner on Syria.

This first trip abroad will be the baseline against which the new president’s foreign-policy acumen will be measured in the subsequent 43 months. Short of standing up to Erdogan and empowering him to make a case to Putin in this gauntlet of geopolitics, mollification would portend dire consequences for progressing bilateral relations with Turkey, for peeling Ankara back from Moscow, and for Putin’s efforts to bolster Assad while perpetuating suffering of innocent Syrians.

As Biden’s national-security team prepares the president, they should be not unmindful of where an appeasement approach has taken U.S. foreign policy in the first few months of this presidency, how messengers such as Erdogan must be equipped to make a winning argument for themselves (and the United States), and how the United States as a global superpower can successfully flex geostrategic muscle to accomplish U.S. objectives.

Peter Metzger is a former Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Deputy Senior Director for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs on the National Security Council at the White House in the Trump administration.


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