Can Biden Tame the Turkish Bully?


President Trump had created the perfect storm in international relations by allowing bullies such as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to wreak havoc in certain regions of the world and even interfere with US domestic problems.

One of the casualties of Mr. Erdogan’s adventures abroad has been Armenia. That is why the government and people in Armenia have been wondering if President Joe Biden’s election will be able to tame the Turkish bully.

Jerusalem Post contributor Seth J. Frantzman believes the light is at the end of the tunnel. In an article published on January 12, he speaks of a positive answer to that question, even in the title, “Turkey’s Blank Check to Invade Countries May End with Trump.”

Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, adds, “The only thing holding the relationship together for the last several years has been Trump’s personal relationship with Erdogan. With Trump removed, Erdogan should be very, very worried.”

Indeed, in an interview, Biden called Erdogan an “autocrat” and vowed to support Turkey’s opposition, while in a Democratic party debate, he stated, “I would be having a real lockdown conversation with Erdogan and let him know that he is going to pay a heavy price for what he has done. Now pay that price.”

This latter statement refers to the massacre that Erdogan organized against the Kurdish US allies in Syria.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

During the US presidential election, Ankara was very critical of Biden’s candidacy, hoping that Trump would be re-elected. That is why Turkey withheld its congratulatory message to Biden until Congress ratified the electoral college votes. No wonder then that President Biden’s transition team has not yet responded to a request by Mr. Erdogan for a phone call. Obviously, there is no love lost between the two leaders.

There are a slew of issues where Erdogan is in conflict with US policies. Aside from the attack on the Kurds, the other issues are the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system, subsequent accommodation with Russia and Iran, Turkey’s alleged role in helping Iran skirt US sanctions, Turkey’s skirmishes with another NATO ally, Greece, and a standoff with France, which threatens to rip apart the NATO alliance.

Last but not least, Biden’s pledge to recognize the Armenian Genocide will upset the Erdogan administration. Incidentally, Samantha Power, President Obama’s United Nations ambassador, is back in Washington to head the United States Agency for International Development. She had pledged, on behalf of candidate Obama, to recognize the Armenian Genocide, a promise she could not keep.

At the end of Obama’s term, she publicly apologized for her failure. Now she has the opportunity to make good on that promise. Will it be politics as usual again or will she actually live up to the moral principles which she advocates? We will see.

Another issue is looming which will put the strained relations between the US and Turkey under even heavier pressure. The case by the US against the Turkish state-owned HalkBank will soon get underway at the Southern District Court of New York. The bank was indicted on charges of helping Iran skirt a US embargo. President Trump had bypassed US laws and twice fired the prosecutors dealing with the case to avoid a trial. Both his former State Department head, Rex Tillerson, and National Security Advisor John Bolton, have tried to explain the implications of Trump’s interference regarding the issue.

Bolton confided that “Trump wanted to do a favor for his friend, Erdogan.”

The consequences of the suit will be dire for Turkey’s failing economy.

In the meantime, political fortunes are changing in the Middle East and the Caucasus, and Turkey is changing its discourse with the incoming US administration. It is preparing to take pre-emptive measures before Erdogan faces a showdown with Biden’s administration.

To begin with, Turkey had been exploring backdoor channels to mend fences with Israel after the fraying of relations. Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to extract the highest possible price for the restoration of those relations. Both parties realize that the gate of US Middle East policy is in Israel.

After spewing venomous remarks in Baku during the December 10 victory march, Erdogan came up with some conciliatory language toward Armenia. First, he has stated that he will help Azerbaijan and Armenia to improve relations to the extent that they will no longer need peacekeeping forces to safeguard residents. Of course, the statement has a double meaning; now that Turkey has introduced its own military forces in Azerbaijan to balance the Russian presence, it will further push Russia out of the region to please the US.

The other prong of the announcement is meant to assuage Europe. Indeed, negotiations between the European Union and Turkey have been stalled for some time now. And one of the conditions has been the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

In addition, Mevlut Çavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, talking to Heiko Maas, his German counterpart, has stated that Turkey is looking for better relations with Armenia.

The fact that Turkey is not talking to Yerevan directly indicates that this is political posturing to forestall a potential clash with the Biden administration, rather than a genuine attempt at diplomacy.

Armenia, unfortunately, is weak, particularly after the recent war, which also involved Turkey, but the moral power of the Armenian Genocide still remains a factor to be reckoned with. And Turkey is cognizant of that fact.

The other development, in which Turkey was mired, was the tense relations between Qatar and the other bloc of the Sunni Arabs, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Ankara took advantage of that tension to side with Qatar, where it has put its military base. Both Turkey and Qatar have been fanning the flames and financing Islamic terrorism in the Middle East and around the world. Recently, the two blocs met in Saudi Arabia and restored relations, dropping the 13 demands put to Qatar. Turkey has yet to reposition itself in this confusing state.

Another Turkish strategy now is its military concentration in Azerbaijan and in Kars. This mysterious move has many interpretations. One of them is the forthcoming centennial of the Treaty of Kars (March 1921). Many believe Turkey will invite the Russian side to “celebrate” the centennial of Russo-Turkish relations. That is also an opportunity for Armenia to revisit the treaty which has many legal flaws and yet determines Turkey’s border with Armenia.

The other interpretation is that the incoming US administration will be engaging with Iran to get it to adhere to the nuclear treaty worked out during the Obama administration. For that purpose, the US will need leverage from the Middle East, for which Ankara may oblige.

To all appearances, a rocky start of relations is predicted between the US and Turkey. It remains for diplomats in Armenia and advocacy groups and influential Armenians in the US to take advantage of this political window which may be open only for a short while.

After all, the Biden administration will treat Turkey as a NATO ally and force the latter to behave like one, since Turkey has taken advantage of the power of its membership and acted independently, contravening NATO objectives.

It remains to be seen if Biden will tame the bully or if Erdogan will convince the US administration that Turkey has the right to act on its own in the world political scene.


Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: