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Will Erdogan Embrace the West?

Turkey Istanbul Convention

It may not have seemed like it at the time, but the devastating earthquakes which hit Turkey on February 6 postponed a crisis. In recent weeks, Washington has demonstrated its solidarity with Turkey by providing aid and emergency services in some of the hardest-hit areas. But the leadership of both countries knows that they will soon have to face the music. With no end in sight to the war in Ukraine, Ankara’s stubborn refusal to ratify Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership bid must be addressed.

On February 2, a bipartisan group of 27 senators sent President Joe Biden a letter asking the White House to make the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey contingent on Ankara greenlighting NATO’s Scandinavian expansion. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan certainly wants the F-16s, although what he wants even more is another term as president.

This poses a dilemma for U.S. critics like the 27 frustrated senators since their efforts to address Erdogan’s disruptive behavior within NATO may only play into the Turkish leader’s hands at home. While hardly satisfying, the wisest course for Erdogan’s detractors may be to avoid confrontation until Turkish voters have their say about their president’s future — if he respects their will. Given the extent of the earthquake damage, it is unknown if the elections will be able to proceed on the intended date of May 14. Calculations may now have to change, given the swift aid delivered to Turkey by many countries—-including Finland and Sweden. It is difficult to imagine how Erdogan can continue to serve up his cocktail of anti-western rhetoric as an election stunt to fire up nationalist voters, when so many of its Western allies have offered a helping hand to rescue survivors from disaster-stricken cities in southeastern Turkey. This is an inflection point for Ankara to recognize who its true friends are.

Ankara’s relationship with its NATO allies has gone swiftly downhill since Turkey’s catastrophic decision to purchase the Russian-made S-400 missile system, which triggered congressionally mandated sanctions. Washington also removed Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program concluding it could not trust Ankara with its most advanced fighters. Neither of these measures resulted in Turkey divesting itself of the S-400s. Rather, the list of provocations has only lengthened. It includes militarily threatening NATO ally Greece over disputed territorial water rights, accusing the United States of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt that almost toppled Erdogan, and posturing to invade Syria — directly endangering the safety of U.S. troops participating in counter-ISIS operations. Suffice it to say the West’s relationship with Ankara is broken.

That being said, Washington is interested in keeping Turkey on-side, since Ankara can help the White House deal with the Ukraine crisis. While Erdogan refuses to side firmly against Russia, Ankara closed off the Bosporus straits to Russian war ships, is selling TB2 combat drones and other military equipment to Ukraine, and brokered a grain deal that has averted a global food catastrophe. While Turkey won’t enforce most Western sanctions on Russia, in 2022, Turkey’s banks, under direct pressure from the United States, stopped accepting the ‘Mir’ payment system — Moscow’s alternative to SWIFT.

This has not been enough to build congressional support for the sale of F-16s. The White House signaled informally its intent to push ahead with the sale, yet has shown no appetite so far for confronting Congress, including powerful members of his own party, such as Senator Bob Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Following the earthquakes, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited Turkey’s disaster-struck regions to offer U.S. support. The visit was also an opportunity to determine if Ankara’s position on green-lighting NATO expansion has changed- given the West’s overwhelming solidarity with Turkey. It has not. Turkey’s foreign minister Cavusoglu told Blinken that “all parties in the alliance must convince Sweden in particular to take more action to address Ankara’s concerns and win its support for the bid.”

This continued delay will not reassure Washington. There are additional sticking points for Congress, including Erdogan’s autocratic rule at home, cooperation with Iran, provision of sanctuary to Hamas, and toleration of illicit finance. On seven different occasions from 2019 through 2021, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Turkey-based persons who were part of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Hamas networks. In December 2022, Treasury designated Sitki Ayan, a Turkish businessman and acquaintance of Erdogan’s, for facilitating “the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of oil for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF).” Additionally, U.S. authorities pressured Ankara last month to prevent Russian airlines from flying American-made civilian airliners to and from Turkish airports, warning that “Turkish individuals are at risk of jail time, fines, loss of export privileges and other measures if they provide services like refueling and spare parts to U.S.-made planes flying to and from Russia and Belarus in violation of export controls.”

In other words, for the F-16 sale to be approved, Ankara must complete a lot of homework. Steadfast western support for post-earthquake Turkey provides Ankara the perfect opportunity to refocus its energies on rekindling its substantive relationship with the West by resolving outstanding concerns. On the other hand, if Ankara continues to snub the West, there is very little in the U.S. toolbox that can entice Turkey to do what Washington desires. The more Erdogan says ‘no’ to NATO enlargement, the more voter approval he seems to get. Maneuvers such as the senators’ letter to Biden may only reinforce Erdogan’s stance. Ankara is fast becoming desensitized to punitive measures, such as the denial of the F-16s. This does not mean Western capitals’ expectations are unreasonable. It is simply stating that efforts to coerce Turkey have stopped yielding results. In post-earthquake Turkey, the West, including the United States should do all they can to stand by Turkey in its darkest hour. This will make it harder for Erdogan to use the West as a punching bag and even perhaps encourage him to rethink his relationship with its allies.

For that reason, Washington should hold off on further punitive measures until after Turkey’s elections, which were intended to take place on May 14, although the massive earthquake that just hit southern Turkey may cause a delay. If the election is clean, diplomacy can resume in a more favorable context, especially if the opposition pulls off an upset. However, if Erdogan rigs the vote or refuses to accept a clear defeat at the polls, U.S.-Turkish relations would likely head for a crisis that overshadows the current one. 

For Washington, lowering the temperature does not mean making unilateral concessions. The sale of F-16s should not take place until Erdogan ratifies NATO enlargement and sets forth a plan to divest Turkey of its S-400s at a minimum. Time will tell if Erdogan will seek to exploit nationalist sentiments regardless, but Washington shouldn’t help him. Instead, the U.S. should double down on calling for free and fair elections. If Erdogan wins, he is likely to be interested in some sort of reset with the West. That is the time to ask for significant course corrections. For now, Washington would gain most by keeping its frustrations towards Ankara quiet.

Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow Sinan on Twitter @SinanCiddi.

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Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow Sinan on Twitter @SinanCiddi.