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US foreign policy

Analysis: US eyes post-Erdogan Turkey as tensions simmer

“The region and the world needs a stable and democratic Turkey. Under Erdogan, such a future is but a dim hope,” a senior-ranking US senator said.

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Tensions between the US and Turkey are arguably at an all-time high. Both analysts and officials believe that the status-quo could remain until the 2023 elections in Ankara, with the result of potentially diminishing Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s role.

The frustration with Turkey has become bipartisan in Washington, and US law gives the Biden administration little room to maneuver with regards to Ankara’s appetite for more engagement with Russia and other US adversaries.

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Additionally, the overwhelming narrative among US lawmakers and officials is one of irritation from Turkey’s recent actions.

Ties have been severely damaged due to Erdogan’s decision to acquire Russia’s S-400 missile system. Not only did the move force US sanctions, but it also drew the ire of NATO member states.

A part of a Russian S-400 defense system being unloaded from a Russian plane at Murted Airport near Ankara, Turkey, Aug. 27, 2019. (Reuters)
A part of a Russian S-400 defense system being unloaded from a Russian plane at Murted Airport near Ankara, Turkey, Aug. 27, 2019. (Reuters)

Erdogan cozies up to Russia

Member states said that Moscow would be able to collect intelligence on the F-35 program, which is incompatible with Russia’s S-400s.

Nevertheless, Erdogan has upped his rhetoric against the US and the Biden administration, saying he wanted to increase Ankara’s defense relationship with Russia. He has repeatedly said he will not back down from buying more Russian weapons or S-400s.

The Turkish president even accused Washington of supporting terrorists in reference to US support for Kurdish forces in Syria. He has demanded some sort of compensation for the $1.4 billion payment made for the F-35s. He has said Turkey wanted F-16 fighter jets and an upgrade to its existing fleet in return for the money paid.

During a meeting with US President last week, Erdogan claimed that Biden said he would “do his best,” but that there was a “fifty-fifty chance” it would pass through Senate and Congress. While Erdogan described his meeting with Biden as positive, the US president’s new envoy to Ankara told lawmakers in his confirmation hearing that more sanctions would come if Turkey bought more Russian weapons.

Post-Erdogan Turkey

As Erdogan’s provocative steps and threats to act against the West show little sign of easing, such as the recent vow to expel 10 ambassadors, analysts and US officials are eyeing a post-Erdogan period.

“For the time being, there seems to be silent but concerted efforts to contain the Erdogan government’s belligerence,” said Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).

“In the United States, there is a strong bipartisan sentiment that as long as Erdogan holds the reins of power, there is limited opportunity to put bilateral relations back on track and bring Turkey back into the NATO fold,” Erdemir, also a former member of the Turkish parliament, told Al Arabiya English.

US diplomats and officials have privately said there is a need to remember that there will be a post-Erdogan period in Turkey. “We need to keep that in the back of our minds, while also remembering that Turkey is a very important geostrategic ally,” one official, speaking on condition of anonymity said.

Parliamentary and presidential elections are slated for 2023.

“If Turkey’s big-tent opposition bloc succeeds in winning the 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections, there will be significant opportunities to welcome Turkey back into the Western alliance through economic, diplomatic, and defense incentives,” Erdemir said.

“The short-term goal of Turkey’s NATO allies is to prevent Turkey’s further drift away from transatlantic values into Russia’s sphere of influence,” the former Turkish lawmaker said.

The risk of Turkey breaking away for good seems farfetched, as does Washington’s appetite to completely decouple.

Turkey’s ongoing economic reliance on the West, plus its membership in a long list of Western multilateral institutions, will keep it anchored in the transatlantic alliance.

Erdemir said this would also allow Ankara to repair the damage caused by Erdogan’s two-decade rule.

Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez questions Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Sept. 14, 2021. (Reuters)
Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez questions Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Sept. 14, 2021. (Reuters)

Democratic decline

Lawmakers have been at the forefront of blocking US arms sales to Turkey for several reasons. The head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez, has been at the “helm of focusing Washington’s attention to the democratic decline in Turkey for the last several years,” the senator’s communications director told Al Arabiya English.

During the confirmation for Jeff Flake, Biden’s nominee to be the next envoy to Turkey, Menendez lashed out at Erdogan’s “repressive tactics.” The top senator said an ambassador “who will not hesitate to hold Turkey accountable and will push it to live up to the principles that undergird NATO membership” was needed.

And during a July 21 hearing on US policy toward Turkey, Menendez said Erdogan has “tragically shredded” his country’s democratic journalists.

“Erdogan sees his country as on par with the great powers of the world. It’s not,” Menendez said.

And in what was an allusion to the post-Erdogan Turkey period, Menendez said: “The region and the world needs a stable and democratic Turkey. Under Erdogan, such a future is but a dim hope.”

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