Days after Turkey took delivery of Russian missile defense systems in July 2019, top security officials in the Trump administration were in full agreement that Washington should deliver on its threat to impose sanctions on its NATO ally.
The US State Department had sent its recommendations to the National Security Council calling for prompt sanctions on Turkish individuals and entities and the measures were going to be rolled out once President Donald Trump approved.
He never did, disagreeing with his closest advisers, two sources familiar with Trump’s decision-making said. To date, he has refused to impose sanctions on Ankara for buying the Russian S-400 missiles, which Washington says compromise NATO defenses.
While overruling advisers is common in Trump’s policy playbook, his instinct to go lightly on Turkey has prevented severely fractured ties between Ankara and Washington from total collapse.
The decades-old partnership between the NATO allies has gone through unprecedented tumult in the past five years over disagreements on Syria policy, Ankara’s closer ties with Moscow, its naval ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean, US charges against a state-owned Turkish bank and erosion of rights and freedoms in Turkey.
Should Republican Trump’s Democratic rival Joe Biden win Tuesday’s election, as opinion polls suggest, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be losing his most valuable ally in Washington, leaving Ankara vulnerable to the wrath of a deeply antagonized US Congress and some US agencies skeptical of Turkey.
Biden, who called Erdogan an ‘autocrat’ last December, is expected to be tougher on Turkey, particularly over its weakening of human rights and democratic norms and could impose sanctions over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400s after Erdogan last week confirmed testing was underway.
Still, Biden’s priority to counter Russia and Iran and reinvest in multilateral alliances could play into Ankara’s hands, analysts said.
“Biden is unlikely to lurch into a reflexively punitive approach, as many seem to assume, but he will likely close the gap between the professional ranks of the US government bureaucracy and the White House that has yawned wide under Trump,” said Max Hoffman, associate director at the Center for American Progress.
“That means Erdogan will not be able to upend US policy with one call to the White House,” he said.
Trump has publicly praised Erdogan and his combative ruling style, calling him “a friend” and “hell of a leader.” Washington has largely stayed quiet in the face of an increasingly authoritarian Erdogan.
“I think it’s fair to say you would see stronger pushback (from a Biden administration) against the Turkish government where it does run counter to US interests,” Torrey Taussig, research director at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center said, while noting that Turkey’s democratic backsliding would likely be a more primary concern.
Biden campaign officials declined to comment for this story.
Congress ‘out of patience’
One of Biden’s first foreign policy moves would be to restore Washington’s commitment to alliances, first and foremost to NATO, whose cohesion has been damaged under Trump as he questioned the relevance of the 70-year-old organization.
To repair the transatlantic alliance, analysts said, Biden will have to work with Turkey, or at least try.
“I expect Biden will reach out to Erdogan because the priority is going to be to resuscitate NATO and you know you can’t do that without Turkey,” said Soner Cagaptay, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But that effort will clash with mounting pressure from the US Congress to impose Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), legislation that passed 98-2 in the US Senate, designed to punish aggression by Russia, Iran and North Korea and deter others from cooperating with them.
“Congress has already run out of patience,” Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen said in an interview. “I think you will find bipartisan support in Congress to push the administration, regardless of which administration, to follow through on the CAATSA sanctions.”
Washington’s punishment to Ankara’s Russian missile purchase so far has been expelling Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program. But Turkish companies still produce components of the jets.
Ankara and Washington have a window of six to nine months to reset ties and build goodwill, Emre Peker, director at Eurasia Group, wrote in a recent research note, with “risk of accidents” remaining high and increasing over time.
“Given the options to punish Turkey, and short of Ankara renouncing its S-400s, Biden will likely start to impose toward end-2021 less onerous measures under CAATSA and threaten more severe action unless Turkey reverses course. CAATSA could be catastrophic for Turkey,” Peker wrote.
Turkey’s beleaguered lira is particularly vulnerable to US sanctions.
For now, Ankara gives no indications of walking back.
The tests “have been and are being conducted,” Erdogan said on Friday, adding in what sounded like a challenge to America: “Whatever your sanctions are, don’t hold back.”