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A Biden administration holds a very different future for US-Turkey relations

“As we repeatedly discussed during your tenure as vice president, Turkey-US relations have a strategic quality with deep roots,” Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week. “I congratulate you on your election victory and offer my most sincere wishes for the peace and welfare of the people of the United States of America.”

His congratulatory message to US president-elect Joe Biden came three days after similar messages were delivered via Twitter posts from leaders of Ireland, Germany, Spain and Canada and other allies.  

Until then, Turkey was listed among five other countries – Brazil, China, North Korea, Russia and Slovenia – that had remained noticeably quiet.  

The silence was largely explained by Ankara’s disappointment given Erdogan’s closer relations with and easier access to Donald Trump, which saw explosive bilateral issues steered towards the former’s advantage.  

The reasons behind the break from silence, however, were due to a stronger need to calm the Turkish economy before it headed into a storm as opposed to putting on a quiet display of loyalty for an ousted leader.  

For months now, many here have been speculating over how Biden might react to pending sanctions by Washington, known as Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, over Turkey’s purchase of a Russian anti-aircraft missile system.  

Critics argued that the move not only undermined the security of Nato by allowing Russian technology into the pact’s defense system but also opposed US interests, which are fundamentally positioned against Russia.  

In response, US Congress withheld major new arms sales to Turkey while Trump officials used every possible technical argument to delay the choice of sanctions.  

The menu included so-called nuclear options such as excluding Turkey from the US banking system, medium measures including export licence limitations or light ones such as transaction limitations imposed on certain people.  

Currently, two bills – the Defense Authorisation and Appropriations Bills that funds all the government agencies – were moving through the US Congress, with legislation that clarified the terms of an “automatic sanction trigger”. Ambiguity in the text of CAATSA has so far worked in Turkey’s favour.    

“The White House has been the one to make sure that the Republicans in the Senate listened to them about Turkey,” a US congressional official said, asking not to be named.  

“I think now that Trump is leaving, almost all of Congress is very frustrated with Erdogan, no one's going stick their neck out to try to save Turkey.”

Trump has explained his reluctance to impose sanctions on Turkey as an attempt to correct a mistake by the Obama administration in failing to alternatively provide Turkey the US-manufactured Patriot missile defense systems. 

Whether or not it was a sincere effort to act fairly towards Turkey or a nod to his unorthodox relationship with Erdogan, halting sanctions was to Ankara’s advantage after impacts of similar measures were proven severe.  

It was the doubling of tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium imports over the imprisonment of an American pastor in August 2018 that crashed the Lira currency overnight, while a parallel move in response to a Turkish military operation in Syria in 2019 served another blow to markets.  

If Trump is to choose the CAATSA sanctions and pick the lightest options as a final favour to his Turkish counterpart, time is running out, as his mandate ends on 20 January 2021.  

Critics remained skeptical about any impact Erdogan’s uncommon ‘thank you’ note to Trump, filed right after the congratulatory message to Biden, would have in striking a diplomatic balance.  

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Turkey this week but refused to travel to Ankara to meet government officials while officials refused to meet him in Istanbul, reports claimed. On his final official tour, Pompeo might as well be charging his own horse for a political career in future and the hot line between Trump and Erdogan might still exist – but it’s too early to say.  

However, if the choice on CAATSA sanctions is left to Biden, we’d be looking at the heavier side of the options not only because he has been critical of Erdogan’s government on various grounds but also because he needs a bipartisan issue to bridge differences in a Republican-led Senate, analysts claimed.    

Gonul Tol with the Washington-based Middle East Institute told me it was not only Ankara’s improving ties with the Kremlin that irked millions but also Erdogan’s intolerance toward dissent and aggressive policies in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean that have made him a negative, common household name in the US.  

And his close relationship with Trump only rubbed salt into the wound.  

“Trump’s unproportionate support of Erdogan has infuriated even Republicans,” Tol said. “For Republicans, who want to put distance between Trump, voting against Turkey is the safest choice, a popular stance even domestically.”

Regardless of Turkey’s image in the US, the weight of the CAATSA sanctions ahead, or a heavy penalty expected against Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank for violating Iran sanctions, means Ankara will likely be obliged to change course in its handling of US relations.  

“It's going to be more of a point of intrigue for the Turkish government because it's actually going to be much harder to track relations as they won’t have one channel which happened with Trump.”

A CNN report earlier claimed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Trump as often as two times a week and was put through directly to the US president, even at his golf course.  

“I think it's very simple; Biden abides by rule of law and Trump doesn't,” the official told me.  

Educated career officials have no desire to make an enemy of Turkey, but at the moment Biden has more important priorities than affairs with Ankara.  

“We have to focus on Europe,” the official explained.  

“We have to use political capital in trying to rebuild relationships particularly with Germany, France, even Canada before we worry about how to deal with complex issues with a partner like Turkey who doesn't behave like a partner.”

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