Latest Erdogan spat leaves ‘bitter aftertaste’ in US-Turkey relations

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Ankara is seeking to play down the damage caused by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threat to expel 10 ambassadors, despite a carefully choreographed climbdown that averted the worst crisis in decades between Turkey and the west.

But the episode creates awkward mood music just when Turkey is trying to forge better relations with Joe Biden and hopes for a meeting with the US president on the sidelines of the upcoming COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

Top of Ankara’s agenda is a request to buy several dozen new F-16 fighter jets to fill a gap in its air force that analysts say could help prevent Turkey — widely viewed as an important buffer between Europe and the Middle East — from turning to Russia instead. But much will depend on Biden’s attitude towards the Turkish leader after their nations narrowly avoided a diplomatic catastrophe.

“A crisis of perhaps unprecedented magnitude was possible if this problem was not resolved,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund, a US think-tank. “But [the fact] that it is resolved does not mean it hasn’t left a bitter aftertaste.”

Turkey’s relations with its traditional Nato allies were already strained before Erdogan was so enraged by a joint statement by envoys from 10 nations, including the US, that he called for their expulsion from the country.

The Turkish president’s profound misgivings about the US were likely to have been worsened by their co-ordinated show of support for Osman Kavala, a jailed philanthropist, said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala was jailed on a charges of seeking to overthrow the government © Anadolu Culture Centre/Handout/Reuters

Kavala, who was detained in 2017 and denies charges of seeking to overthrow the Turkish government, is seen in the west as a political prisoner. His release has been demanded by the European Court of Human Rights.

But the Turkish president has described him as a “terrorist” and his angry response to the 10 nations’ call for a “just and speedy” resolution to Kavala’s case was “not actually irrational if you accept he thinks the west is trying to overthrow him”, Stein said.

A diplomatic meltdown was averted after both sides ceded ground. The US offered a way out by declaring its commitment to a Vienna Convention clause stipulating the duty of diplomats not to interfere in other nations’ internal affairs. That enabled Erdogan to walk back from his expulsion threat.

Ankara was cheered that mediation efforts were spearheaded by the US ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield, according to several people familiar with the Turkish government’s thinking.

In remarks published by Turkish media on Wednesday, Erdogan said he believed Biden decided to “display courtesy” by offering an olive branch. He added that he expected to sit down with Biden in Glasgow. However, a meeting has not been confirmed by the White House.

High on any US agenda would be Afghanistan and efforts to secure flight operations at Kabul airport, which Turkey has expressed willingness to support. Washington also wants to discuss Ukraine and Syria.

Ankara, meanwhile, is seeking to buy around 80 new US-made F-16 fighter jets and F-16 modernisation kits to upgrade its air force. Turkey, which has Nato’s second largest military, has relied on an ageing fleet after the US barred it from taking delivery of over 100 next-generation F-35 aircraft in punishment for its purchase of an S-400 air-defence system from Russia.

Turkish F-16 fighter jet pilots flying by C-295M Casa military cargo plane of Poland as part of NATO’s “Air Policing” mission
Turkey hopes to buy new US-made F-16 fighter jets to strengthen its air force © Cuneyt Karadag/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Erdogan has hinted that he could buy Russian fighter jets if the request is turned down, alarming Nato allies already concerned about the S-400 acquisition.

The US Department of State has acknowledged Turkey’s request for F-16s. Ankara argues the $1.4bn it has already paid into the F-35 programme could be redirected to F-16 purchases. Washington is seeking to resolve the F-35 dispute but has “not made any financing offers” on Turkey’s F-16 request, according to the US state department.

A key stumbling block is that any F-16 sale would need the approval of Congress. Unluhisarcikli said there was a strong US national security argument in favour of the deal that could be used by the White House to persuade sceptical members of Congress, but questioned whether Biden would want to spend political capital on Turkey’s behalf.

Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, predicted that Washington would nevertheless seek congressional support for the deal. “The F-16s are seen as a way to improve the relationship by the Americans,” she said. “They want to engage in this process as much as Turks do.”

A senior Biden administration official did not comment on the F-16 discussions but said the administration sought to bolster relations with Turkey because it is “a longtime Nato ally” that is “strategically located” and involved in many of Washington’s regional interests.

“We continue to seek co-operation where we can and push back where we need to,” said the official.

But others were more circumspect. One person familiar with discussions within the Biden administration said that many US officials who believe in engaging with Erdogan had lost ground as a result of the debacle.

“This is really a blow to the US-Turkish relationship overall, and especially given that the blow came to the state department,” said the person, adding that it was the agency that most supported strong bilateral ties with Turkey.

James Jeffrey, an advocate of good relations with Ankara during his time as a diplomat in the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, said Erdogan’s expulsion threat had blown over but showed his “instincts are to provoke his western allies, not his Russian and Iranian foes”.

“Realistically, Nato and Turkey need each other,” he said. “But Erdogan’s instinct to punch his western partners in the eye — a combination of his own ideology and the feelings of his political base — poisons what should otherwise be a good relationship.”

Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley

Source: Financial Times

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