November 19, 2020 | Balkan Insight

Biden and Erdogan: Five Potential Flashpoints in US-Turkish Relations

After being protected by Donald Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon face US sanctions and political pushback from Joe Biden’s administration that would sour Ankara-Washington relations.
November 19, 2020 | Balkan Insight

Biden and Erdogan: Five Potential Flashpoints in US-Turkish Relations

After being protected by Donald Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon face US sanctions and political pushback from Joe Biden’s administration that would sour Ankara-Washington relations.

Erdogan, who succeeded in cutting various backchannel deals with Trump and his inner circle, was between a rock and a hard place following the November 3 election.

Having targeted Biden during the election campaign for the former vice president’s earlier comments about Turkey, Erdogan wanted neither to alienate the president-elect further nor to provoke Trump during his two-and-a-half-month ‘lame duck’ period before leaving office.

After all, Trump still has the power to retaliate against Erdogan by declining to shield Turkey from looming US sanctions.

Indeed, the most burning issue in US-Turkish relations remains the potential for penalties under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system.

On October 16, Ankara carried out S-400 firing tests in the Black Sea province of Sinop, a development Erdogan confirmed a week later.

The House of Representatives version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act would force the president to issue CAATSA sanctions against Turkey over its S-400 procurement within a month of the defence authorisation bill becoming law, likely in late December.

For reasons unknown, Trump has so far spared Ankara from sanctions. Regardless of whether the US Congress makes sanctions against Ankara mandatory, Biden could choose to go forward with sanctions to highlight that he, unlike Trump, is lenient neither on Erdogan nor on Putin.

A second flashpoint between Washington and Ankara is the ongoing sanctions evasion case in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) against Halkbank, a public lender majority-owned by the Turkish government.

On October 1, the federal judge overseeing the case refused to dismiss an indictment accusing Halkbank of helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions.

An October 29 exposé in the New York Times showed that the Trump administration had put pressure on SDNY prosecutors since 2018 to treat the bank leniently and negotiate a settlement that would grant immunity to key individuals with ties to Erdogan who had helped finance Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.

When Biden was vice-president, Erdogan reached out to him in hopes that the Obama administration would quash the investigation into the role Turkey played in Iran’s sanctions evasion schemes.

The effort failed when Biden reminded his Turkish counterpart that if a US. president took legal matters into his own hands, “he would be impeached for violating the separation of powers”.

If Biden simply allows the US justice system to follow its due course, potential convictions and fines that could result for the biggest sanctions-evasion scheme in recent history would not only hurt Turkey’s flailing economy, but also US-Turkish relations.

Hostage diplomacy

A third flashpoint to watch for is the Erdogan government’s hostage diplomacy, or policy of imprisoning over 50 American and European nationals and employees on trumped-up charges since 2016 so Ankara can trade them for concessions from Turkey’s Western counterparts.

Besides the high-profile case of US pastor Andrew Brunson, who was able to return to the United States in October 2019 after two years of detention in Turkey on bogus terrorism and military espionage charges, there are also three foreign service nationals, ie. Turkish citizens working as US consular employees, who became targets of politically-motivated charges and smear campaigns.

Since 2017, all three have been convicted on unsubstantiated terrorism charges, and two of them remain in prison serving five-year and eight-year sentences respectively.

Although Trump remained indifferent to the suffering of these State Department employees, Biden is likely to be more proactive to free them, with Global Magnitsky Sanctions as one of the options against Ankara.

A fourth point of bilateral tension may be the next cross-border operation by Turkish troops and Ankara’s Syrian jihadist proxies into parts of north-east Syria controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, Washington’s allies in the fight against the Islamic State.

The Erdogan government has launched three cross-border operations targeting Washington’s Syrian Kurdish partners since 2016; the last one, in October 2019, triggered U.S. sanctions against Turkey.

Biden, who is known for his pro-Kurdish sympathies, is likely to be even more vigilant against Erdogan’s targeting of north-east Syria and the human rights violations committed by Turkish proxies, including hostage-taking, torture, rape and pillaging, according to a September 15 report from the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

Finally, Ankara’s irredentist Blue Homeland naval concept, and ongoing gunboat diplomacy in the eastern Mediterranean, could be the fifth flashpoint in US-Turkish relations.

Erdogan’s insistence on seismic research and drilling in maritime waters claimed by Athens and Nicosia has already drawn the ire of the European Union, although Brussels has walked back its threats to impose sanctions.

If Biden, as expected, repairs the transatlantic ties that Trump damaged with his contempt for European leaders, Washington and Brussels could devise and implement concerted action against Ankara, including coordinated European and American sanctions.

These looming flashpoints show that Biden’s Turkey portfolio, or more accurately Erdogan portfolio, will be at least as tricky as his Iran and Russia portfolios, requiring a good mix of incentives and disincentives to stop Ankara’s further descent into authoritarianism, belligerence and illicit finance while also reversing its drift from NATO and the alliance’s transatlantic values.

Ironically, the greatest advantage Biden has is that he was part of the Obama administration that misread Erdogan completely not only as “a man of principle,” but also as a “moderate Muslim democrat” and a “potential role model for Muslim leaders.”

The president-elect is two terms wiser about what to expect from Erdogan. Biden has also had the opportunity to learn from how Erdogan played Trump to enjoy impunity for his long list of transgressions.

The best hope for US-Turkish relations is if Erdogan recognizes that Biden will not indulge him the way Trump did. This could force Erdogan to act more prudently as he fears pushback from an administration that is unlikely to offer impunity.

Since the US elections, there has even been some talk of legal and economic reforms in Turkey. Biden, however, would be naïve to assume that Erdogan will make responsible choices given the Turkish strongman’s house of cards is built on iron-fisted authoritarianism at home and military adventurism abroad.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He can be followed on Twitter at @aykan_erdemir. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.


Iran Sanctions Kurds Military and Political Power Russia Sanctions and Illicit Finance Syria Turkey