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United States and Turkey. A difficult relationship

It is not yet clear what will be the policy of the Biden administration in the Middle East. For now, the White House has reduced its support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and has made it clear that the return to negotiations with Iran will be crucial, although not immediate.
These two issues are important because they affect the two main regional players in the Middle East, Riyadh and Tehran. But among the issues to be addressed there is also the relationship with Turkey.

Despite being both members of NATO, Washington and Ankara disagree on various issues. In recent years – thanks also to a the personal relationship between the Turkish President Erdogan and Donald Trump – things have gone pretty well, but there has been no shortage of tears. Among the legacies left to the Biden administration there are the American sanctions on Turkey for the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. Today the two parts start exaclty from here.

A few days ago the Turkish defense minister Hulusi Akar said that the Russian missile defense system could be only partially used and made it clear that his country is open to dialogue.
Last week there was also a phone call between Erdogan’s spokesman and Biden’s National Security Adviser, while the two foreign ministers are expected to meet at the next NATO summit in March. Turkish officials, quoted by some American media, said that the economic crisis could convince Erodgan to make concessions.
All this would seem to indicates that a rapprochement is possible.

But on the way to this possible rapprochement there are several obstacles:

  1. The first. In any potential agreement with the Americans, Turkey absolutely wants to include the issue of the Syrian Kurds, allies of the United States in the fight against ISIS in Syria – even if at some point they were abandoned – but considered by Ankara a terrorist group linked to the Kurdish PKK in Turkey. It is no coincidence that Turkey has carried out different military campaigns in northern Syria, also in the Kurdish area. For Turkey this is by far the main issue, and the fact that the American ambassador in Ankara said that the alliance with the Syrian Kurds is not in question complicates things.
  2. The second obstacle is that in general the Biden administration, regardless of the country in question, seems to be much more sensitive to human rights. Its first statement on Turkey was a criticism by the State Department for the clash between Erdogan and the Turkish university community, for the politically charged appointment of state-approved rectors with links to Turkey’s conservative ruling party.
  3. The third obstacle is a different geopolitical vision, which is also behind Turkey’s agreement with Russia for its missile defence system. The US should remain focused on the confrontation with China and will continue to look at Russia from afar. Turkey has now moved closer to Moscow and no longer considers the relationship with the West a priority.

A few days ago the Pentagon indicated that there will be no change in American policy, meaning at least on paper no turning back on the sanctions adopted by Trump last year.

One last point: as pointed out by some Turkish analysts close to the government, the United States may need the support of Ankara on some sensitive dossiers in the region, from Libya to Iran. This could be an additional element to take into account in the coming months.