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Biden Presidency Could Be Pivotal in US-Turkey Relations, Analysts Say

FILE - Then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) meets with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul.
FILE - Then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) meets with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul.

Turkish analysts say Joe Biden's projected presidential election victory could prove to be a pivotal moment in Turkey’s relations with the United States -- one that could see Ankara pivoting back to its traditional Western allies or further deepening ties with Russia and China.

While many European leaders were quick to offer congratulations to Biden, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan belatedly issued a statement Wednesday acknowledging Biden's victory. In it, Erdogan stressed the "strategic" nature of bilateral ties and said they should be further strengthened based on common interests.

The Turkish leader also sent a message to President Donald Trump, thanking him.

Under Trump, critics say, Erdogan paid little price for confronting fellow NATO members and cozying up to Moscow, with the U.S. president opposing calls in the U.S. Congress for sanctions against Turkey.

A Biden presidency, some analysts are predicting, will bring very different things for Erdogan.

"The message from Biden will be to Turkey, do behave like an ally," said International relations teacher Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University. He told VOA he believes Biden's victory could be a watershed moment in bilateral relations.

"A Biden presidency gives you the opportunity to actually change tracks, not necessarily giving up on your interests but change your style. But if Turkey insists on defying everyone, I don't think we can get anywhere, and the key to that is the S-400," Ozel said.

The S-400 is an advanced missile system that Turkey bought from Russia despite Washington’s warning that the purchase violated U.S. law and that the missile's radar compromises NATO defense systems.

A defiant Ankara test-fired the system last month, despite a warning from U.S. senators that the move would trigger sanctions.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, speaking at a November gathering of Turkish ambassadors, called on Washington to get over its objections to the S-400, declaring the issue was "done."

Biden’s challenge

Among the first critical foreign policy decisions Biden could face is whether to sanction Turkey over the S-400. Erdogan's deepening ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin are raising concerns within NATO.

Under the so-called Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, CAATSA, Biden has a broad range of options when it comes to sanctions - from symbolic to severe financial measures.

The U.S. could take action against Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. Despite a New York court jailing of a senior Halkbank official in 2018 for extensive violations of Iran sanctions, the U.S. Treasury Department has so far held off on penalizing Turkey.

In early 2021, Halkbank faces charges again in a New York court for alleged sanction-busting.

Analysts say that until now, Ankara has banked on its strategic importance to avoid sanctions. Turkey borders Iran, Iraq, Syria, hosts a U.S. radar base, and allows the U.S. military to operate from its Incirlik air base, one of the region's largest.

Observers warn Turkey could be overplaying its hand. "Plenty of people in the United States believe they can manage things without Turkey," cautions Ozel, who says Washington’s need for Incirlik “is being questioned more seriously today than before."

Analysts say Ankara's hardline stance towards Washington is perhaps a negotiating ploy. They say Mr. Erdogan is aware that Biden will likely take a more robust stance towards Moscow and that Turkey can play a critical role in that strategy.

"No doubt there is a lot of anger directed at Turkey, at President Erdogan himself," said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow of the European Council of Foreign Relations. "There will be a tendency also to see if the U.S. can peel Turkey back from its reliance on Russia. And I think Erdogan knows how to play this game; he knows how to play the U.S. against Russia and vice versa, and that will be an interesting dance to watch."

But some warn of far-reaching consequences if that dance should end with U.S. sanctions on Turkey.

"Hostile actions against Turkey will eventually align Turkey with the Eurasian and Asia powers like Russia and China," said retired Admiral Cem Gurdeniz. "This is going to be inevitable because they are threatening the very existence of Turkey.”

The legacy of Turkey’s 2016 failed coup by disaffected military officers could also be a complicating factor for Biden. Suspicions in Ankara remain that the Obama administration, which Biden served in, was involved in the attempted military takeover, a charge Washington has denied.

But Aydintasbas says Biden's experience of working with Turkey could serve the relationship well.

"The tail end of the Obama administration relations between Turkey and Washington was pretty bad. But Biden himself emerged as an Erdogan whisperer. It was Biden who was dispatched to Turkey after the failed coup attempt in 2016 to repair the relationship. So the one-on-one relationship between the two may not be so bad, " he said.