Small steps, not giant leaps, will help mend US-Turkey relations

There are areas in which Biden and Erdogan can co-operate on before getting to the hot-button issues

(FILES) In this file photo taken on November 22, 2014, US Vice President Joe Biden (L) speaks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at Beylerbeyi Palace in Istanbul.  President Biden has opened his presidency by taking a visibly harder line on Turkey, with analysts expecting a rocky path ahead between the uneasy allies as their interests increasingly diverge. Erdogan, like many of the leaders who wooed Biden's predecessor Donald Trump, is getting an early cold shoulder from Biden, who before being elected described the Islamist-aligned populist an autocrat and promised to empower the opposition. / AFP / Bulent KILIC
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The US administration under new leadership wasted little time taking a widely expected stronger stance on Turkey. Last Tuesday, a bipartisan group of more than 50 US senators signed a letter urging President Joe Biden to press his Turkish counterpart on human rights abuses and his increasingly "belligerent and combative" foreign policy.

The next day, the US State Department called on Turkey to release philanthropist and activist Osman Kavala, who has been imprisoned for more than three years without conviction. "The specious charges against Kavala, his ongoing detention, and the continuing delays in the conclusion of his trial," the State Department chided, "undermine respect for the rule of law and democracy."

Ankara quickly responded. A group of Turkish politicians led by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) denounced the senators' letter as the latest of several hostile initiatives and said it included "baseless and irresponsible accusations".

Ties remain deeply strained due to a handful of disputes, and more than three weeks after Mr Biden's inauguration he has yet to speak to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This despite the Turkish leader's efforts over the past few months to soften his stance in an effort to get into the good graces of Mr Biden and the EU, which will consider harsh sanctions on Turkey at its summit next month.

The US levied sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems in December, a move I saw as a gift to Mr Biden. Indeed, two weeks after the new president took office, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Ankara might be willing to find a solution on the S-400 issue if Washington re-evaluates its co-operation with the Kurdish-led YPG – a Syrian militant group Ankara views as a terror outfit.

These two issues were at the top of the list when US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke last week for about an hour with Mr Erdogan's adviser Ibrahim Kalin. The third issue they discussed was the movement led by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. Ankara blames Mr Gulen for the 2016 failed coup and has called his movement a terrorist group, purging more than 100,000 members from its public servant ranks and driving tens of thousands into exile. Despite many Turkish requests for his extradition, Mr Gulen lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania and freely continues his work.

FILE PHOTO: U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen at his home in Pennsylvania, U.S., July 10, 2017. REUTERS/Charles Mostoller/File Photo
Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen at his home in Pennsylvania. Reuters

From the Turkish perspective, the most problematic element of the senators' letter was not that it denounced Turkey's growing authoritarianism or crackdown on dissent, but that it openly supported its sworn enemy. The letter detailed Turkey's persecution of Turkish basketballer Enes Kanter, describing him as "an NBA player and human rights advocate". Kanter has more than 500,000 followers on Instagram and nearly that many on Twitter, and in his bio for both accounts he highlights his membership in Mr Gulen's Hizmet movement.

Mr Erdogan and his allies often complain that the US supported the failed coup, or that Washington quietly backs outspoken critics such as those involved in the ongoing Bogazici protests. Thus, the US' top legislative body providing brazen support to an enemy of Turkey gives Turkish officials considerable ammunition for future attacks.

As a result, the letter will not help calm long-running tensions. The first step in that direction is likely to be an agreement on Turkey’s S-400 missile systems. Some have suggested a deal similar to the 1998 resolution under which the Republic of Cyprus shipped Greece its Russian-made S-300 systems, which had led Turkey to threaten war. Under a similar arrangement, Turkey could send its S-400s to a fellow Nato member, eliminating fears of Nato’s security apparatus operating alongside Russian-made systems.

Alternatively, as Mr Akar suggested, the US might agree to begin dissolving its co-operation with the YPG in north-eastern Syria in return for Turkey mothballing the S-400s. Since ISIS has been all but eradicated, the US-YPG arrangement seems to have less urgency. And this week's news, that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – to which the YPG is linked – reportedly killed 13 Turkish citizens in the face of a Turkish military assault in northern Iraq, might help pave the way for such a move. Though if US forces were to depart, the Biden administration would probably require a Turkish commitment to not launch another military assault on Syrian Kurds, as it did in October 2019.

A fighter from the former al-Qaeda Syrian affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) fires an anti-aircraft gun mounted on a pickup truck in Syria's southern Idlib province on August 7, 2019. / AFP / Omar HAJ KADOUR
A Hayat Tahrir Al Sham fighter fires an anti-aircraft gun mounted on a pickup truck in Syria's Idlib province in 2019. AFP
The US might agree to dissolve its co-operation with the YPG in return for Turkey mothballing the S-400s

Two additional areas present the US and Turkey with opportunities for progress. The first is in Syria’s Idlib province, where Al Qaeda-linked militant group Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) remains the largest and most influential anti-Assad rebel group. A tenuous Russian-Turkish ceasefire has maintained the peace in Idlib since last March, but it remains always on the verge of collapse due in part to the toxicity of HTS, with which no actor wants to fully engage.

A Crisis Group report published last week urged the White House to work with Europe and Turkey to encourage HTS to take steps that would enable it to shed its terrorist label, clearing the way for a more stable peace in Idlib. “Through co-operation with Ankara on this issue of mutual concern, Washington could improve strained relations with a key Nato ally,” says the report.

Another area of mutual interest is Uighurs. The Biden administration has continued the Trump policy of opposing Beijing's alleged persecution of Muslim Uighurs, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeating his predecessor's assertion that Chinese policies in Xinjiang province constitute genocide.

Mr Biden also ended Mr Trump's so-called "Muslim ban" and vowed to increase the annual number of refugees welcomed by the US from last year's 15,000 to 150,000 in 2021. A move that would dovetail with both of these positions would be to make Uighurs a priority group for resettlement in the US, as outlined in a Foreign Policy article last week.

Members of the Uighur community living in Turkey, hold a protest near China's consulate in Istanbul, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. More than a million Uighurs and other largely Muslim minorities have been swept into prisons and detention camps in China, in what China calls an anti-terrorism measure.Uighurs, a Turkic group native to China's far west Xinjiang region, have sought refuge in Turkey for decades because of their shared cultural ties with the country.(AP Photo/Mehmet Guzel)
Members of the Uighur community living in Turkey hold a protest near China's consulate in Istanbul last week. AP Photo

Turkey has been unwilling to take a position on China’s reported crackdown on Uighurs, a fellow Turkic people, because its troubled economy is in need of Chinese investment. Meanwhile, Turkey has continued to harbour some 15,000 Uighur exiles, though it has detained about 50 of them in deportation centres in recent weeks as fears have grown that Turkish parliament might soon pass an extradition treaty with China.

Quietly encouraging US efforts to take in Uighurs would offer Ankara a middle ground between a mass extradition to China, which it is loath to do, and continuing to provide sanctuary to thousands of Uighurs within Turkey, drawing Chinese condemnation.

Persuading Mr Erdogan to release Kavala and other political prisoners, or move away from authoritarianism, will have to wait for another day. With these two leaders in office, baby steps are the best one can hope for when it comes to US-Turkey ties.

David Lepeska is a Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National