US and Turkey break the ice in Nato meeting but deep disagreements remain

Experts see the clock ticking on disagreements related to possible Armenian Genocide recognition and lawsuit against Halkbank

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) greets Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu prior to a Nato foreign ministers meeting on March 23, 2021 at the Nato headquarters in Brussels. / AFP / POOL / Virginia Mayo
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US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu tried to put their differences aside on Wednesday and put a good face on for Nato allies when they met in Brussels, but they were unable to end the rupture over policy issues.

In their first one-on-one meeting on the margins of the Nato foreign ministerial, Mr Blinken and Mr Cavusoglu spoke on the complex relationship between Washington and Ankara. On the one hand, critical areas of co-operation like Syria, counterterrorism and Afghanistan were highlighted, as well as US support “for ongoing exploratory talks between Nato allies Turkey and Greece”, according to the US readout.

On the other hand, major issues steeped in disagreement were not resolved in the first in-person meeting between the Biden administration and the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"Secretary Blinken urged Turkey not to retain the Russian S-400 air defence system, expressed concern over Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, and emphasised the importance of democratic institutions and respect for human rights," the State Department said without offering further details on possible breakthroughs.

Experts who follow US-Turkish relations saw the meeting as a face-saving measure for the Nato alliance but not one that was able to patch major differences, especially as the clock ticks on several policy divergences.

Aaron Stein, the director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, saw the Brussels meeting as one that serves different purposes for the Turkish and US sides.

"It was a first meeting. The Turkish side in particular was feeling out the new [Biden] administration," Mr Stein told The National.

US President Joe Biden has not called Mr Erdogan yet, but his senior security officials have contacted their counterparts in Ankara.

For the US, the meeting serves to portray a unified Nato in the face of rising geopolitical challenges for the alliance.

“This administration wants to keep the nastiness out of Nato, which is smart and requires identifying areas that focus on the positive aspects with Turkey,” the expert added.

Allowing humanitarian access to Syria and helping in the peace talks in Afghanistan are some of the areas where Ankara has boosted its co-operation with the United States.

But on major rifts, including Turkey's acquisition of the Russian S-400 defence system in the summer of 2019, Mr Stein sees no breakthrough in sight. The US has placed congressional sanctions on Mr Erdogan's government for acquiring the multi-billion dollar system, and absent of Turkey returning it to Moscow, those sanctions will still apply.

Turkey has repeatedly voiced its refusal to return the system but has floated ideas on how to box it permanently.

“It is quite clear this administration won’t chase Mr Erdogan and hence the ball remains in Turkey’s court to actually propose solutions to wedge issues like the S-400,” Mr Stein said.

Gonul Tol, senior fellow and the director of the Middle East Institute's Turkey programme, is not optimistic about the trajectory of the US-Turkish relationship in the short to medium term.

"The Biden administration is trying to manage a difficult relationship but doing so might become harder in the months ahead," Ms Tol told The National.

If Mr Biden "follows through with his campaign promise and recognises the Armenian Genocide [on April 24] and Turkey's Halkbank gets charged in Manhattan Federal Court for evading Iran sanctions", this will further exacerbate tension between Ankara and Washington, she explains.

A bipartisan group of 38 senators, including high-ranking members and committee chairs, sent a letter to Mr Biden last Friday urging him to recognise the Armenian Genocide. The Halkbank case is under way in New York, where Turkey's state-owned bank has been charged with embezzlement, conspiracy, money laundering, fraud and helping Iran evade sanctions.

Ms Tol sees almost zero likelihood that Mr Erdogan will improve his record on human rights. On Sunday, Mr Biden condemned Turkey for withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty protecting women from violence.

Soner Cagapatay, a scholar and director of the Turkish Research Programme at The Washington Institute, sees a return to normal between Washington and Ankara as unlikely.

“Biden would have to commit completely to militarily back Turkey’s positions in Syria, Libya and South Caucasus and look the other way regarding [Mr] Erdogan’s democratic transgressions to achieve full harmony with his Turkish counterpart,” he tweeted, calling it a “tall order".