As Biden Meeting Nears, Erdogan Softens His Stance


ISTANBUL — For the final 4 years, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has openly crushed his opponents at residence and cozied as much as Moscow, whereas showering his allies with sweetheart authorities contracts and deploying troops regionally wherever he noticed match.

And for essentially the most half, former President Donald J. Trump’s administration turned a blind eye.

But as Mr. Erdogan arrives in Brussels for a crucial NATO meeting on Monday, he’s dealing with a decidedly extra skeptical Biden administration, as are different strongmen leaders as soon as enabled by Mr. Trump.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who meets with President Biden on Wednesday, has responded to the brand new order by rising much more belligerent, brazenly suppressing any indicators of home political opposition and threatening Western safety by massing troops on Ukraine’s border.

But for Mr. Erdogan, issues aren’t that straightforward. Thanks to each the coronavirus pandemic and his mismanagement of the economic system, he’s now dealing with extreme home strains, with hovering inflation and unemployment, and a dangerously weakened lira that might set off a debt disaster.

So he has dialed again his strategy, already softening his positions on a number of points within the hope of receiving badly wanted funding from the West — one thing Russia can not present. To reassure Western leaders, he has referred to as off gasoline exploration within the jap Mediterranean, an exercise that had infuriated NATO allies, and aggravated Moscow by supporting Ukraine towards Russia’s threats and promoting Turkish-made drones to Poland.

Yet, Mr. Erdogan does have some necessary playing cards to play. Turkey’s presence in NATO, its function as a means station for thousands and thousands of refugees, and its navy presence in Afghanistan have given him actual leverage with the West.

So Mr. Erdogan is unlikely to reverse his drift towards authoritarianism, his deepening relationship with Mr. Putin and his buy of the subtle Russian S-400 air protection system, even when meaning clashing with Mr. Biden’s imaginative and prescient for a strengthened alliance of democracies.

One question is simply how far Mr. Erdogan might be pushed in Mr. Biden’s course earlier than he grows annoyed and casts his lot with the Kremlin and even China, though having been let down by each international locations over vaccine provides, Mr. Erdogan is cleareyed sufficient to maintain his choices open.

“How do you not lose Turkey while you try to curb Erdogan?” stated Nigar Goksel, Turkey project director for the International Crisis Group.

As with Mr. Putin, Mr. Biden’s preliminary strategy to Mr. Erdogan had been to keep up his distance, attempting to keep away from disagreements and deal with issues at decrease diplomatic ranges.

Since assuming the presidency, Mr. Biden has spoken with Mr. Erdogan solely as soon as. That was to tell him that the United States was recognizing the bloodbath of Armenians within the final days of the Ottoman Empire as a genocide. While that was a humiliation for Mr. Erdogan which may have evoked a tantrum in earlier years, it was met with a muted response together with the promise of a meeting on the NATO summit.

Mr. Erdogan has felt the coolness from the Biden administration, Ms. Goksel stated. “Erdogan is trying to find a way forward when they are trying to make sure he does not score political points.”

Ankara badly desires to raise the nation out of an financial crunch, deepened by the pandemic, which has destroyed Turkey’s very important vacationer trade. It can also be anxious to keep away from additional U.S. sanctions, imposed after Mr. Erdogan purchased the S-400 missile system from Russia.

The financial troubles have taken a toll on Mr. Erdogan’s political standing. While elections are nonetheless two years away, his opponents have appreciable momentum, stated Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Turks will vote based on the state of the economic system, he stated, and for that purpose alone, he wants the meeting with Mr. Biden.

Mr. Erdogan assured American business executives throughout a digital round-table dialogue final month that the meeting with Mr. Biden would “herald a new era,” including: “We have serious potential for cooperation with the U.S.A. in a wide range from Syria to Libya, from the fight against terrorism to energy, from trade to investments.”

June 11, 2021, 1:24 p.m. ET

The two leaders’ personal relationship goes again a few years — Mr. Biden visited Mr. Erdogan at his residence in 2011, when he was recovering from a medical process — but they continue to be far aside on a spread of points.

The thorniest of half a dozen disputes between the 2 international locations is undoubtedly Mr. Erdogan’s refusal to stroll again his buy of the S-400s, which has made Turkey the one NATO nation to be on the receiving finish of U.S. sanctions and faraway from the F-35 fighter plane program.

Mr. Erdogan has even negotiated to buy a second battery from Russia, however with the specter of additional sanctions he seems able to shelve that deal.

At the center of Mr. Erdogan’s buy of the S-400 is his mistrust of Washington, which he thinks is intent on seeing him changed. That perception was solely strengthened when Mr. Biden stated final year, throughout the 2020 presidential marketing campaign, that the United States ought to help the opposition in Turkey.

But there are worries that if pressed too laborious, Mr. Erdogan, who badly wants a fifth-generation fighter aircraft, may even purchase Russian Sukhois. There can also be concern about some 50 American nuclear bombs saved at Turkey’s Incirlik air base, which is underneath joint Turkish-American management; Mr. Erdogan has at varied occasions threatened to evict the Americans.

Washington has been getting ready to work across the disagreement over the S-400s, focusing as an alternative on the strategic areas the place the 2 international locations can agree, particularly Afghanistan, the place Turkey has participated within the mission since 2001, and Iraq and Libya.

Turkey for its personal causes desires to retain a presence in Afghanistan, the place it has a protracted affiliation, and a shared historical past and faith. That is a central purpose the U.S. particular envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, requested Mr. Erdogan to think about sustaining a navy presence there when Mr. Khalilzad started negotiations with the Taliban over a U.S. withdrawal.

But because the deadline for that withdrawal looms as early as subsequent month, Mr. Erdogan has delayed making a dedication, creating anxiousness in European capitals about sustaining protected entry to the Kabul airport for his or her embassies.

Turkey would keep in Afghanistan if it had been supplied with political, monetary and logistic help by its allies, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar stated earlier this month. The Taliban have given Mr. Erdogan additional leverage by asserting that Turkish troops ought to go away Afghanistan together with the remainder of the NATO drive.

Libya, the place Turkey’s navy intervention final summer time angered many, is one other space of potential settlement. Turkey efficiently stalled a Russian-backed assault on the capital, Tripoli, throwing a lifeline to the United Nations-backed authorities there and providing an opportunity for a negotiated settlement to the struggle.

In different areas, they are going to be speaking previous one another. U.S. coverage backing Kurdish forces in Syria is just not anticipated to vary regardless of bitter complaints from Turkey, and Mr. Erdogan has proven no indicators of easing up on human rights.

“Biden knows he may have to choose between Turkey and democracy,” stated Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program on the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Brussels. Benjamin Novak additionally contributed reporting.


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