06.05.2021 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Biden Wants a Pliable Turkey: Will his Strategy Work?


By dropping the “genocide bomb” the sitting US president seems to have unleashed a process that, in his opinion, would force Turkey into falling in line with US policies, as Erdogan’s political fortunes are apparently falling. Let’s not forget that Joe Biden had pledged during his election campaign to recognise the Armenian genocide. As such, while the Trump administration continued to dodge this matter, it took Joe Biden it less than three months in the White House to officially recognise the Armenian genocide; hence, the question: what particular objectives does the Biden administration seek to achieve through this extraordinary move?

During past few years, Turkey has increasingly moved to position itself as an “independent player” between the West and the East, and use this inter-play to realise its own ‘neo-Ottoman’ ambitions – objectives that seek to reclaim Turkey’s lost position as one of the major global players, which the Ottoman empire was in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Turkey and the US have, over the course of last few years, developed diverging worldviews, which are no longer shaped by any prevailing global cold-war like scenario. As such, at a time when the US is strengthening its position vis-à-vis Russia and China, many in Turkey’s governing coalition, including the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, believe that Turkey should develop stronger ties with Russia and China, and scrap those with the US/EU and NATO. This has led the coalition government in Turkey to increasingly believe that the world is no longer West-centric and that a considerable space for strategic manoeuvring exists.

However, it is Turkey’s own self-positioning as an “independent player” that has put it on a collision course vis-à-vis the US, with many in the US seeing Erodogan not as a NATO ally, but mainly as an autocrat who can create turbulence to the disadvantage of the US in the wider Middle East. More importantly, Turkey’s various actions, particularly its increasing defense cooperation with Russia, seem to have created a crisis in NATO, thwarting it on certain occasions.

As such, with Biden seeking to revive NATO and re-integrate the US with Europe to reverse the widening trans-Atlantic gaps that emerged during the Trump era, it is imperative that a trans-Atlantic divide is subverted, which requires making all NATO members fall in line under the US command, an objective that the Biden administration thinks holds utmost importance for re-establishing America’s lost dominance, and revive its ability to unilaterally influence and shape global political affairs.

But the crucial question is: will Turkey give up its own geo-political ambitions to please the Biden administration, and help it achieve American supremacy?

While Erdogan was quick to struck a conciliatory note following Biden’s recognition of Armenian genocide, Turkey, by and large, sees this as a US attempt to weaken the Erdogan regime by stirring up political divisions within Turkey to effect a “regime change.” Already, Turkey’s lira has fallen to near record lows against the US dollar following Biden’s recognition of genocide, complicating Erdogan’s already weak political position.

Indeed, Biden’s referral to the genocide as “the Ottoman era Armenian genocide” appears to target Erdogan’s own domestic political rhetoric that relies significantly on Ottoman era legacies, including its global power status. By recognising the genocide, the Biden administration has forced people around the world to become aware of what ‘neo-Ottomanism’ has to offer in the 21st century.

Accordingly, Turkey’s objections to this recognition stem from fears of demands for reparations, as well as the fear of being seen as a pariah country, one that is detested by its target ‘neo-Ottoman’ territories in Asia and Africa and by the West (the US and Europe) alike.

However, while the Joe Biden administration may have calculated that adopting a harsh tone towards Turkey could make Erdogan pliable, it remains that Biden’s recognition of Armenian genocide could equally end up becoming another addition to the long list of disagreements between the NATO allies. Accordingly, instead of forcing a politically weak Erdogan fall in line with the US vis-à-vis Russia, the recognition could equally nudge Turkey towards Russia and China even more, leaving Turkey-US ties crisis ridden for a long time.

While there may not be an immediate reaction as Erdogan has limited options at a time when he is battling one of the world’s highest number of COVID cases coupled with a continuously falling lira, Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s advisor, said that Turkey will carefully weigh its reaction, and its counter-measures could even involve ending military cooperation with NATO, adding that “There will be a reaction of different forms and kinds and degrees in coming days and months.”

However, such a reaction, if it involves striking the NATO from within, will need support from Russia and even China, support that Ankara cannot get without making some crucial policy changes in some sensitive areas of policy. A deepening of ties with Russia may not be possible unless Turkey agrees to change its policy of unnecessarily complicating conflict zones from Syria to Ukraine. As far as China is concerned, Turkey will need to recalibrate its understanding of US-led allegations of “genocide” of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang region. For Turkey, America’s recognition of Armenian genocide should serve as a lesson on how such rhetoric is quite often politically motivated, seeking to destabilise a given polity.

Therefore, whether or not Turkey can off-set the trouble unleashed by Biden depends on how it counter-balances it through a careful nurturing of ties with Russia and China, two of the most powerful strategic competitors of the US.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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