Biden and the Future of Erdoğan’s Turkey in the Middle East

As the United States (US) President Joe Biden has ushered in a new debate over the future of the Middle East, eyebrows have been raised in Washington because of Turkey’s growing role in the region. This is because of Erdoğan’s ambitions to regain influence in the former Ottoman territories. The assertive policies of Erdoğan directly conflict with the US interests in the region. Likewise, Biden’s entrance into the regional chessboard unfurls a surge of regional competition.

The intensification of Middle Eastern engagement has been the key mantra of the current administration in Ankara. The growing influence of Turkey in the recent clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan is viewed negatively by Washington.  Similar are the views towards Erdoğan’s support for the government in Tripoli. But Trump’s lackadaisical approach towards Erdoğan favoured the latter’s aggressive and revisionist set of policies. However, the political clouds are shifting. Joe Biden’s victory as the US President represents a significant challenge for the Turkish President.

For the past few years, there has been an increasing debate regarding neo-Ottomanism, the term that is illustrated as an overarching principle of the strikingly proactive policies of Erdoğan. The Middle East has observed escalations between regional players. However, the interest of Turkey to reclaim former Ottoman territories is posing a threat to the US. Similar challenges have been raised towards the US allies – Israel and Saudi Arabia. This could change the political demography of the region.

Accordingly, Biden will be a hardliner towards Erdoğan’s resurgent Ottoman ambitions. The unwavering view of Biden stating  that “Erdoğan will pay a heavy price” hints towards a pragmatic approach. This would have possible implications for the Middle East. Furthermore, such a clash of interests struggles with Turkey’s foreign policy followed by the post-2001 doctrine of Ahmet Davutoğlu. The former Foreign Minister of Turkey believed that Turkey must exploit its position. For him, Turkey ought to take the role of a “central country” in the region.

Seismic changes in the Middle East will be faced with an altered US approach in the region. Regional plans of Erdoğan would be facing direct impediment from the US. Biden holds sympathies towards the Kurdish issue. This will again be an area of bifurcation between the two. Furthermore, the case of Ankara’s Syrian jihadist proxies in certain parts of northeast Syria will be viewed sceptically by Biden. The jihadists controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are Washington’s allies. Hence another rift between Ankara and Washington would be observed once Biden’s Middle East plan is out.

Apart from the debate over neo-Ottomanism, a major threat for the US is Ankara’s security-oriented foreign policy. Turkey’s elite considers this a matter of responsibility for Turkey to lead the region. The current Middle Eastern balance of power seems to be shaped around two blocs—the polarisation between the US-backed Gulf States and Israel on one side and Iran on the other. Thus, as a medium-sized power, Turkey could generate a new pole in the region.

The US approach towards Iran and Syria is somewhat different and predictable. This is not the case with Turkey. Policies towards Ankara will observe a shift because, in the past, Biden under Obama was reluctant to view Erdoğan as a regional threat. However, the time has changed, and the rhetoric has gradually shifted against Erdoğan. This is coupled with Erdoğan’s interest to promote Turkey within the region. The dynamics are therefore tilting towards a political pushback from Joe Biden’s administration, thus, souring Ankara-Washington relations. This can be analysed from the most recent Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions imposed over Turkey. These sanctions are in view of the Turkish-Russian deal of S-400.

Theoretically speaking, Berry Buzan’s theory of regional security complex unfolds the multi-faceted power struggle in the region. The involvement of Turkey in the former Ottoman territories provides a security threat for the US. Ankara’s military support in the region provides a security situation.  This stands as a threat to the US and Israel’s influence in the Middle East. Similarly, the Palestinian question and Cyprus conflict exacerbate Biden’s Middle East chant against Turkey. This could be one of the stumbling blocks in the bilateral relations between the two NATO allies.

Apart from the debate over neo-Ottomanism, a major threat for the US is Ankara’s security-oriented foreign policy. Turkey’s elite considers this a matter of responsibility for Turkey to lead the region. The current Middle Eastern balance of power seems to be shaped around two blocs—the polarisation between the US-backed Gulf States and Israel on one side and Iran on the other. Thus, as a medium-sized power, Turkey could generate a new pole in the region.

Most recently, US senators have urged Biden to pull Erdoğan’s strings. This is to put pressure on Turkey to improve its “troubling record.” They have criticised the authoritarian path that is taken by Erdoğan. They have also asked Biden to understand the growing support of Turkey against the US-funded Kurds. Kurds whom the US supports against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria. This belligerence adds to the aggressive posture of Erdoğan towards the US interests, dictating that Biden’s Turkey portfolio will be trickier.

Most keenly, Biden’s administration will be ready to fill the democratic void. Erdoğan’s autocratic abuses were earlier ignored by Obama and then embraced by Donald Trump. This has added complexities to the growing bellicoserepressive, and anti-western views of Erdoğan. These views can be traced to his assertive foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.

Paradoxically, a “double fantasy” between the two exists. The increasing geopolitical strife could certainly lead to a mixed response by the Biden administration. A reset of direction is to be expected from the decade long alliance. Biden, former “Erdoğan-whisperer” for Washington, understands Erdoğan’s footing in the Middle East. He will be keen to straighten Turkish assertive foreign policy in the region. Eventually, Biden could continue to use Turkey as a tool in the broader geopolitical struggle.

Conclusively, the odd sort of relationship might turn the region to be a geopolitical hotspot for the two. Coupled with a stack of conflicts such as Erdoğan’s aggression towards Greece and Cyprus and threatening the US with Incirlik airbase, opens divergences for the near future. Increasing distrust and alienation requires both sides to adopt a new modus operandi for a range of issues. The aim must be to maintain the status quo in the region.

Ali Zafar

Ali Zafar

Mohammad Ali Zafar is currently pursuing a degree in International Relations from the National Defence University, Islamabad.

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