Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Joe Biden are set to meet face-to-face for the first time on the sidelines of June 14’s NATO Summit. Of the two, the Turkish side is likely more eager for the encounter. Erdogan prepared for a meeting through new ambassadorial appointment in Washington, coinciding with his unveiling of still-unrealized human rights and democracy reforms. Waiting three months to congratulate Biden on his presidential inauguration, the Turkish president was in for a rude awakening when Biden became the first US president to recognize the 1915 incidents as genocide, just one day after the call on April 24. Still, many took note of Erdogan’s relatively muted reaction to this declaration.
Despite his announcements to the contrary, Erdogan knows perfectly well that US-Turkey relations cannot be started anew during his tenure. Therefore, the Turkish president’s goal for this meeting will be to push the breaks on the US’s torment of Ankara. Both US sanctions and negative signals from Washington on the future of bilateral relations decrease Turkey’s chances of economic recovery. In this regard, Erdogan’s genuine concern is that the US could accelerate his declining public support at home. Indeed, his fears may not be so far-fetched, especially when considering Biden’s 2019 comments that he would “embolden” Turkey’s opposition in an effort to oust Erdogan.
Here, Erdogan plans to appease the US and minimize its impact on his legitimacy. Alongside he signals intention. to maintain his connection with the West via Europe, mainly Germany, For Erdogan, achieving this objective would be a success, and, in such a scenario, he would continue to tolerate symbolic declarations from the US on Turkey’s rapidly deteriorating record in the fields of human rights and democracy.
Along these lines, Erdogan may emphasize his ability to cooperate, or at least lay off, when it comes to certain strategic matters. He already toned down his military activism in the Eastern Mediterranean and showed his willingness to talk with Athens, Cairo, and Riyadh. He will probably underline his supporting role in Ukraine through the provision of drones that are being used to thwart Russia. But perhaps most importantly, Erdogan could make a substantial offer with regard to the removal of Russian S-400s during his one-on-one with Biden. He already made a positive gesture in this direction by sending Russian S-400 experts back home, and he knows that moving US-Turkish relations forward without further substantive action on this issue is nearly impossible.
For the Biden administration on the other hand, this meeting is necessary to maintain the US’s daily business in the region that cannot be done without Ankara’s cooperation. Nonetheless, Biden would be careful not to give the impression that the US is ambivalent toward Turkey’s human rights abuses and assaults on democracy. In many ways, the high-level visits to Turkey of US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield have provided hints of what to expect in conversations between Biden and Erdogan. Sherman met with civil society organizations and minority leaders while declaring the US’s support of women’s rights in Turkey. Thomas-Greenfield focused on ensuring that humanitarian aid could continue to be delivered to Syria via the single UN-mandated border crossing in Turkey. Another issue that may be discussed between the leaders could be Turkey’s role in Afghanistan, in particular its ability to secure Kabul Airport and facilitate the safe travel of US diplomats amid the US’s withdrawal from the country.
Biden will be talking from a position of power in the meeting. He carries the “big stick” of sanctions, just as Turkey’s Halkbank is facing fines for evading Iranian sanctions. Biden also holds the keys to an IMF deal, or better yet a swap deal between the US and Turkish central banks, both of which would be powerful tools in curbing Turkey’s economic crisis.
Monday’s meeting will most likely see Biden working to accomplish daily business without granting Erdogan legitimacy. He will probably underline his standard talking points on Turkey’s human rights record to prevent giving this impression that he is irresolute. Erdogan will count it as a success if he manages to put a halt to US offenses towards his government; and considering his pragmatism, this isn’t impossible.