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What the Biden Presidency may mean for Turkey?

22 Nov 2020

What the Biden Presidency may mean for Turkey?

22 Nov 2020

Ever since the victory of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris over Donald Trump in the US elections held on November 3, countries around the world have been feverishly speculating about the implications of this leadership change on their relations with Washington. Turkey and other eastern Mediterranean states eager to figure out what this means for them and the issues they are concerned about. All players will have to be patient, not least because Biden has made it clear that his primary mission is to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic.

Assessing the overall direction and style of US foreign policy under Biden would be a good starting point for this analysis. The outcome of the Senate run-offs in Georgia on January 5 would be crucial. This will determine how much maneuvering room a Biden administration will have. If the Democrats control both houses of the US Congress, Biden will have a heavy domestic agenda to enact, and perhaps less time for weighty international issues. That said, the President will have greater authority on the international scene if he has the backing of the Senate.

Biden’s overall options may also be affected by how the Trump administration manages matters between now and Biden’s inauguration on January 20. The Trump administration is already aiming to introduce rafts of sanctions on Iran every week during this period in an obvious attempt to restrict Biden’s options.  What else might Trump do to tie his successor’s hands?

The incoming administration may also spend less energy on the Middle East.  Remember that President Obama tried the “pivot to Asia” approach. In July, Tony Blinken, Biden’s senior foreign policy adviser, hinted at this: “Just as a matter of time allocation and budget priorities, I think we would be doing less, not more, in the Middle East.[1]”

On the surface, the approach of the incoming and outgoing administrations will be quite a contrast in styles, with Biden being the experienced internationalist as opposed to Trump the isolationist and transactional President. Biden will be more deliberative, though perhaps not to the extent of Obama. He will not be prone to sudden policy announcements on Twitter at all times of the day. Arguably, allies and adversaries will have a clearer sense of where they stand with Biden.

One advantage for those trying to chart the direction of US policy is that, unlike Trump in 2016, Joe Biden is a known quantity. Most world leaders and statesmen know him not just from his eight years as Vice-president to Obama but also from his time as Senator and Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

A Biden administration will be more multilateral, keener to work with allies, and likely to reinvigorate relations with multilateral bodies such as the UN, EU and NATO. This will not be an America-first administration.

It should see a return to more traditional diplomacy and a re-empowered State Department. Many career diplomats resigned during the Trump years and many reported on the low morale in a department that felt ignored and undermined both under Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo. A Biden administration is likely not only to reverse that but also to appoint a more diverse range of diplomats. As it stands, only four out of 189 current ambassadors are black.[2]

For the Middle East, there may be a discernible change of style, but several persistent key themes will underlie the new administration’s policy. Trump and Biden both have an aversion to overseas military adventures, and both speak about their desire to end the “forever wars” in the region, including that in Afghanistan. Biden may not be as slavishly pro-Israel as Trump but he has a decades-long record of backing Israel.

One area that will immediately improve the US’s standing in the Near East would be the lifting of the Muslim ban. Biden has promised to do this on his first day in office, highlighting that this is a far more pro-refugee administration. This will affect Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. Nationals from these states were refused US visas and had to seek special permission to visit the country. Biden has also promised to take in 125,000 refugees during his first year in office, aiming for an annual minimum of 95,000.[3] Biden will also restore US funding for UNRWA, the UN Agency responsible for Palestine refugees, which will indirectly assist host states such as Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. There is every reason to believe that this measure will be popular within the region, particularly if it lifts even a little bit of the burden off host states.

All the above considerations form the crucial backdrop to assess how the US will pursue its relations and policies towards the eastern Mediterranean, in particular Turkey and Syria.

The US-Turkish relationship is important regardless of who the leaders are. Turkey is strategically sandwiched between Europe, the Middle East and former Soviet states. It is a crucial player in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Cyprus amongst other theatres. It is a NATO ally and member of the G20. Turkey also cannot just substitute Russia for the US. The latter simply does not have the economic heft at a time when the Turkish economy is suffering. Russia and Turkey also often have competing interests, for example, in Syria.

That it took President Erdoğan until November 10 to congratulate President-elect Biden indicates that he believes that tensions may lie ahead on the US-Turkish front. It is no secret that Erdoğan was hoping that Trump would be re-elected. Biden knows this.  Erdoğan was frustrated that the Obama administration did not extradite the preacher Fethullah Gülen after the failed coup in 2016.  Erdoğan holds Gülen, exiled in the US since 1999, responsible for the coup. Biden was heavily involved in these negotiations insisting that the US would not hesitate to extradite if the evidence was sufficient. “We will abide by our system. We will continue to abide by the system and, God willing, there will be enough data and evidence to be able to meet the criteria that you all believe exist. We have no reason to shelter someone who would attack an ally and try to overthrow a democracy.”[4]

Erdoğan’s relations with President Trump were also mixed, veering from overt hostility to a warm embrace.  Trump boasted of their friendship and labelled him a “tough guy,” a favorable appellation in Trump’s lexicon.

Biden and Erdoğan have known each other for a long time. Biden will have to manage the relationship with this populist President at least until the next Turkish presidential elections in 2023.  However, it is unlikely that Erdoğan would be able to phone Biden as he did almost at will with Trump. The early months of 2021 will test their relationship. Erdoğan will wonder what Biden will do regarding Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system. NATO allies are fuming that Turkey has not brought from within the alliance and fear for the security of their own weapons systems. The Trump administration had protested but strangely, had not actually done anything concrete to deter Turkey. Biden will attempt to resolve this diplomatically but if thwarted, may consider sanctions, for which he can expect to get bipartisan support.  There is also the issue of the state-owned Hal bank that the US has accused of channeling funds to Iran in violation of American sanctions.

Biden will also be less tolerant of Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies and his extravagance.  This is a leader who built himself a thousand-room palace.  Erdoğan’s behavior did not trouble Trump who did not believe in interfering in internal affairs of other nations on human rights issues.  Many states are likely to experience a return to the Obama era of preaching on human rights, democracy and good governance. Erdoğan can expect tough questions not least on his treatment of Kurds, freedom of speech and locking up of journalists and academics. The Turkish President noticed when last December the New York Times filmed an interview with Biden referring to Erdoğan as an ‘autocrat’.[5]

Another area of friction is the gradual Islamification of Turkey and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood including such groups as Hamas. This puts it at odds with many of the US’s regional allies including Israel, Egypt and the UAE.  These countries fear that Biden may give the Muslim Brotherhood an easy ride based on their assessment of how the Obama administration handled the group during the era of the Arab Spring. Erdoğan could choose to temper his support for the Brotherhood for the sake of a smoother ride in Washington. He is unlikely to cast the Muslim Brotherhood aside though, as it is a favorite tool for influence in the Middle East.  Many in the Muslim Brotherhood branches will be hoping for US pressure on countries such as Egypt to release many of its imprisoned members. Biden’s approach to such groups is far from clear, but it may be determined by events and the behavior of such groups going forward.

US-Turkish relations will also hinge on progress on the Syrian front towards a resolution of a crisis that has lasted for almost a decade. US policy towards Syria is far from clear at the moment.  If anything, it is a subset of the Trump administration’s policy on Iran and to a lesser extent Russia.  The rationale behind the Caesar Act was to impose sanctions on Syrian regime figures and entities, more as part of the administration’s policy of exerting maximum pressure on Iran.  It has had crushing results on the Syrian economy which was already reeling from the war, regime mismanagement and corruption, the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis in Lebanon.  However, the Trump administration lacked serious input into pushing the UN-led political process in Geneva or to challenge the primary roles of Russia and Turkey.  Trump famously wanted to withdraw all US forces from Syria, and clearly did not see it as a foreign policy priority.

Will this change under Biden? If it does, it will not be as drastic as in other areas.  During the Obama administration there was a reluctance to get sucked into the Syrian quagmire despite the harsh rhetoric about the actions of the Syrian regime. In 2013, Obama decided not to intervene militarily in Syria after a major use of chemical weapons by the regime.

Biden will also not wish to get trapped given his desire to end the ‘forever wars’ but he will be more amenable to maintain US forces in Syria for several reasons.  He will wish to honor the US commitment to Kurdish groups and ensure that they are protected from Turkish actions as well as the Syrian regime. This will not be received well in Ankara, where the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-dominated group in Syria, is deemed a terrorist group.  Secondly, Biden’s team are far more willing to acknowledge that Daesh is far from defeated in Syria and Iraq and that the US must remain at the head of the coalition dedicated to its demise.

Overall, Biden will be far keener on pursuing diplomacy on Syria than his predecessor.  He will try to reenergize the Syrian political track stuck at the moment in Geneva, and to do that, Biden will have to engage with Putin.  Once again Syrian policy will be subservient to other considerations, in this case the health of Washington-Moscow relations.  There is little doubt that a series of trade-offs will have to be made.

Given that Syria is a subset of the US’s broader Iran policy, what happens on the Iran nuclear file matters. Biden clearly wants a revised nuclear deal.  How he achieves this is another matter especially given that President Rouhani will only have six months in office left in 2021, with many expecting the Iranian hardliners to win the presidency. In the event of a no-deal, will US-Iran relations revert into some form of managed US-Iranian enmity?  Syria will be impacted either way.  If Iran successfully seeks sanctions relief as part of any deal, could this somehow be extended towards Damascus? Will Biden be able to push the Iranian leaderships to accept a smaller footprint in Syria as part of any deal?  None of this will be easy to achieve.

Syria could represent one area ripe for US cooperation with Turkey.  The US will insist that Turkey resides in the American camp and does not stitch up deals unilaterally with Putin’s Russia.  Turkey will conversely insist that the US takes a tough stance on the Kurdish issue.  Inevitably some compromises are necessary if this is to progress. Erdoğan may find it harder to play Russia and the US off against each other as he has done at times under Trump.  He will have to accept that the SDF retain a role inside Syria but could seek guarantees from the Biden administration that this will not threaten Turkish interests.  In turn, Biden may agree to be more supportive of Turkey’s position on Idlib, where Russia and the Syrian regime have escalated attacks in recent weeks.  This is the area of north-west Syria still under Syrian opposition control. Turkey backs some of those forces and has a military presence there as part of a March ceasefire deal with Russia.  However, Assad and Putin may calculate that Idlib needs to be retaken before Biden assumes office.

The Biden team will also wish to see Erdoğan being less aggressive in the eastern Mediterranean with Greece.  Two NATO allies clashing with each other is highly undesirable. Biden will no doubt remind all parties that diplomacy, rule of law must be the way forward, not threats of force.  He is more than likely to do this in concert with the EU, something Trump was typically dismissive of. This will make it harder for Erdoğan to ignore.

The Turkish President has choices if he wishes to engage Biden. He will no longer be given the freedom to indulge his wilder regional ambitions as he was under Trump, where rash irresponsible actions carried no consequences.  He knows that Biden will act in concert with EU and NATO allies on nearly all areas, giving him very limited room for maneuver. He can certainly demand greater US and EU assistance to help Turkey cope with the 3.5 million Syrian refugees it hosts.

Erdoğan is a survivor. He has demonstrated time and again that he can change course and adapt. He will have to focus on what he determines are core Turkish national security interests while abandoning his more fanciful ambitions to dominate the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.




[2] Foreign Affairs, The Transformation of Diplomacy. How to Save the State Department By William J. Burns and Linda Thomas-Greenfield November/December 2020

[3] My Statement on World Refugee Day, by Joe Biden 20 June 2020

[4]Reuters, Biden seeks to ease Turkey tensions over coup suspect Gulen, 24 August 2016

[5] Turkey condemns Biden’s criticism of ‘autocrat’ Erdoğan, Times of Israel, 16 August 2020


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