Istanbul, Turkey – Just a couple of weeks before president-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the US election, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was giving a party rally of his own in southeast Turkey, delivering a defiant message to the United States.
“You don’t know who you’re dealing with,” said Erdogan to his NATO ally.
“Impose your sanctions already, whatever they may be,” he added, referring to US threats over Turkey’s purchase of a controversial Russian missile system.
The comments were perhaps also directed at Biden. As one senior Turkish government official told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity: “People here are not overwhelmed with the prospect [of a Biden presidency]”.
While President Donald Trump may have alienated some on the world stage, his relations with Turkey have generally been good. As he himself said in a television interview over the summer, “I get on very well with Erdogan.”
The Erdogan-Trump relationship has yet to be derailed despite Turkey’s purchase last year of the Russian-made S-400 missile system.
Under the US’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), its executive branch is required to impose sanctions on countries that buy defence equipment from Russia.
Yet Trump has repeatedly refused to do so, despite multiple calls from Congress and State Department officials’ threats to Turkey.
In October, Erdogan confirmed Turkey’s first test of the S-400s.
“Trump at least had a kind of working relationship with the president,” the Turkish official explained and was “trying to put the brakes on Congress not to impose sanctions.”
While Trump has not conceded defeat and his campaign has promised to challenge the result, most pundits predict it is only a matter of time before Biden takes the reins.
‘Getting tough on Turkey’
But Trump, according to Nicholas Danforth, a senior visiting fellow for the German Marshall Fund, “was Turkey’s last ally left in Washington”.
And for the new US administration, “getting tough on Turkey would be a very visible way for Biden to break with Trump’s much-criticised fondness for authoritarian leaders”.
“Now that Turkey’s tested the S-400s again,” continued Danforth. “Biden is basically bound to go ahead with CAATSA sanctions. The real question is how aggressively he chooses to implement them and how financial markets react.”
Under CAATSA, presidents may choose five from a range of sanctions in the legislation, from limiting bank transactions of individual officials to prohibiting loans from any US institution.
According to Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of the Istanbul-based think-tank EDAM, the range of sanctions will also likely depend on “the political balance within Congress”.
Democrats, who may be more likely to push for harder sanctions, have for example failed to wrest control of the Senate.
But the Trump administration has imposed some sanctions on Turkey.
During a spat over the imprisonment of US pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey in August 2018, the US imposed 50-percent tariffs on Turkish aluminium and steel, causing a steep fall in the value of the Turkish lira before Brunson’s release.
The senior Turkish official conceded that renewed sanctions under Biden were “one of the things that everyone’s concerned about here”.
Both analysts also agreed Turkey’s participation in the US F-35 stealth fighter programme is effectively over.
Ulgen sees it as a “closed file”. Though the country does still produce some parts for the F35s, he said he expected this to come to an end when those contracts finish.
Turkey had expressed interest in buying 100 of the fighter jets but was initially excluded following its purchase of the S-400s. Danforth described Biden’s possible election as “the final blow” to its involvement in the programme.
Still, as the Turkish official, added: “Nothing will deter the activation of the S-400s.”
And though Ankara will try to “seek dialogue with Biden”, the relationship is already not off to a good start.
In August, a video from last year circulated in Turkey of the-then Democratic presidential candidate Biden talking about supporting “opposition leadership” in Turkey “to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan”, drawing a furious response from Ankara and Turkish opposition parties.
The Turkish government likely remembers the US administration of Barack Obama – under which Biden was vice president – for the support it gave to the YPG (People’s Protection Units) militia in Syria, which Turkey considers an offshoot of the PKK (The Kurdistan Workers’ Party) – an armed group that has operated along its borders for decades. Turkey, the United States, and the European Union have designated the PKK a “terrorist” organisation.
“During the Obama time he [Biden] was vice president,” continued the senior Turkish official, “they did a lot of things that Turkey did not like.”
For former diplomat Ulgen, the risks facing Turkey after Trump’s departure highlight the danger of putting too much stock in one political figure.
“Turkey will need to reach out more to the different institutions, whether it’s Congress, The State [Department], or the Pentagon, and cannot anymore invest so much on a single person – even if that is the president of the United States,” he said.
Danforth was more forthright: “Ankara will be stuck dealing with all the people it’s alienated over the years.”
Turkish foreign policy has been increasingly assertive in recent years, from various operations in Syria to providing support to Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, to its confrontation with Greece, Cyprus and the EU more broadly over drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.
‘Look at the map’
However, Ulgen argues there might still be room for more cooperation with a Biden administration because it is more likely to “commit itself to the strengthening of NATO”.
And Turkey could do with help in countries where it has found itself in a political quagmire. Such as in Libya where Turkey has found itself on the opposite side of proxy wars with Russia.
And despite the current difficulties in US-Turkey relations and Ankara’s increasing assertiveness, Ulgen said “the need to continue to have a strategic partnership with Turkey” remains.
For Danforth, Biden will face the same challenges as when he was vice president under Obama: “Wanting to get tough without risking a permanent rupture in the relationship.”
As the senior Turkish official argued, “Biden would be advised to wake up every morning and look at the map and see where Turkey is located.”