Biden-Erdoğan: S-400 and YPG in mutual parentheses?

Here is my executive summary for what may happen today: U.S. will turn a somewhat conditional blind eye to the S-400s for the time being, while Turkey will do the same for the U.S.’ military cooperation with the YPG. The sweetener of the deal, if that mutual temporary understanding can be called a deal, will be the Turkish Armed Forces’ securing of Kabul’s international airport.

When it comes to today’s (these lines being written on Sunday) Biden-Erdoğan first face to face meeting in Brussels, we the self-appointed pundits and columnists alike more or less all shoot in the dark and from the hip. On Ankara’s side there is much hyperbole, on DC’s calculated leaks. Anyway, in order to put my money where my mouth is I will try my hand at it anyhow. Let’s start then.

Here is my executive summary: U.S. will turn a somewhat conditional blind eye to the S-400s for the time being, while Turkey will do the same for the U.S.’ military cooperation with the YPG –which Ankara considers a direct extension of the PKK in Syria. The sweetener of the deal, if that mutual temporary understanding can be called a deal, will be the Turkish Armed Forces’ securing of Kabul’s international airport and by default NATO embassies in that capital in order a contemporary Saigon script. 

Why “for the time being”?

Because, both Erdoğan and Biden are convinced that the time is on their sides. What is more, the photo op with the “world leader” trumps (or “Trumps” with capital T?) any other concern anyway for Erdoğan. Ergo, yet again, another meeting will boil down to having and sharing your photo with the U.S. President. By default, that will prove to the world at large and to the domestic audience that Erdoğan is not an isolated by the West, so to speak “radioactive” leader.

French president Macron’s expression of will to meet with Erdoğan right before the NATO summit is a god-sent bonus. Almost within the same breath Macron announced the transformation of the Operation Barkhane (previously knowns as Serval) into Operation Takuba. To my mind, that intended evolution is in line with the general tendency in the free world of disappearing appetites of getting into a fight and turning around to account for it domestically.

Hence, as Kabul, Macron too would find good use in meeting with his Turkish counterpart, especially when it comes to illegal migration, intelligence sharing and the eastern Mediterranean. Also, he might have suddenly remembered that they both share the same sheer dislike for Assad who is about to be welcomed back in the Arab world.    

Secretary of State Blinken’s answer to the Senate Foreign Relations Commission Chair Menendez’ grilling is telling in itself. By way of response he first recognized the fact that Turkey does not act as a NATO ally alluding to the S-400 air defence systems from Russia. He also emphasized the shortcomings in democracy and freedom in Turkey. Yet Blinken concluded by drawing his interlocutor’s attention to the imperative need to cooperate with Turkey in files like Iran, Russia, Afghanistan, Syria and counterterrorism. National Secretary Advisor Sullivan’s remarks on the agenda of the leaders’ meeting is along the same lines as well. 

Biden may choose to touch upon the lack of democracy, basic human rights, rule of law, freedom of expression and suck like issues and bring to the table specific cases such as Kavala and Demirtaş. In that case, Erdoğan will in turn probably stress his disenchantment with Biden’s 24th of April, U.S.’ official recognition of Armenian Genocide declaration with more vigour. It will help to bear in mind that, unless “force majeure”, and including simultaneous or consecutive translation, the said meeting will take no longer than an hour.

Another question in mind is whether the two leaders will pull aside leaving their respective delegations behind to chat about meteorological conditions in Brussels, most probably upon the urging of Erdoğan. Erdoğan tends to tackle most juicy issues in real one-on-one. If that proves to be the case, then we most definitely will never find out about the true nature of their private discussion and the suggested agreement they will have reached.

What we may be sure about though is that Erdoğan will not repeat to his American counterpart’s face that he has (Palestinian) “blood on his hands”, that the US is definitely behind the July 15, 2016 coup attempt and that the US is effectively trying to dismember Turkey via the PKK. These are reserved for domestic consumption and regardless the outcome of the meeting we will keep on hearing these time and again down here. If that does not constitute a problem for the U.S. Ambassador Satterfield in Ankara, why should it be for us?

The Turkish Minister of National Defence (R.) General Akar had for whatever reason gone mostly silent on diplomatic issues. Recently he resurfaced by hammering in the old adage that the main thorn in the thigh in the bilateral Turkish-US relations is not the S-400s but the U.S.’ military support for the YPG in Syria. The timing should be taken note of. Then Akar joined, along other heavyweights of the cabinet, the Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu’s visit to Libya.

Having put two plus two together, my guess is then that both sides will mutually store away for a while their disagreements about the procurement of the S-400s and the military support to the YPG in parentheses. As a struggling couple going into marriage consulting to keep their marriage afloat they will keep their common house but continue to sleep in separate beds. The divorce will yet again be postponed but the sky will not be cleared and their friends will tell them that they are too old for a divorce anyway. Taking over the responsibility for the Kabul International Airport will be like, if not a second honeymoon, a weekend stroll in the park that will melt the hearts temporarily and will provide a much needed context for soul searching.

Nevertheless, the time is ticking at another level as well for Erdoğan. The next elections are scheduled for the 2023 and his popularity is in a downward gliding path. Biden may well be already calculating the pros and cons of dealing with another government in the near future as we speak. And Erdoğan may well be more inclined to get by with a little help from his old friend Biden. All in all, what was called diplomacy in its heyday gets more and more reminiscent of second hand car bargaining or so, by the day.           

September 13, 2021 The new cold war