Ulaş Doğa Eralp
With the announcement of long-awaited CAATSA sanctions on Turkey, it appears U.S.-Turkish relations may not see the reset under the new Biden administration that some have predicted. However, it is no secret that the Biden administration will seek to maintain positive relations with Ankara. Joe Biden recently named Anthony Blinken as his Secretary of State. Blinken, the former Assistant Secretary of State under the Obama Administration, is a long-time veteran of foreign affairs. His job will be to moderate the continuing deterioration of Turkish-U.S. relations while avoiding benefiting Russia, alienating Turkey from the EU, and causing a catastrophe with Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean.
During the last four years under the leadership of the Trump administration, Washington failed to produce impactful policies to confront the increasing challenges in a number of politically-significant geographic locations such as the Middle East, Eurasia, Trans-Atlantic, South China Sea, and most recently the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey, a long-time U.S. ally and NATO member, saw Trump’s inaction as an opportunity to pursue a maximalist set of strategic objectives in its geographic neighborhood, primarily in the Eastern Mediterranean. That strategy has meant Turkey began challenging the political status quo in Cyprus, declaring exclusive economic zones for hydrocarbon drilling, and supporting the embattled UN-recognized Libyan Government. Turkey’s newly minted maximalist military doctrine, called the Blue Homeland, explicitly calls for the Turkish Navy to be ever-present in the Mediterranean. The recent election of nationalist Ersin Tatar to the Turkish Cypriot leadership, with the overwhelming support of Ankara, has led to renewed calls for the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to end talks of Cyprus unification in favor of a bid for complete independence. Additionally, Ankara’s plan to reopen the abandoned city of Varosha for tourism development after 46 years has elicited harsh reactions from the Greek Cypriot side. While the Trump administration and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized Turkey’s unilateral action regarding Cyprus, these criticisms did not generate any action-based follow up from Washington.
Incoming Secretary of State Blinken is well aware of Turkey’s new found confidence and propensity toward boldness in the region. However, because of the Biden administration’s U.S. foreign policy strategy of globalist reorientation, Blinken is not likely feel the need to respond harshly and immediately to challenges issued from Ankara. During his previous tenure as deputy secretary of state, Blinken did not advocate for a toughening of America’s position in recognizing the decline of political and civil liberties in Turkey in the immediate aftermath of the failed coup attempt in 2016. He is also cognizant of Turkey’s long-time NATO membership and the geopolitical weight it carries. Blinken will explore ways through which a more productive and positive relationship can be built with Ankara; however, this may be difficult considering that the foreign policy objectives of two countries are further apart than ever.
Irrespective of who is in the White House, America’s traditional position on the Cyprus peace process has been unconditional support of the bi-zonal bi-communal federation perspective. Blinken will not change that. However, this position may not be tenable for much longer given the increasing military tensions in the region as French, Greek, and Egyptian navies conduct joint drills and Turkey’s NAVTEX makes declarations southeast of the island of Crete. Washington will likely push for a compromise-centric solution in order to de-escalate tensions between NATO partners when it comes to managing the hydrocarbon resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, likely through a joint NATO-EU initiative. The most significant challenge to such a compromise will not necessarily be Ankara’s stubborn commitment to its Blue Homeland Doctrine, which may be shelved by Erdogan when push comes to shove, but rather Turkey’s increasingly strategic partnership with Moscow.
Ankara is entrapped in its relationship with Moscow so much so that any unilateral foreign policy from Ankara is not carried out until it gets the greenlight from Putin. This has been the case in Libya, Cyprus, Karabakh, and Syria. Since now the U.S. officially announced to impose CAATSA sanctions on Turkey in response to the purchase and activation of Russian S-400 air defense systems, this may make for a very rocky restart to relations between the countries. However, Biden and Blinken may hold off on implementing said sanctions as a gesture of goodwill toward Ankara. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg’s recent comments about seeking a ‘positive agenda’ and how to restructure relations with Turkey is a clear indication of how the Biden administration will approach the Eastern Mediterranean question.