Erdogan Remains a Headache for Biden, Even After Ukraine Deal Help

WASHINGTON – When Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement on Friday to lifting the ban on grain exports from UkraineThe President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, played a benevolent statesman.

Sitting next to the UN secretary general in an Ottoman palace in Istanbul, Mr Erdogan said the deal, which Turkey helped broker, would benefit “all of humanity”.

The Biden administration has hailed the deal as potentially easing a global food crisis that has been exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the blockade of its ports. Officials expressed skepticism about whether Russia acted in good faith, and Russian missiles hit the Ukrainian port city of Odesa less than a day after the treaty was signed. However, a White House spokesman praised Mr. Erdogan for his efforts.

But privately, Mr. Erdogan remains a source of considerable discomfort for Biden administration officials.

Days before presiding over the grain deal, Turkey’s autocratic leader went on to warn that he could veto NATO’s plan to accept Sweden and Finland as members in the coming months. an action that will deeply embarrass the coalition and the Biden administration as they work to counter Russia. . And This month’s parliament expressed doubt about Mr. Biden’s pledge at a NATO summit in Spain last month to sell dozens of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.

On Tuesday, Mr. Erdogan traveled to Tehran to meet with Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, and Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin. Analysts say the image of America’s two top rivals to Erdogan, the leader of a NATO country, conflicts with the West’s narrative of a deeply isolated Iran and Russia.

Then, on Friday, a White House spokesman reiterated US concerns about Mr. Erdogan’s threat to launch a new invasion of northern Syria against US-backed Kurdish fighters. he considers a terrorist.

Taken together, Mr. Erdogan’s actions – and Mr. Biden’s limited ability to contain them – underscore the Turkish leader’s unique position as a military ally that frequently contradicts the country’s political agenda. agenda of the Western allies. For American officials, it’s an often frustrating role.

Elizabeth Shackelford, a former State Department officer, said: “Erdogan is essentially the Joe Manchin of NATO, talking about the conservative Democratic senator from West Virginia who thwarted his domestic agenda. Biden. “He was on our team, but then he did things that were obviously not good for our team. And I just don’t see that changing.”

However, Biden administration officials say that completely removing Erdogan would be self-defeating. His country’s position at the crossroads of East and West is strategically important and allows him to be an interlocutor with even more troubling neighbors – as evidenced by the grain deal, which created a demilitarized corridor across the Black Sea for Ukrainian agricultural exports.

A senior US official says much of Mr Erdogan’s problematic behavior is a cause of his political weakness in Turkey, where inflation rates are high. climb almost 80 percent last month. Hoping to turn attention away from his mismanaged economy, Erdogan has turned to a show of nationalism and nationalism in the face of the threat posed by the PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement in Syria. Turkey and Kurdish groups in Syria.

Key NATO initiatives, such as the proposal to expand the 30-member alliance to include Sweden and Finland, require unanimous consent. In May, Mr. Biden said he hoped the two countries could “quickly” engage in a major strategic blow to Mr. Putin.

But Mr. Erdogan raised objections, complaining that both potential new members had provided political and financial support to the PKK, which the United States has designated a terrorist organization because of its history of attacks. violence. US and NATO officials worry that the expansion plan could fall apart in a major propaganda victory for Mr Putin, who has long worked to split the alliance.

NATO leaders breathed a sigh of relief at their summit last month when Erdogan reached an agreement with the leaders of Sweden and Finland, who pledged action against the organisations. terrorism and entered into extradition agreements with Turkey, which wants to prosecute PKK members living in those countries. .

Mr. Biden seems particularly grateful for the breakthrough. “I want to especially thank you for what you have done in light of the general situation of Finland and Sweden,” he told Erdogan in front of reporters.

The two-page agreement said in general language that Sweden and Finland would deal with “Turkey’s pending deportation or extradition requests for terrorism suspects promptly and thoroughly”. However, Turkish officials said they expect the extradition of more than 70 individuals. It is unclear whether Sweden and Finland will agree or how Mr. Erdogan might react if they do not.

On Monday, Mr. Erdogan warned that he could still “Freeze” NATO expansion if his request is not met.

Mr. Biden also told Mr. Erdogan in Spain that he supported the sale of 40 US F-16 fighter jets that Turkey requested last fall, along with technological upgrades to dozens of them. fighter aircraft that this country owns. Turkey wants those planes in part because Trump administration cancels plan sold F-35 advanced fighter jets to the country in 2019 after Mr. Erdogan, in one of his recent bewildering moves, purchased the Russian S-400 air defense missile system to defy the situation. American newspaper.

Mr. Biden denied that he offered to buy Mr. Erdogan’s plane to support NATO expansion. “And there’s no support for that; it’s just that we should sell,” he said. “But I need congressional approval to be able to do that, and I think we can get there.”

Congressional approval may not be given. And it’s not clear whether Mr. Erdogan will be able to block the NATO expansion proposal until an agreement on the F-16 jets is reached.

This month, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the annual military policy bill that would require Mr. Biden to certify that any sale of fighter jets is in the vital national interest of the United States and Turkey will not use jets to violate the airspace of Greece, its Aegean. Maritime neighbor and NATO ally, with whom Ankara is engaged in a bitter territorial dispute.

Representative Chris Pappas, Democrat of New Hampshire and sponsor of the amendment, also cited Erdogan’s purchase of a Russian missile system and a comparable stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Erdogan called the invasion “unacceptable” but did not join the sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies on Russia.

“Enough is enough,” said Mr Pappas. “Turkey played both sides of the fence in Ukraine. They are not a reliable ally that we can count on.”

“I think the Biden administration needs to take a stronger stance,” he added.

Once the White House formally asks Congress to approve the plane sale, Biden will need the support of other influential members who have been very critical of Erdogan, including the Democratic chairman. of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez of the New Austria.

Menendez had previously questioned whether Turkey was part of NATO. And at a hearing last month on the proposed NATO expansion, he said that “basically, Turkey’s 11-hour concerns that hinder this process only serve Putin’s interests.”

Mr. Menendez also issue a statement Last month with his Republican counterpart on the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, sternly warned Mr. Erdogan about his threatened invasion of northern Syria. They were joined by the Democratic Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Gregory W. Meeks of New York, and his Republican counterpart, Representative Michael McCaul of Texas.

In the statement, the lawmakers said the potential invasion would have “disastrous results”, threaten local operations against remnants of Islamic State and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis. in Syria.

A Pentagon official recently added to the US warnings.

“We strongly oppose any Turkish activity into northern Syria and have made our objections clear to Turkey,” Dana Stroul, deputy assistant secretary of defense, said. learned this month at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “ISIS will capitalize on that operation.”

Some of Erdogan’s harshest critics warn of an endless cycle in which the Turkish leader wins concessions from the United States and other NATO allies, such as fighter jets. new and tougher line against the Kurdish militia fighters, only to escalate his demands in the Future.

Mark Wallace, founder of the Turkish Democracy Project, a group that criticized Mr. Erdogan and in turn said: “This is the dance around the F-16 – it’s jet diplomacy, and that’s the face of it. mask of what’s really going on here. dictatorial. “A good ally – much less a good NATO ally – doesn’t use blackmail to get what it wants at key moments in the alliance’s history.”

Julian E. Barnes Reporting contributions from Aspen, Colo.

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