The forthcoming four years under US President Joe Biden will test how much further Turkey can strain its ties with NATO and pursue military operations at odds with American interests without triggering sanctions. Turkey and the United States find mutual value in their economic and security ties. But Ankara’s determination to weaken its dependence on Western governments such as Washington, while deepening its political, economic and security ties with Russia and China, often clashes with US imperatives and goals.
Despite this, the administration of US President Donald J Trump has largely shielded Ankara from sanctions proposed in Congress though that may shift once Biden takes office in January. The enactment of deep sanctions under Biden, however, would only compel Turkey to continue diversifying its ties away from the West by exacerbating its existing frustrations with the United States.
Among Turkey’s first priorities will be ensuring the Biden administration doesn’t impose sanctions over Ankara’s purchase and testing of its Russian S-400 missile system. Turkey’s use of the missile system has been one of the primary points of contention between Washington and Ankara in recent years, as it underscores the Turkish military’s drift away from NATO and its Western allies toward Russia. US lawmakers moved to place sanctions on Turkey under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (Caatsa) in 2019, but the White House has since held off on imposing them. The new White House administration, however, might be more willing to move forward with such sanctions, given Biden’s less-friendly relationship with Ankara and the renewed political pressure he’s likely to face to crack down on Turkey.
Despite repeated warnings from the United States and other NATO allies, Turkey continues to repeatedly test the S-400 missile system, thus indicating its intention to use it. NATO has voiced concerns that the deployment of a Russian missile system in one of its member countries could enable Russia to gather intelligence on NATO weapon systems. The United States expelled Turkey from its F-35 fighter jet program and has threatened sanctions over its use of the S-400 system, but has yet to follow through with implementing Caatsa sanctions.
Turkey will also defend itself against US demands to halt its oil and gas exploration in disputed waters in the Eastern Mediterranean. This issue matters more to the rest of NATO than to Washington, given Europe’s geographic proximity and the direct implications for the continent’s energy interests. Turkey’s aggressive actions in the Eastern Mediterranean are thus more likely to prompt European Union sanctions than US sanctions.
But Washington has firmly allied itself alongside Greece and Cyprus on the illegality of some of Turkey’s oil and gas exploration activities in the region, which lends diplomatic heft to the EU’s efforts to sanction Turkey over the dispute. This will prompt Ankara to try to weaken US interests in the Eastern Mediterranean through lobbying efforts. Turkey will also try to work more closely with Washington on other issues where the two countries see more eye-to-eye.
Washington has firmly allied itself alongside Greece and Cyprus on the illegality of some of Turkey’s oil and gas exploration activities in the region.
As recently as mid-October, the US State Department condemned Turkey’s continued oil and gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey's continued moves to stake out energy reserves in waters that overlap with Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone has prompted both Cyprus and Greece to demand Brussels impose steeper sanctions on Ankara.
Turkey will attempt to lobby the new Biden administration against following through on existing legal cases related to Iran sanctions. The US Treasury Department indicted the state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank, which has personal ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for allegedly laundering billions of Iranian dollars to help Tehran evade sanctions. Washington has not yet penalized the Turkish government for its involvement in the laundering scheme. But the incoming Biden administration is unlikely to grant Ankara as much leeway when the Halkbank case goes to court again in early 2021, which will reignite the conversation and increase tensions between Washington and Ankara.
The New York Times and other sources have revealed that under the Trump administration, the US Justice Department sought to stop the Halkbank case from turning into serious financial penalties to Turkey. In 2016, then-Vice President Biden denied Erdogan’s previous requests to reduce US pressure on Turkey, including Erdogan’s personal appeal to help Halkbank avoid costly charges.
A Biden administration could open the door to increased alignment on the two countries’ policy agendas in Syria, though Turkey won’t hold out hope for the United States abandoning its pro-Kurdish stance in the region. The fight against Kurdish militancy and separatism is one of Turkey’s top national security priorities. Ankara will thus remain rather inflexible on this issue in discussions with the United States, whose support for Kurdish fighters in Syria has always angered Turkey. Ankara and Washington are likely to continue colliding over their respective Syria policies so long as the former works alongside Kurdish fighters in its counterterrorism operations.
The Trump administration’s withdrawal of some troops from Syria helped temporarily ease American-Turkey tensions by reducing tangible US military support for the Kurdish troops that Ankara distrusts.
When it comes to its overall approach to the new US administration, Turkey will be especially focused on making up for the loss of the special relationship it shared with Biden's predecessor. Trump’s more personality-driven, bilateral approach created a policy gap between the White House and Congress, which helped shield Turkey from US lawmakers’ calls for sanctions during the last four years. But that gap is likely to shrink under a new White House, given Biden’s pledge to re-embrace multilateral institutions and alliances. Once Biden takes office in January, the US government is thus more likely to present a more unified front on each of the issues where Washington and Ankara clash likely to the latter’s detriment.