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Joe Biden’s First Foreign Policy Task: Dealing With Turkey’s Erdoğan

By Dr. Ilan Fuchs
Faculty Member, Legal Studies, American Military University

Start a Homeland Security degree at American Military University.

Joe Biden will become president of the United States on January 20, 2021. While 2020 has seen some crazy things, we can assume that this will be the case for the next four years. Things are happening fast on the domestic front with COVID-19, immigration reform, and climate change on Biden’s agenda, but he will also have a full plate when it comes to foreign policy.

One of the first tasks will be to decide on a policy vis-a-vis Turkey. A NATO member, Turkey has taken some very bold steps recently by buying and testing the S-400 missile system from Russia. And by flexing its muscles in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey has caused anxiety in Greece prompting Athens to strengthen its fleet presence.

But before we get into the details let’s look at the personal relationship question.

Biden Told NYT Editors that He Wanted to Help the Opposition Overthrow Erdoğan in 2019

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, does not like Biden. According to a video reported by Reuters’ Jonathan Spicer, Biden told editors of The New York Times that he wanted to help the opposition overthrow Erdoğan in 2019. Biden said, “What I think we should be doing is taking a very different approach to him now, making it clear that we support opposition leadership.”

Biden said Erdoğan “has to pay a price” and he called on Washington to embolden Turkish opposition leaders “to be able to take on and defeat Erdoğan. Not by a coup, not by a coup, but by the electoral process.” Turkey condemned this as interventionism.

After the U.S. presidential election, Turkey did not congratulate Biden until November 10. In Istanbul, some analysts warned Turkey to brace for sanctions from the new administration. Why is Istanbul worried about sanction? Two reasons: the S-400 system and the not-so-subtle threats against Greece concerning the eastern Mediterranean.

As I previously wrote, in November 2019, Turkey tested the S-400 radar detection capability on F-16 Falcon fighter jets. On October 16 of this year, the Turkish army conducted exercises with the Russian anti-aircraft S-400 system, reportedly testing the S-400 Hanud system to detect the movement of stealth F-35 Lightning II fighter jets and F-22 Raptors. This was a direct threat to the U.S. Air Force. This continued testing is aiding the Russians in gathering information that will put in jeopardy American fighter jets.

Erdoğan has stepped over the line here because Turkey is a NATO member. It is clear that there will need to be an American response sooner rather than later. Senator Bob Mendenez (D-NJ) made that clear when discussing the issue in the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Also, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has voiced similar criticism of Turkish involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Turkey Signed an Agreement with Ukraine Promising Cooperation on Security Issues

You would think Erdoğan is trying to develop a relationship with Russia, but he is playing a dangerous game. On October 16, Turkey signed an agreement with Ukraine promising cooperation on security issues. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said, “Cooperation in the defense industry is important for the development of our strategic partnership and I am happy that we are strengthening it today.”

This balancing act Erdoğan is attempting to maintain with the Russians might cost him when taking into account Turkish support of Azerbaijan’s successful military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh to the chagrin of Russia.

As the Voice of America reported, Russian official Evgeny Primakov, the grandson of a former Russian prime minister and intelligence chief, noted that Moscow is not likely to take kindly to “a very difficult partner, to put it diplomatically,” becoming “embedded and at ease on territory we have always considered our underbelly.’’

That could be one foreign intervention too far for Erdoğan, whose overseas adventurism must also contend with a weakened Turkish economy and currency.

Erdoğan Is Destabilizing Libya and Its Neighbors

This is not the only area where both the U.S. and Russia are getting frustrated with Erdoğan. Erdoğan is destabilizing Libya and its neighbors by supporting the Islamist faction in the civil war. Turkey is supporting the side that is battling a faction supported by Egypt.

A victory by the Turkish-backed side will have long-ranging effects. Turkey’s support is linked to its attempt to increase its territorial claims that areas in the Mediterranean that are part of its economic zone rather than international waters as the littoral countries claim.

As someone who teaches maritime law at AMU, I am thrilled when classroom discussions move into the international arena. Economic waters are a popular term for the EEZ, the Exclusive Economic Zone, an area that extends 200 nautical miles from shore. This zone gives littoral countries jurisdiction over artificial islands and structures, marine scientific research, and protection of the environment. The EEZ has everything to do with economic resources.

Turkey Wants Control to Prevent Egypt from Constructing Gas Pipelines to Sell Gas in Europe

In this case, Turkey wants control over waters that would prevent Egypt from constructing gas pipelines to sell gas in Europe. Greece, Israel and Egypt also have something to lose. Both Egypt and Israel have maritime natural gas resources they wish to develop, and Greece will benefit economically from gas pipelines built in their territorial waters. Greece went so far as to put its navy on high alert after Turkish vessels were navigating in what the Greeks say is within their territorial waters.

Basically, Erdoğan is annoying many players. This might be an opportunity for the international community to put him in his place. Erdoğan is vulnerable. His vitriol notwithstanding, his actions have further weakened the Turkish economy and currency. In September Moody’s Investors Service put Turkey’s “debt rating deeper into junk” by downgraded its credit rating to B2, “five levels below investment grade and on par with Egypt, Jamaica and Rwanda.”

This can actually be a golden opportunity for the incoming Biden administration to begin its foreign relations record with a show of force. There are many world and regional powers that would be happy if Erdoğan were given a lesson and taught some humility.

About the Author

Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. His other degrees include an LL.B. in Law, an LL.M. in Law and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University.

He has published a book, “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 17 articles in leading scholarly journals. At AMU, he teaches courses on International Law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions. 

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