Erdogan remains a headache for Biden even after Ukraine agreed on assistance

WASHINGTON. When Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement on Friday unlock Ukrainian grain exportTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan played the role of a benevolent statesman.

Sitting next to the Secretary-General of the United Nations in an Ottoman palace in Istanbul, Mr. Erdogan said the deal Turkey helped bring about would benefit “all of humanity.”

The Biden administration welcomed the agreement, which could ease the global food crisis exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the blockade of its ports. Officials have expressed skepticism about whether Russia is acting in good faith, and Russian missiles hit the Ukrainian port city of Odessa less than a day after the signing of the contract. However, the White House spokesman praised Mr. Erdogan for his efforts.

But in private, Mr. Erdogan remains a major annoyance to Biden administration officials.

Days before presiding over the grain deal, the Turkish autocrat again warned that he could veto NATO plans to admit Sweden and Finland as members in the coming months, which would deeply embarrass the alliance and the Biden administration as they work. against Russia. . As well as Congress this month raised concerns o d. Biden’s commitment at the NATO summit in Spain last month to sell dozens of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.

On Tuesday Mr. Erdogan traveled to Tehran for meetings with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The images of the two main American rivals with Mr. Erdogan, the leader of the NATO country, faced the Western narrative of deeply isolated Iran and Russia, analysts say.

Then on Friday, a White House spokesman reiterated US concerns about Mr. Trump. Erdogan is threatening to launch a new invasion of northern Syria against US-backed Kurdish militants he considers terrorists.

Taken together, d. Erdogan’s actions and d. Biden’s limited ability to deter them highlight the Turkish leader’s unique position as a military ally who is often at odds with the agenda of his Western allies. For US officials, this is an often maddening role.

“Erdogan is basically Joe Manchin of NATO,” said Elizabeth Shackelford, a former Foreign Service officer, referring to the conservative Democratic senator from West Virginia who stumped Mr. Erdogan. Biden’s domestic agenda. “He is on our team, but he does things that are clearly not good for our team. And I just don’t see it changing.”

But Biden administration officials say the write-off of Mr. Erdogan is completely doomed to failure. His country’s position at the crossroads of East and West is of strategic importance and allows him to be an interlocutor with even more troubled neighbors, as evidenced by the grain deal that created a demilitarized corridor across the Black Sea for Ukraine’s agricultural exports.

A senior US official said much of Mr. Erdogan’s problematic behavior was the result of his political weakness in Turkey, where inflation rose to almost 80 percent last month. Hoping to divert attention from his failing economy, Mr. Erdogan has resorted to outright displays of nationalism and demagoguery over the threat from the PKK, the Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey, and Kurdish groups in Syria.

Major NATO initiatives, such as the proposed expansion of the 30-member alliance to include Sweden and Finland, require unanimous consent. mr. In May, Biden said he hoped the two countries could “quickly” join in what would be a major strategic blow to Mr. Trump. Insert.

But Mr. Erdogan countered, complaining that both would-be new members provided political and financial support to the PKK, which the United States has designated as a terrorist organization because of its history of violent attacks. US and NATO officials are concerned that the planned expansion could fall through as a result of a major propaganda victory for Mr. Trump. Putin, who has long been working to split the alliance.

NATO leaders breathed a sigh of relief at their summit last month when Mr. Erdogan reached an agreement with the leaders of Sweden and Finland, who pledged to act against terrorist organizations and join extradition agreements with Turkey, which wants to prosecute PKK members living in these countries.

mr. Biden seemed especially grateful for the breakthrough. “I want to especially thank you for what you have done to sort out the situation with Finland and Sweden,” Erdogan in front of reporters.

two page agreement broadly stated that Sweden and Finland would consider “Turkey’s pending requests for the deportation or extradition of terrorist suspects promptly and thoroughly.” But Turkish officials have said they are awaiting extradition of more than 70 people. It was unclear whether Sweden and Finland would agree and how Mr. Erdogan might react if they did not.

On Monday, Mr. Erdogan warned that he could still “freeze” NATO expansion if his demands were 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 fighter jets it already owns. Turkey needs these planes partly because Trump administration canceled plans sell modern F-35 fighter jets to the country in 2019. In one of his most confusing recent moves, Erdogan bought Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system against US warnings.

mr. Biden denied offering to buy the planes for Mr. Trump. Erdogan’s support for NATO expansion. “And with that, there was no quid pro quo; we just had to sell,” he said. “But for that, I need congressional approval, and I think we can get it.”

Congressional approval cannot be a given. And it was unclear whether Mr. Erdogan could actually block NATO’s proposed expansion until he reached an agreement on the F-16s.

This month, the House of Representatives approved an amendment to the annual military policy bill requiring Mr. Biden to reaffirm that any sale of fighter jets is in America’s vital national interest and that Turkey will not use jets to violate the airspace of Greece, its neighbor the Aegean and a NATO ally with which Ankara is in a bitter territorial dispute. .

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

“Enough,” Mr. said, “the dads said. “Turkey played on both sides of the barricades in Ukraine. They were not a reliable ally we could count on.”

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

Once the White House formally asks Congress to approve the sale of the planes, Mr. Biden will need the support of other powerful members who have been highly critical of Mr. Trump. Erdogan, including Democratic Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez of New Jersey.

mr. Menendez has previously wondered if Turkey is in NATO at all. And at a hearing last month on proposed NATO expansion, he said that “essentially, Turkey’s 11 o’clock fears of standing in the way of this process only serve Putin’s interests.”

mr. Menendez too made a statement last month with his Republican counterpart on the Committee on Foreign Relations, Senator Jim Rish of Idaho, sternly warning Mr. Erdogan against the threat of an invasion of northern Syria. They were joined by Democratic House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory W. Meeks of New York and fellow Republican Texas Representative Michael McCall.

In a statement, lawmakers said the potential invasion would have “catastrophic consequences”, threatening local operations against Islamic State remnants and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

A Pentagon spokesman recently added to US warnings.

“We strongly oppose any Turkish operation in northern Syria and have made clear our objections to Turkey,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Dana Strowl said this month at the Middle East Institute. “ISIS is going to take advantage of this campaign.”

Some or Mr. Erdogan’s harshest critics warn of an endless cycle in which the Turkish leader is seeking concessions from the United States and other NATO allies, such as new fighter jets and a harder line on Kurdish militias, only to harden his demands in the future.

“These dances around the F-16 are jet fighter diplomacy and a mask of what is really going on here,” said Mark Wallace, founder of the Turkish Democracy Project, a group that has been highly critical of Mr. Trump. Erdogan and his turn to authoritarianism. “A good ally – much less a good NATO ally – doesn’t use blackmail to get what they want at key moments in the alliance’s history.”

Julian E. Barnes provided reporting from Aspen, Colorado.