'Postponement' of Biden-Erdoğan meeting raises eyebrows

As NATO allies, US-Turkey relations should be good, but after Turkey asked to join South Africa's genocide case in the ICJ against Israel, scheduling is suddenly tight.

US President Joe Biden (R) and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hold bilateral talks at the NATO Summit in Vilnius on July 11, 2023.
US President Joe Biden (R) and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hold bilateral talks at the NATO Summit in Vilnius on July 11, 2023.

'Postponement' of Biden-Erdoğan meeting raises eyebrows

It may just come down to scheduling. After all, both the presidents of Turkey and the United States are busy men. But when news filtered through that the former’s planned visit to Washington next week was off, chins wagged. Many suspect that diaries are not the only reason.

The speculation kicked off when White House national security advisor John Kirby simply said, “There is no programme scheduled for President Erdoğan’s visit.” He had been due to fly in on 9 May to hold talks with President Joe Biden.

The US ambassador in Ankara initially inferred that the visit would still take place. Three days later, however, Turkey’s foreign ministry said it had been postponed due to conflicting schedules.

It would have been a significant occasion—not least because it would have been the recently re-elected Erdoğan’s first bilateral visit since Donald Trump was president. This is a crunch time for international diplomacy, and Turkey is no bit-part player. It is deeply involved in both Israel’s war in Gaza and Russia’s war on Ukraine.

A prickly pair

Turkey and the US are NATO allies with a thorny relationship. When Ankara finally ratified Sweden’s NATO membership in January, America cheered. Yet Erdoğan’s full and vocal support for Hamas has not sat comfortably in Washington, to say the least.

Turkey's parliament, on January 23, 2024, ratified Sweden's NATO membership after more than a year of delays that upset Western efforts to show resolve in the face of Russia's war on Ukraine.

This week, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said Turkey will ask to join South Africa’s genocide case against key US ally Israel at the International Court of Justice (as will Colombia). For Biden—a staunch ally of Israel—this may have crossed a red line.

Biden and Erdoğan have met just a couple of times before, on the margins of NATO summits, the last being in 2023 in Vilnius. Beyond that, there have been a few phone calls, but not many.

Two generations ago, things were very different. With the Soviet Union breathing down its neck, Turkey joined NATO in 1952 and established a very close alliance with the US. For years, the two countries seemed like best friends.

By the 1970s, that no longer held true, as the US imposed an arms embargo following Turkey's military intervention in Cyprus in 1974.

In the past decade or so, relations have gone from patchy to frosty, starting in 2003, ahead of the US invasion of Iraq, when Turkey denied the Pentagon's request to deploy troops there to allow it to open a northern front.

Turkey's request to join a genocide case against key US ally Israel at the International Court of Justice may have crossed a red line for Biden.

Coups and Kurds

In July 2016, things reached a nadir after a major coup attempt in Turkey. Erdoğan knew that it had been organised and orchestrated by Fethullah Gülen, the leader of the FETÖ organisation, whose followers were referred to as "a state within a state".

Gülen had been living in Pennsylvania since 1999, and the US had ignored Turkey's repeated extradition requests, so Ankara saw Washington as complicit.

Three years later, Erdoğan dramatically deepened Turkey's relations with Russia by buying Moscow's advanced S-400 missile defence system.

The US responded by removing Turkey as a partner in its secretive F-35 jet fighter development programme, while the US Congress blocked Ankara's request to buy US-made F-16s.

It was no surprise, therefore, that Turkey delayed Sweden's NATO membership by 20 months, much to the annoyance of the Americans. The Turks cited Sweden's support for Kurds.

US support for the Kurdish groups on Turkey's border has long rankled policymakers in the Turkish capital, who see these fighters as terrorists. On the contrary, Washington values their support, not least in the fight against Islamic State (IS).

Specifically, Turkey holds a grudge against the YPG, which the US military has worked with against IS. Ankara says the YPG is an extension of the PKK, which both capitals recognise as a terrorist group.

US soldiers sit atop military vehicles, part of a joint convoy with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) (unseen) in the northeastern Syrian Hasakeh province on the border with Turkey, on November 9, 2019.

Difficult diplomacy

Common strategic interests and memories of warmer times have so far prevented a total collapse in relations. Diplomats often resolve their differences. After Turkey nodded Sweden into NATO, the US Congress nodded through the F-16 sale.

At the US-Turkey Strategic Mechanism Meeting in Washington in March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Fidan agreed to "advance common goals and a positive bilateral agenda", setting up the now-postponed meeting between their presidents.

Although Erdoğan has been re-elected president, his AK Party lost the recent local elections to a rival party for the first time in two decades. It shows both that Turkey's democracy is alive and well and that the Turkish president has work to do.

He is charged with boosting the economy, and a meeting with Biden may have unlocked new investments, but the US president will have his own electoral test in six months' time.

Biden's advisors may have felt that his meeting Erdoğan, a Hamas sympathiser, in the run-up to polling would just give Trump ammunition. Meeting Erdoğan after November would be less political.

Biden's advisors may have felt that his meeting Erdoğan, a Hamas sympathiser, in the run-up to polling would just give Trump ammunition.

The Israel issue

Turkey has an important role to play in the Middle East, but like most of the world, it believes that Israel's war in Gaza must stop immediately and that a two-state solution is needed for lasting peace.

What makes Turkey different is its overt support for Hamas, which it does not define as a terrorist organisation but rather as a resistance movement fighting for liberation.

Erdoğan recently welcomed Ismail Haniyeh, chair of Hamas's politburo, then likened Hamas to the Turkish resistance organisation Kuvayı Milliye, which was established to resist the Allied invasion of Turkish lands after the First World War.

The Turks are trying to convince others that Hamas should take part in the talks to plan what happens in Gaza once the war is over. For Washington, that would be anathema.

Yet Erdoğan has been angered by Washington's refusal to stop Israel from committing what he sees as genocide. The decision by the US Congress in April to approve $26bn in aid to Israel would not have helped.

Like Biden, Erdoğan needs to consider his domestic audience, and the Turkish president feels he lost support in the disastrous local elections because he had not done enough for Gaza. He does not want this image to stick.

Last year, there were reports that Turkey was working with the US to reach a ceasefire, but Turkey's decision to ban the export of certain items to Israel went down badly.

Israel's foreign minister said Tel Aviv would reciprocate, calling on "friends in the US Congress" to respond with sanctions on Turkey, but this has not stopped the barbs.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ismail Haniyeh, the political leader of the Palestinian movement Hamas, in Istanbul on April 20, 2024.

At the Inter-Parliamentary Jerusalem Platform Conference in İstanbul last week, Erdoğan was scathing about Israeli leaders, calling them "modern-day Pharaohs". Israel's foreign minister fired back on social media platform X.

Just yesterday, Turkey announced it would halt all trade with Israel, citing the "worsening humanitarian tragedy" in the Palestinian territories.

"Export and import transactions related to Israel have been stopped, covering all products," Turkey's trade ministry said late on Thursday.

"Turkey will strictly and decisively implement these new measures until the Israeli government allows an uninterrupted and sufficient flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza."

Israel's foreign minister, Israel Katz, responded by accusing  Erdoğan of acting like a "dictator".

Staying relevant

Diplomats worried about Syria will be disappointed that Biden and Erdoğan are no longer due to meet since the two countries have much to discuss, especially about the territory that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad no longer controls.

Erdoğan recently visited neighbouring Iraq for the first time in 12 years. Back in Ankara, he has welcomed German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who could be NATO's next secretary-general.

The showcasing of his statesmanship and diplomatic activity was likely intended for his domestic audience, to show that Turkey remains in good international standing, whether Joe Biden is too busy or not.

If they cannot meet earlier, Biden and Erdoğan will likely be face-to-face at the NATO Summit in Washington in July. If they do speak, as diplomats hope, the conversation will likely be tense.

font change

Related Articles