Biden’s Biggest Foreign Policy Challenge

10 November 2020

Weakened partnerships with old allies, a global pandemic, the standing down of US forces after 19-years of operations, a diminished opinion of the United States that is shared by many because of President Trump’s actions over the past 4 years – these are some of the foreign policy challenges that President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will have to overcome.

Obvious, foreign policy issues such as the Iranian nuclearization, and North Korea’s ballistic missile project, and their own nuclear aspirations, are high priorities. However, the hardest foreign policy issue that the Biden presidency will have to deal will be the ambitions of Turkish President Erdogan.

Erdogan’s ambitions flourished under President Trump. Trump’s preference towards “Strong Men” leaders is well known, but Erdogan reportedly called Trump as much as twice a week. In fact, there were incidents where Erdogan would call Trump during a golf game and Trump would stop playing and talk at length with the Turkish president. During the Trump administration years, we have seen a resurgent Turkish foreign policy that has aimed to strengthen its presence in the Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean and as of late in the Southern Caucasus.

Nagorno-Karabakh

The Armenian- Azerbaijani conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region has displaced more than 130,000 people and there have been at least 5,000 people killed in the conflict. Turkey has supported Azerbaijan in its recent conflict with Armenia. Turkey outfitted Azerbaijan with its Bayraktar TB2 UAV. Canada became aware that Canadian-supplied parts were outfitted in those drones and suspended the export license to Turkey. Erdogan argued that Canada was acting against the spirit of the NATO alliance.  It should also be remembered that Turkey was removed from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project following its decision to buy the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air defence system.

Rcently, Erdogan told Russian President Vladimir Putin that Armenia must be convinced to leave Nagorno-Karabakh and negotiate a peace deal. At the same time, Erdogan echoed Azerbaijani victory claims, by also adding “We are getting close to victory.”  Azerbaijan captured Nagorno-Karabakh’s second-largest town – Shushi. There are claims that Turkey sent 1,000 Syrians that work for a Turkish private security firm to Azerbaijan to assist in the conflict. This should something of a concern as this could be seen as using Syrians to help further Turkish regional ambitions through proxy conflicts. The Armenian president announced that a ‘painful’ agreement had been made, but offered no other details other than the agreement would take place on 1 am on Tuesday (21:00 GMT on Monday).

Libya

Turkey sided with the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). Military intervention was approved on 2 January 2020 for one year. Turkish troops began deploying on the 5th of January. Although at the surface it may appear that Turkey was upholding its responsibility as a member of the international community, it is an attempt for Turkey to strengthen its position over the maritime border claim against Greece. It also poised Turkish troops against the Russian-backed forces of General Khalifa Haftar.

Syria-Iraq and the Kurdish dilemma

Turkey has pulled back from its second outpost in Syria. Turkish forces are being pulled back from Shir Maghar and will be rebased at the village of Kokfin, in the rebel-held province of Idlib. Turkey has between 10,000 and 15,000 troops in northwest Syria. Turkish troops entered northern Syria to create a buffer zone to help stymy the number of Syrian refugees – Turkey is already home to 3.6 million Syrian refugees. This buffer zone serves Turkey’s interest to continue its counterterrorism operations against the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), a group that has been operating against Turkey for over 35 years now. Given the entangled web of groups operating and allying themselves in Syria, the United States supported the Kurdish YPG which has elements of the PKK in it. US support of this group has been a point of contention for the Turkish government.

NATO

The dispute with Turkey and Greece has gone on for decades, but Erdogan has raised tensions with Greece with its territorial claims over the Mediterranean Sea. Greece also claims that Turkey has been drilling in Greek waters. Greece has called out Germany for supplying Turkey with arms as Mediterranean tensions continue.

France has condemned what they call “declarations of violence” from Erdogan over the ongoing dispute over the most recent caricature of the Prophet Mohammed and the French government approval of it under freedom of speech. Erdogan called for a boycott of French goods. France is considering sanctions against Turkey. Erdogan has also called for Macron to undergo a psychological evaluation and Macron states that he is fighting Islamic Extremism and not Islam itself.

Erdogan’s aggressive stance with Turkey’s NATO allies is worrying. When it comes to the number of troops available, Turkey is the alliance’s 2nd largest member. However, Turkey’s behaviour towards Greece and France is troublesome. Sanctions against Turkey are being discussed and it has the possibility of becoming an issue within the European Union.

Going forward

Obviously, President Erdogan felt comfortable enough to do so as long as he placated to Trump’s desire to feel like he too was a Strong Man.  Now, President-elect Biden’s path is full of turmoil. President Erdogan wants to expand Turkey’s influence in the region and its presence on the world stage. Not only does the next US president have to reel in Turkey’s regional ambitions but also mend the NATO alliance. Turkey can argue that it helped defeat a Russian-backed Armenia and hopefully gain some favour from some of the Baltic and Eastern alliance members, however, its actions are aggravating some of the alliance members.

Careful statesmanship will be required. Erdogan proved that he will not go quietly into the night with the 2018 coup crackdown. Erdogan is emboldened and Biden will have to recraft American foreign policy and influence after four years of Trump diminished much of America’s influence by pandering to dictators and pulling America away from being a world leader.

Erdogan taking the aggressive stance that he has, and also being a NATO member, means that Biden will have to balance his approach. He may have to encourage European allies to impose sanctions to coax Erdogan into easing tensions in the Mediterranean, but also have to appease Erdogan on other fronts – possibly by allowing Turkey back into the F-35 programme while also not condemning its move to buy the Russian S-400, or the US could withdraw support from the YPG.