How the Biden Administration Sealed a NATO Deal with Turkey’s Erdogan

From a Washington Post column by Asli Aydintasbas headlined “How the Biden administration sealed the Sweden deal with Erdogan”:

NATO summits usually start with drama and often end with a happy family photo. This time, the drama was over before the summit started.

During the run-up to the summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, all eyes were on Ukraine’s prospects for membership. But Sweden’s membership bid was also up in the air, held up by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan knew that Vilnius was the moment he could extract maximal concessions from the West. However, the breakthrough on Swedish membership came earlier than everyone expected. Erdogan drove a hard bargain but, behind the scenes, President Biden and his team worked hard to get Erdogan to “yes” and are to be applauded for their efforts. The cutthroat geopolitical competition against China and Russia does not give Washington the luxury to maintain its policy of social distancing toward Erdogan, despite his awful record on democracy.

Over the past few days, Erdogan had pushed aside NATO’s boilerplate language on alliance solidarity and had forced the West to address his demands. He met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and declared that Ukraine was fit to be a member of NATO, only to also remark that Sweden was not yet ready to join the alliance — that it needed to do more on “terrorism” (a reference to Sweden allowing supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, to hold protests in Stockholm). He then urged the alliance to send a “clear and strong message” about Turkey’s bid to join the European Union — even though membership for his country in the E.U. is likely a pipe dream.

Behind all the public bluster, Erdogan’s most important ask has long been clear: He needs the United States to sell him F-16s. Turkey made a strategic blunder in 2017 by purchasing S-400 missile systems from Russia only to be slapped with U.S. sanctions. Now that Ankara desperately needs to modernize its air force fleet, it has made a formal request to buy new F-16s and upgrade 80 planes in its existing inventory.

The Biden administration has long been in favor of the transaction, but Congress had been blocking it. For many lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Turkey has been an “unfaithful ally,” and congressional leaders have expressed reservations about Turkey’s democratic backsliding and its threatening tone toward its neighbors, including Greece. According to my sources, the White House made headway over the weekend in convincing congressional leaders — in particular, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) — that it is better to keep Turkey inside the NATO tent by going ahead with the sale.

On Sunday, Erdogan pointedly thanked Biden for his efforts in trying to secure the F-16s. On Monday afternoon, after NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s announcement that Turkey would ratify Sweden’s entry into NATO, Biden’s official statement read “I stand ready to work with President Erdogan and [Turkey] on enhancing defense and deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic area.” The F-16s might not come immediately, but it’s likely that strong assurances were given that they would eventually be delivered.

Erdogan also might have gotten some concessions from Europe. As part of the announcement, Sweden agreed to support expanding the E.U.’s free-trade arrangement with Turkey. With Washington lobbying behind the scenes, I understand that other E.U. members are open to negotiations.

This is an important moment — and an opening to try to reverse Turkey’s drift. Erdogan had already signaled this weekend that he can be a critical partner for Europe by showing solidarity regarding Ukraine. He signed new defense and reconstruction deals with Zelensky, and let him repatriate several Ukrainian military commanders who were being held in Istanbul as part of a prisoner exchange deal with Russia. That move has angered the Kremlin.

Erdogan knows that his endless geopolitical balancing has alienated Europe, which is Turkey’s largest export market. His dalliances with Russian President Vladimir Putin misjudged how unified NATO countries are in supporting Ukraine — and how threatened Europe feels by Russian aggression. At the end of the day, Erdogan is a pragmatist. With an unstable Russia on his doorstep and a troubled economy at home, he knows Turkey needs better relations with the West.

At the Vilnius summit, Erdogan will be celebrated as a statesman and can use the moment to see what other agreements can be struck. But the window of opportunity for better relations with NATO and the West will not be open forever. For more thawing, Turkey will have to be willing to work on domestic issues as well. Its demand for E.U. visa liberalization for Turkish citizens will have to be met with substantive changes to Turkey’s draconian anti-terror law. For their part, Europeans would be wise to carefully explore just what Erdogan might be willing to trade on.

The Sweden deal potentially opens the possibility of Turkey further aligning itself on Ukraine, and on pushing back against Russia in Syria and the Black Sea. That’s no small thing, and the Biden administration should feel justifiably proud for achieving this much.

Biden and Erdogan are set to meet face to face in Vilnius, and Erdogan might be invited to the White House later this year. If both Turkey and the West play their cards right, a wider reset could be in the offing.

Asli Aydintasbas is a former journalist from Turkey and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.

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