At the start of the main leaders’ session at the NATO summit in Brussels on Monday, Biden spoke to Erdogan at length in a small group before they took their seats.
Later in the day, the two leaders and their top aides sat mostly silently on opposite sides of a conference table, ignoring questions shouted to them by journalists briefly invited into the room.
Both leaders appeared upbeat after the meeting, although they did not announce major breakthroughs in the relationship.
“We had a positive and productive meeting, much of it one-on-one,” Biden told a news conference, adding that, “Our teams are going to continue our discussions and I’m confident we’ll make real progress with Turkey and the United States.”
Describing his talks with Biden as “productive and sincere,” Erdoğan stressed that, “We think that there are no issues between US and Turkey relationship that are unsolvable, and that areas of cooperation for us are richer and larger than problems.”
Erdoğan had waited five months for the discussion with Biden, who has adopted a far cooler attitude toward the Turkish leader that predecessor Donald Trump.
“We see that there is a strong will to start an efficient cooperation period based on mutual respect in every area,” added the Turkish leader, in an expression of hope that improved dialogue will lead to progress on a host of disputes with the US; the majority of which pre-date Biden’s taking office in January and have strained relations between the two allies for years.
Despite their publicly optimistic tone, neither of the NATO allies provided any details over how they would navigate resolution of major points of contention over the following:
The biggest stalemate is over Turkey’s mid-2019 purchase of Russian S-400 systems, a rift that also divides NATO.
Turkey has the Western alliance’s second-biggest military after the United States. Ankara ignored multiple warnings from Washington not to buy the ground-to-air defense missiles from Moscow, and says they pose no threat to NATO allies.
Then-US President Donald Trump had reportedly resisted imposing penalties on Turkey until late in his term in 2020, when Washington ended ultimately ended the role of Turkish firms in producing F-35 parts; cancelled its slated sale to Turkey of 100 F-35 stealth fighter jets, the most advanced American warplane; and imposed sanctions on Turkey’s defense industry.
The measures targeted Turkey’s top defense procurement and development body, the Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB) and its chairman Ismail Demir, as well as 3 other employees, by freezing their assets and applying visa restrictions. They also blocked joint projects or technology transfers between US and Turkish firms linked to SSB, and imposed restrictions on loans and credits by US financial institutions to SSB amounting to over $10 million.
Bipartisan support of the sanctions on Turkey marks the first use of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) against a fellow NATO member. Both Republican and Democratic Senators hailed the move.
“These measures send a clear message to Erdogan: we will not allow him to undermine our national security and that of our faithful NATO allies without consequence,” Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen said at the time, underscoring that, “After watching President Trump repeatedly refuse to hold Turkey and President Erdoğan accountable, I’m glad to see this Administration finally impose these required sanctions.”
“The United States made clear to Turkey at the highest levels and on numerous occasions that its purchase of the S-400 system would endanger the security of US military technology and personnel and provide substantial funds to Russia’s defense sector,” said then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“This is not a step we’ve taken lightly or certainly quickly,” underscored then- Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford, adding that Washington had sought a solution but Ankara rejected all offers.
At the time, Turkey condemned the sanctions as a “grave mistake” and urged Washington to revise its “unjust decision,” while threatening to take unspecified retaliatory steps.
Animosity against Erdoğan in the US Congress has deepened over the past year, a phenomenon Biden will have to consider when dealing with Ankara.
Ahead of the talks upon leaving Turkey, Erdoğan said he expected an “unconditional approach” from Biden to moving on from past troubles, adding, “Turkey is not just any country, it is an allied country. We are two NATO allies.”
Erdoğan appears to have backed down from that demand.
Even though he told reporters that “There are many issues regarding defense industry that were left on the table”… “The most important of which is the F-35 issue,” prior to his talks with the US President – after the meeting, the Turkish leader said that, “At a meeting held in this location, it is not possible for the S-400s not to be brought up”… and that “Whatever our previous thoughts were on the S-400s, I conveyed those same thoughts to President Biden.”
Turkey’s lira slid nearly 1% as Erdoğan spoke, after market expectations had risen in recent days for Biden and Erdogan to reach some sort of deal on the S-400s.
Erdoğan also revealed that the US President said he may make a future visit to Turkey.
US Support of Syrian Kurds
Turkey is enraged over US support in Syria for the Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara deems to be a terrorist group.
Turkish forces have carried out three major incursions into northern Syria since 2016 to push the YPG back from the border.
The two sides also take opposing views of the murders of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, forerunner of modern Turkey.
Biden quickly recognized the 1915 massacres of Armenians during World War One as genocide, which infuriated Turkey.
Biden’s only phone call with Erdoğan since entering the White House came in April, when he gave notice over his decision.
Turkish Human Rights / Failed Coup
The US has also ignored Turkey’s demand to extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, who Ankara charges with having orchestrated an attempted 2016 military coup against Erdoğan.
US officials maintain that the judicial system requires sufficient evidence to extradite Gülen – who denies involvement in the failed plot.
Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu has gone so far as to accuse the US of actually being behind the attempted-coup attempt, which Washington has dismissed as entirely false.
The Biden Administration has stepped up criticism of Turkey’s human rights record in the ongoing crackdown launched in the wake of the coup which continues nearly 5 years later.
Over 91,000 people have been imprisoned and more than 150,000 others have been fired or suspended from their jobs over alleged links to Gülen.
A bipartisan majority of the US Senate called on Biden in February to push Turkey to do more to protect human rights, on charges that the Erdoğan regime has marginalized domestic opposition, silenced critical media, jailed journalists and purged independent judges.
Among the detainees are 3 Turkish employees from the US Consulate in Istanbul on charges that they aided Gülen’s network. The US Drug Enforcement Administration’s translator Metin Topuz was sentenced last year to nearly 9 years behind bars, staffer Hamza Uluçay already served a 2 year term and security officer Nazmi Mete Cantürk is currently free pending appeal on his conviction to serve 5 years in jail.
The two countries also take very opposing views of Israel.
While the US defended Israel’s right to self-defense during last month’s Operation Guardian of the Walls conflict with Gaza terrorists, Turkey slammed IDF retaliation against the firing of more than 4,400 rockets from the Palestinian enclave.
During the 11-days of fighting, the US approved a $735 million weapons deal to Israel.
Erdoğan accused Biden of “writing history with your bloody hands in this incident that is a serious disproportionate attack on Gaza, which is leading to the martyrdom of hundreds of thousands of people,” and described Israelis as murderers and child-killers.
The Turkish leader also slammed Vienna for flying an Israeli flag over its federal chancellery in a show of solidarity during the Gaza rocket attacks, claiming “The state of Austria is trying to make Muslims pay the price for the Jews it subjected to genocide.”
Erdoğan has been an ardent proponent of the Palestinian cause, and fierce critic of the Jewish State.
The White House condemned some of Erdoğan’s comments as anti-Semitic.
There are also tensions between the two countries over the US indictment of Turkey’s state-controlled Halkbank on fraud, money laundering and conspiracy charges for helping Iran to evade US sanctions.
That case is still pending, although Turkish citizen Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who worked at the bank, was sentenced to serve 32 months in jail by a US court in 2018 on the same charges. He was, however, released in 2019.
During his election campaign, Biden criticized Erdoğan and said the United States should support his political opponents.
Erdoğan, who has ruled Turkey for nearly two decades, said in early June that relations with the Biden White House were more strained than they had been with three previous presidents.
“In our meeting with him, we will of course ask him why US-Turkey relations are at a tense stage,” he said, although neither leader mentioned whether or not this topic was raised.
Additional sources of friction include Turkey’s a standoff with Greece and Cyprus over territory in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, as well as Turkey’s intervention in wars in Syria and Libya.
Just ahead of the summit, Erdoğan also met French President Emmanuel Macron.
Ankara and Paris have been at odds over Syria, Libya and Turkish criticism of the fight against what Macron calls Islamist separatism, among other issues.
“President Erdogan confirmed during our meeting his wish that the foreign mercenaries, the foreign militias, operating on Libyan soil leave as soon as possible,” Macron told a news conference afterward.
One topic Erdoğan has hoped to showcase a central Turkish role is Afghanistan, where Ankara has offered to guard and operate Kabul Airport after the slated withdrawal by US and NATO forces in the coming weeks. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged that Turkey will play a key role, but that no decision was made at the Monday summit.