Erdogan remains a headache for Biden even after Ukraine deal helps

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WASHINGTON – When Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement on Friday Unblock Ukrainian grain exportTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan played the role of a liberal politician.

Sitting next to the UN Secretary General in an Ottoman palace in Istanbul, Mr Erdogan said the deal, which Turkey helped broker, would benefit “the whole of humanity”.

President Biden’s administration welcomed the deal, which could provide relief from a global food crisis exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a blockade of its ports. officials expressed doubts as to whether Russia was acting in good faith, and Russian missiles strike Ukraine’s port city of Odessa less than a day after the signing of the agreement. Still, a White House spokesman praised Mr. Erdogan’s efforts.

But in private, Mr. Erdogan remains a source of considerable irritation to Biden administration officials.

Days before presiding over the grain deal, the Turkish autocrat renewed a warning that it could veto NATO’s plans to accept Sweden and Finland as members in the coming months, an act that will stymie the coalition and Biden will deeply embarrass the administration as they work to counter Russia. , And Congress expressed apprehension this month About Mr Biden’s pledge to sell dozens of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey at the NATO summit in Spain last month.

On Tuesday, Mr. Erdogan traveled to Tehran for a meeting with the President of Iran, Ibrahim Raisi, and the President of Russia, Vladimir V. Putin. Analysts said photos of two major US rivals with NATO country leader Mr. Erdogan clashed with the Western narrative of Iran and Russia.

Then on Friday, a White House spokesman reiterated US concerns about Mr. Erdogan’s threat to launch a new offensive in northern Syria targeting US-backed Kurdish fighters he believes to be terrorists.

Taken together Mr. Erdogan’s actions – and Mr. Biden’s limited ability to control them – underscore the Turkish leader’s unique position as a military ally often at odds with the agenda of his Western allies. For US officials, this is an often troubling role.

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

But Biden administration officials say it would be self-defeating to dismiss Mr. Erdogan altogether. His country’s position at the crossroads of east and west is strategically important and allows him to be a negotiator with even more troubled neighbors – as evidenced by the grain deal, which opened the Black Sea to Ukraine’s agricultural exports. through a Demilitarized Corridor.

A senior US official said Mr. Erdogan’s problematic behavior was a function of his political weakness in Turkey, where the inflation rate climbed up to about 80 percent last month. In hopes of diverting attention from his mismanaged economy, Mr. Erdogan has turned to chest-thumping demonstrations of nationalism and democracy over the PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey, and threats from 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 Biden said in May that he expected the two countries to join “early” what would be a major strategic blow to Mr Putin.

But Mr. Erdogan objected, complaining that both potential new members had extended 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 were concerned that the planned expansion could fail in a major campaign victory for Mr Putin, who has long worked to split the coalition.

NATO leaders heaved a sigh of relief at their summit last month when Mr. Erdogan reached a deal with the leaders of Sweden and Finland, which promised to take action against terrorist organizations and to enter into extradition agreements with Turkey, which will help them in the process. Wants to prosecute PKK members living in countries. ,

Mr Biden seemed particularly grateful for the success. “I want to especially thank you for what you did to put together the situation with respect to Finland and Sweden,” he told Mr. Erdogan in the presence of reporters.

two page agreement said in generalized language that Sweden and Finland would swiftly and fully address Turkey’s “pending deportation or extradition requests of terrorist suspects.” But Turkish officials have said they hope to extradite more than 70 persons. It was not clear whether Sweden and Finland would agree or how they might react if Erdogan did not.

On Monday, Mr Erdogan warned he could freeze “Freeze” NATO expansion if their 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 technology upgrades for dozens of fighter jets that already He is the owner of it. Turkey wants those planes partly because Trump administration plans to cancel In one of his recent moves to sell advanced F-35 fighter jets to the country in 2019 after Mr. Erdogan bought Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system in defiance of US warnings.

Mr Biden denied that he had offered the planes to buy Erdogan’s support for NATO expansion. “And there was no return with it; it was just that we should sell,” he said. “But I need congressional approval to be able to do that, and I think we can get it. “

Congress cannot be approved. And it was unclear if Mr. Erdogan could hold off on NATO’s proposed expansion until he reaches a deal on F-16 jets.

This month, the House approved amendments to an annual military policy bill that requires Mr Biden to certify that any sale of fighter jets is in America’s vital national interests and that Turkish jets are used to exploit Greece’s airspace. Not to be violated, its Aegean maritime neighbor and fellow NATO ally, with which Ankara is engaged in a bitter territorial dispute.

Representative Chris Pappas, a Democrat from New Hampshire and sponsor of the amendment, also cited a similar position toward Mr. Erdogan’s purchase of the Russian missile system and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Mr Erdogan has called the invasion “unacceptable” but has not joined the sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies on Russia.

“It’s done,” said Mr. Pappas. “Turkey have played both sides of the fence in Ukraine. They have not been reliable allies we should be relying on.”

“I think the Biden administration needs to take a stronger stance,” he said.

Once the White House formally requests that Congress approve the sale of the planes, Biden will need the support of other influential members who have been highly critical of Erdogan, including the Democratic nominee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. President, Bob Menendez. New Jersey.

Mr Menendez has previously questioned whether Turkey is joining NATO. And at a hearing on the proposed NATO expansion last month, he said that “with timing of the essence, the concern of the 11th hour standing by Turkey in the way of this process only serves Putin’s interests.”

Mr Menendez too issued a statement Last month, his Republican counterpart on the Foreign Relations Committee, along with Senator Jim Risk of Idaho, gave Erdogan a stern warning against his threatening invasion of northern Syria. He was accompanied by the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Gregory W. Meeks of New York, and his Republican counterpart, Representative Michael McCall of Texas.

In the statement, lawmakers said a possible invasion would have “devastating consequences”, threatening local operations against Islamic State remnants and exacerbating Syria’s humanitarian crisis.

A Pentagon official recently added to the US warnings.

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

Some of Mr. Erdogan’s harshest critics have warned of an endless cycle in which the Turkish leader wins concessions from the United States and other NATO allies, such as new fighter jets and a tougher line against Kurdish militia fighters, only to bolster his demands. to increase. Future.

“It’s the dance around the F-16 – it’s jet fighter diplomacy, and it’s really a mask at play here,” said Mark Wallace, founder of the Turkish Democracy Project, a group that heavily criticizes Erdogan and his It’s authoritarianism. “A good ally – a good NATO ally – does not use blackmail to get what he wants at key moments in the history of the alliance.”

Julian E. Barnes Contributed reporting from Aspen, Colo.

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