Presidents Biden and Erdogan Meet in Rome

November 1, 2021

A month ago, I concluded a post with the following: “Presidents Biden and Erdogan may meet in Rome, but a genuine reset in Turkish-American relations remains mission impossible in the short term. The Biden-Erdogan meeting  would focus more on containing the rising cost of our differences than give-and-take. No matter what is said publicly, and one should not expect much, it will not end mutual frustration…”

That was my conclusion because Turkey-US relations are at their lowest level in decades. The list of differences is extremely long, and there is an overarching problem of chemistry. Washington’s relations with Ankara and Moscow are now rated very closely by Brookings Center on the United States and Europe’s resident and nonresident experts.[i]

Moreover,  during the month of October the relationship took new blows and declined further.

On October 7, 2021, President Biden continuing for one year the national emergency declared in Mr. Trump’s Executive Order 13894 said “… the recent actions by the Government of Turkey to conduct a military offensive into northeast Syria, undermines the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, endangers civilians, and further threatens to undermine the peace, security, and stability in the region, and thereby constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States. I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.”

Then came the “persona non grata or not” crisis involving ten ambassadors. In the end, a “diplomatic solution” was found. The Western media said this was a U-turn by President Erdogan. Pro-government Turkish media declared victory saying that “a crisis was averted” through diplomacy. Actually, what was averted was another conflict. And is seems that this crisis is not exactly over as the ten ambassadors in question were not invited to the National Day ceremonies at the presidential palace last Friday.

On October 26, the Turkish parliament ratified a motion extending authorization to launch cross-border operations in northern Iraq and Syria for two more years, as well as continued participation in the UN Interim Force in Lebanon.

And the next day, during the UN Security Council Briefing on Syria, Chinese Ambassador Geng Shuang said, “… Since Turkey illegally invaded northeastern Syria, it has repeatedly cut off the water supply service from the Alouk water station, affecting hundreds of thousands of civilians, and causing enormous difficulties for the UN’s humanitarian relief work in the area. China urges Turkey to abide by the international law, including international humanitarian law, protect civilians, maintain infrastructure operations, and guarantee humanitarian access for the UN…”

This was the first such intervention by China and probably a response to Turkey’s joining forty-three other nations in a statement criticizing China’s repression of Uyghurs. And it must have been a rare moment of unity between Beijing, Moscow, and Washington.

And again, last week, Patriarch Bartholomew met with President Biden at the White House. A statement issued later referred to “… the decades-long friendship and partnership between President Biden and His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch.”

Mr. Biden and the US administration know very well that Turkey objects to the word “Ecumenical” in the title. But Ankara chose not to respond to avert another war of words.

In brief, October proved to be a month of more trouble. But finally, Presidents Biden and Erdogan met in Rome on the margins of the G20 Summit.

President Biden went to the G20 and  2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference summits with a loaded agenda. Thus, a New York Times article carried the title “‘America Is Back,’ Biden Declared in June. The World Is About to Test Him.”

For President Erdogan, Turkey’s parliament finally having ratified the Paris climate agreement, the top agenda item was the meeting with Mr. Biden. Thus, after the G20 summit he chose to return to Turkey, reportedly over  a disagreement with British authorities on security measures in Glasgow. His diplomatic advisors should have advised him otherwise.

Actually, climate change does not figure highly on Turkey’s domestic agenda.

On January 11, 2021, NASA’s Earth Observatory had said,  “As 2021 begins, most of Turkey is experiencing severe drought. Numerous reservoirs around Istanbul—the country’s most populous city (15 million)—have reached their lowest water storage levels in fifteen years.”  Indeed, draught continues. This only means that our priority must be dealing with the multiple challenges climate change creates for us. But the government remains determined to spend billions and billions of dollars for its canal Istanbul project, a second man-made Bosporus.

After the Biden-Erdogan meeting, the “Official Twitter Account of the Presidency of the Republic of Turkey” announced that with a view to further strengthening the relations  between the two countries, the two leaders had agreed on forming a joint mechanism.

White House readout of the meeting said that President Biden underscored his desire to maintain constructive relations; reaffirmed the defense partnership and Turkey’s importance as a NATO ally; noted US concerns over Turkey’s possession of the Russian S-400 missile system; and emphasized the importance of strong democratic institutions, respect for human rights, and the rule of law for peace and prosperity.[ii]

The readout also said that the two leaders discussed the political process in Syria, the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Afghans in need, elections in Libya, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, and diplomatic efforts in the South Caucasus.

Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu News Agency reported that the meeting lasted over an hour, much longer than initially scheduled. But considering the need for translation, most of these issues must have mentioned only in passing.

In remarks to the media, Mr. Erdogan said that the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean was not brought up by Mr. Biden, and it was not on his agenda anyway.

So, if one were to look at the  Turkish side’s reading of the meeting, the formation of a “joint mechanism” was an important step forward. But the reality is that differences continue and there are no quick solutions. Would this go on forever? Perhaps not  forever, because eventually both sides would have to take decisions impacting the future of their relationship. Ankara, for example, would have to decide whether to carry out or postpone an operation against the YPG in northern Syria. Washington would have to decide on Turkey’s proposal regarding the purchase F-16 aircraft and modernization kits for its existing warplanes.

In brief, the Biden-Erdogan meeting has turned out to be another lost opportunity.

Last Friday, a polarized Turkey celebrated its National Day, the anniversary of the founding of the Republic. As expected, the President of Religious Affairs Ali Erbas, to the delight of the Taliban in Afghanistan and elsewhere, again refrained from mentioning Ataturk in his Friday sermon. It seems that for him  Ataturk’s making laïcité one of the founding principles of our Republic was such a great sin that it zeroed out his leading our War of Independence, founding of the Republic, launching unprecedented reforms, and earning respect for Turkey after decades of decadent Ottoman rule. But a hundred ambassadors in Ankara went to the Ataturk Mausoleum last Friday to lay a wreath because, unlike Ali Erbas, they have respect for our national hero. It is beyond comprehension how Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party leadership still does not see how negatively assaults on Ataturk’s legacy reverberate across the world.




About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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