Sep 30, 2021 - World

Turkey's Erdoğan criticizes Biden, asks for money back on F-35

Erdogan (left) and Putin in Moscow. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Fresh off his first visit with Vladimir Putin in over a year, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused a top Biden official of "supporting terrorism" and demanded the U.S. pay $1.4 billion for kicking Turkey out of a stealth fighter jet program.

Why it matters: Erdoğan's belligerence and deepening cooperation with Russia is sending a key U.S. relationship in the wrong direction, serving up yet another foreign policy headache for President Biden.

Driving the news: Speaking to reporters on his way back from Sochi, Erdoğan condemned Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa and former anti-ISIS envoy, for allying the U.S. with Kurdish militias in Syria that Turkey considers a top threat to national security.

  • Turkey's Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has said that U.S. support for the YPG, the Syrian wing of the Kurdish separatist movement and terrorist group PKK, is the biggest challenge facing the bilateral relationship.

For the U.S., a far more pressing issue is Erdoğan's purchase of Russia's S-400 missile defense system, a move that triggered sanctions and Turkey's removal from a program that develops F-35 fighter jets.

  • "We made a $1.4 billion payment, what will become of that?" Erdoğan told reporters. "We did not — and do not — earn this money easily. Either they will give us our planes or they will give us the money."

How we got here: Biden's relationship with Erdoğan began with a "cold shoulder" period, says Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish member of parliament now at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

  • The incoming administration was critical of Turkey's human rights abuses, and it took until April for Biden to speak to Erdoğan — a courtesy phone call that the president delivered one day before he formally recognized the Armenian genocide, enraging Turkey.
  • The relationship between Erdoğan and the past two U.S. presidents has gone "from one extreme to the other" says Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat and visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. The Biden administration has been "aloof" in its engagement with Turkey, while Erdoğan enjoyed a close personal relationship with President Trump.
  • Biden's strategy can be explained both by his desire to pivot to the Indo-Pacific and to avoid cozying up to a man he called an "autocrat" during the 2020 presidential campaign.

Relations improved after Biden met with Erdoğan at the NATO summit in June, with the administration muting its criticism as it sought Turkey's cooperation on securing Kabul's airport.

  • But Biden's refusal to meet with Erdoğan at the UN General Assembly last week — denying the image-conscious strongman a photo op — prompted a new outburst.
  • "In my 19-year-long life as a ruler as prime minister and president, the point we arrived in our relations with the U.S. is not good,” Erdoğan told reporters Wednesday. "I have worked well with Bush Jr., with Mr. Obama, with Mr. Trump, but I can’t say we have a good start with Mr. Biden."

The big picture: A meeting next month at the G20 summit in Rome could help patch things up.

  • But the long-term trend remains entrenched and troubling for the U.S. — Turkey is drifting from NATO and deepening its military and industrial cooperation with Russia, giving the Kremlin more opportunities to use Turkey as a "spoiler" within the Western alliance, Erdemir says.
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