The same Erdogan last month accused Biden of having “bloody hands” for selling arms to Israel, in comments that the State Department called antisemitic.
The last time Biden met with the Turkish leader, during a vice-presidential visit to Ankara in 2016, it was to deny Erdogan’s charges that the United States had helped plot a coup attempt against him. In Istanbul earlier that year, Biden publicly criticized Erdogan’s arrests of journalists, political opponents and academics.
During his presidential campaign, Biden called Erdogan an “autocrat” and said the United States should support his political opponents. After Biden’s inauguration, the White House purposefully held off a congratulatory call from the Turkish leader for three months.
“President Biden knows Erdogan very well,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said at a briefing for reporters last week. “The two men have spent a good amount of time together, and they are both, I think, looking forward . . . to really have a businesslike opportunity to review the full breadth of their relationship.”
For years, Turkey under Erdogan has been a frequent thorn in NATO’s side, shielded from shunning because of its key geographic position astride Europe and Asia and the size of its military — the second largest in NATO.
But within the clubby alliance, only Donald Trump seemed to find a soul mate in the Turkish president, who attended the 2012 opening of the Trump Towers luxury development that soars over Istanbul. Hosting him at the White House in 2019, Trump praised Erdogan as a “very good friend . . . doing a fantastic job.”
In the months leading up to the summit, relations between Ankara and Washington under Biden have often been acrimonious, reaching a nadir in April, when Biden recognized the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as genocide, in a break with previous presidents.
But Erdogan’s reaction was unexpectedly muted. With the Turkish economy faltering and the coronavirus pandemic raging, his government is in dire need of outside assistance and investment and can ill afford to further alienate the United States.
“Ankara clearly has high expectations,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, and Erdogan has repeatedly mentioned the upcoming Biden meeting in the same kind of optimistic terms he used Sunday.
“I don’t know if they think they are going to turn a new page,” she said of the Ankara government, “but they are after the optics of Erdogan and Biden shaking hands.”
Okan Muderrisoglu, a columnist for Turkey’s pro-government Sabah newspaper, wrote last week that “feverish work” was being carried out in preparation for the meeting. “Files are being prepared of ‘the past, the present, and the future’ of every issue that encumbers Turkish-American relations,” he wrote.
Biden’s meeting with Erdogan is the only one-on-one listed on his NATO summit schedule.
Their agenda includes last year’s U.S. cancellation of Turkey’s participation in the U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and congressionally mandated sanctions on the Turkish defense industry for Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system.
Turkey has refused NATO demands that it give up the system, which the United States charges would transmit secrets of the F-35’s stealth and other capabilities to the Russians and the alliance says is incompatible with the rest of NATO’s weaponry and thus of no use to a mutual defense pact. U.S. diplomatic and military officials last week firmly shot down any suggestion of compromise that involved Turkey keeping possession of the S-400.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said last week that the greatest challenge to relations between the two countries is not the Russian missiles, but rather U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, which Turkey considers terrorists in league with Turkish Kurds who have fought a smoldering separatist war with Ankara for years.
The two groups are one and the same, Akar said in an interview with Sabah. Washington’s “stubborn” insistence that they are not, he said, “is an insult to our minds.”
In the interview and other statements leading up to the summit, Akar also cited Turkish contributions to NATO and the United States, including the housing of millions of Syrian war refugees, ground fights against the Islamic State in Syria and an offer to provide ongoing security at Afghanistan’s international airport in Kabul following the United States and alliance withdrawal there.
Other issues of concern to Erdogan include the criminal prosecution in New York of Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank for alleged violations of sanctions on Iran.
The Turkish leader is likely to bring up the U.S. refusal to extradite a Turkish cleric and former ally Erdogan has charged was primarily responsible for the 2016 coup attempt. He is also hoping Biden will discourage the European Union from imposing sanctions on Turkey over its energy exploration policies in the eastern Mediterranean.