US President Joe Biden will meet with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Brussels on 14 June during the NATO summit, less than two months after Biden declared the WWI mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as an act of genocide, sparking anger in Ankara. Despite the slew of thorny dossiers awaiting the two NATO allies, this is neither going to be a make-or-break meeting, nor will it yield a solution to the fundamental S-400s dispute.
In the most likely scenario, the Biden-Erdogan encounter will mark the downgrading of the US-Turkey relationship based on the recognition by the US that Ankara cannot be considered any longer a strategic partner. As the gap between the two sides on any of the critical issues remains too wide to seek a compromise, the focus will likely be on policy areas where convergence is more likely. This may include Afghanistan (where Turkey has offered to guard and run Kabul’s airport after the withdrawal of the US and other NATO allies) and regional matters (Iran and Libya). Regardless of the likely absence of any major deliverable, Ankara will be keen to project, especially in the Turkish media, a sense that the meeting yielded positive results and that Turkey remains an indispensable ally for the US.
At present, an array of disagreements complicates the relationship between the two NATO allies. These disagreements range from Turkey’s occupation of parts of Northern Syria and the US’ partnership with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), to Turkey’s democratic backsliding and its aggressive posture in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Nevertheless, it is the row over the Russian-made S-400s that is at the core of the irritants in the bilateral relationship. Ankara took delivery of the first of the two batteries it bought for USD 2.5bn almost two years ago but, given Washington’s hard stance, has refrained from operationalizing and deploying them. The US, however, has made it clear this is not satisfactory and that the ball is in Ankara’s court.
Ahead of the Biden-Erdogan meeting, some media outlets have speculated about an impending solution to this dispute. However, our base-case remains that the prospects of a deal aimed at solving this dispute are very low, if not zero.
The Turkish side’s overall approach to the issue is still rather naïve, superficial and informed by a toxic mix of hubris and a poor understanding of the US’s position. The marked mistrust between the two sides further complicates the search for a compromise. Not to mention that Biden’s room for maneuver is also limited as the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 states that Turkey must give up possession of the S-400s as a condition for lifting sanctions. At present, there is not the slimmest indication that Ankara may be willing to consider such an option.
The bottom line is that as long as the S-400s remain on sovereign Turkish territory – regardless of the specific arrangement – a solution to this seemingly unsolvable dispute remains very unlikely.