By Bobby Ghosh
The brevity of the State Department’s readout on Antony Blinken’s meeting with his Turkish counterpart in Ankara on Monday can’t hide the frostiness that attended their two-and-a-half hour session. The US Secretary of State has had to endure quite a bit of finger-wagging during his travels to the Middle East to mitigate the Israel-Hamas war, but the one he received from Hakan Fidan will have been especially vigorous.
Blinken was spared an even more bellicose reception from Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Turkey’s president refused to meet with America’s top diplomat.
The scolding from Fidan and the snub from Erdogan were well deserved. In its scramble for solutions to the crisis set off by Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel and the devastating Israeli retaliation, the Biden administration has been remiss in its neglect of Turkey. There can be no solution that doesn’t require substantial Turkish assistance, and the US should make up for lost time by making strenuous efforts to bring Erdogan to the table.
If that requires the American president to appeal directly to Erdogan, and endure an earful himself, it is a small price to pay for the chance to save tens of thousands of lives and scores of hostages — Americans among them.
The Biden administration’s reluctance to engage with the Turkish president isn’t hard to fathom. Erdogan is famously — and proudly — difficult, and doubly so with the US, which he believes has failed to pay him the respect due a major world leader. And double again with Biden, who openly called him an autocrat and suggested that the US should embolden his rivals to defeat him in elections. (Biden was himself in an election cycle at the time, but that didn’t earn him any understanding in Ankara.)
Erdogan enjoys nothing more than throwing a wrench in American plans, as he displayed most recently by delaying the accession of Finland and Sweden into NATO. That matter remains unresolved: Although Turkey removed its veto on Finland, its parliament has not yet greenlighted Sweden’s membership.
As difficult as Erdogan may be, however, he is a major player in Middle Eastern affairs, and indispensable for reaching a solution to the current crisis. He is the only leader in the region who has formal relations with both belligerents in the war: Turkey has recently mended frayed diplomatic relations with Israel and provides sanction and sanctuary for the political wing of Hamas. Contrast this with the positions of the two other important players that the US is leaning on: Qatar, home to the top Hamas leadership, has no formal relations with Israel; Egypt has diplomatic ties with Israel but is leery of Hamas.
Tellingly, Erdogan’s reaction to Hamas’s terrorist attack was uncharacteristically subdued. Turkey’s foreign ministry issued a statement condemning “the loss of civilian lives.” Ankara didn’t finger Hamas; notably, neither did Doha or Cairo.
That Biden didn’t reach out to Erdogan right after speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was diplomatic malpractice. (Likewise, Netanyahu ought to have called the Turkish president soon after speaking with Biden.) The White House should have known that, at the very least, Erdogan could be useful in securing the release of the hostages taken by Hamas, not least the American ones.
Instead, as the US sought assistance from Egypt, Qatar and other Arab states, it kept Turkey at arm’s length. Biden didn’t call Erdogan, and Ankara was conspicuously missing from Blinken’s initial travel itinerary. The Biden administration must have known that Erdogan would perceive this as a snub. And anyone who has followed the Turkish leader’s career would have known what to expect next.
On Oct. 10, Erdogan criticized Biden’s decision to send warships to the eastern Mediterranean to show support for Israel. Two weeks later, with Israel having unleashed a bombing campaign against Hamas in Gaza, the Turkish president gave a fiery speech denouncing Israel for “killing children,” and declaring Hamas “a patriotic liberation movement fighting to protect Palestinian lands and people.”
By the time Blinken made his belated trip to Ankara, Erdogan had declared that he would no longer talk to Netanyahu. (The two men had met for the first time in September on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York.) Israel had pulled its diplomats from Turkey and Ankara had recalled its ambassador to Israel.
Is it too late for Biden to bring the Turkish leader in from the cold? Not necessarily. Erdogan desperately wants to be involved in discussions about solutions to the crisis. He has offered Turkey as a guarantor of any peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, citing the formula that was applied to end the civil war in Cyprus in 1960. “If Greece can be a guarantor country, England can be a guarantor country and Turkey is a guarantor country in Cyprus, why can’t there be a similar structure in Gaza?”
Whether or not that particular idea is workable, Biden should recognize and acknowledge that Erdogan can play a pivotal role in negotiations to free the hostages and, in the longer term, to end the war. His open support for Hamas will have earned him even more gratitude from — and therefore leverage with — the group’s leaders, and he has not entirely turned his back on Israel, telling Turkish journalists that “cutting off connections … is not an option.” However and whenever the war ends, rebuilding a shattered Gaza strip will require major contributions from Turkey.
Giving Erdogan the respect he craves also carries potential payoffs for Biden elsewhere: The US needs Turkey to work its good offices with Russia to reopen the Black Sea conduit for Ukrainian grain exports, and Erdogan’s endorsement is crucial to any potential peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The sooner Biden puts in that call to Ankara, the better.
(Published 10 November 2023, 05:43 IST)