How would Blinken impact U.S.-Turkey relations as secretary of state?
U.S. President elect Joe Biden is expected to nominate Antony Blinken as secretary of state. If nominated and confirmed, he would be a leading actor in the incoming administration’s bid to reframe U.S. relations with the rest of the world, including Turkey.
Turkey has been drifting away from its historical Western orbit in a bid to strengthen its position in the region, taking advantage of a political vacuum created by U.S. President Donald Trump's "America First" foreign policy. Since Trump’s election in 2016, Turkey and the United States have also clashed politically over the former’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems, differences in policy over Syria, the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.
The United States has been supporting the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the region. Turkey sees the YPG as an existential threat due to its links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group that has been at war in Turkey for over 30 years.
Blinken served as deputy secretary of state and deputy national security adviser during the Obama administration, when the United States first decided to support the YPG.
In a January 2017 editorial, Blinken argued that the United States should support Syrian Kurdish forces in their campaign to liberate the self-declared Islamic State (ISIS) capital Raqqa, while simultaneously helping Turkey establish a presence in al-Bab, a northern Syrian town near the Turkish border.
During an interview in July, he described U.S.-Turkish relations as a "very challenging place".
"We obviously want to find a way to have a more productive and positive relationship with Turkey, but that requires the Turkish government itself to want the same thing," he said in an interview with the Hudson Institute, a leading U.S. think tank.
"We obviously have some real issues and differences but we also have areas where it would make good sense for us to find ways to work more effectively together, Syria, for example, being one of them."
Trump's warm personal relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have concealed a deterioration in diplomatic and political relations between two countries.
Trump ignored repeated bipartisan pressure from Congress to implement targeted sanctions against Turkey mandated by U.S. law, for its acquisition of the S-400s, which Washington says presents a security threat to its latest weaponry, including F-35 stealth fighter jets. Turkey was removed from the joint F-35 fighter jet programme last year.
Acting against recommendations by his own Defense and State Departments, Trump greenlit Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria in October last year after a phone call with Erdoğan. He also reportedly personally interfered to obstruct an ongoing Iran sanctions-busting case against Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank in U.S. courts.
Blinken, however, is perhaps the most traditionally pro-Turkish of Biden’s likely cabinet picks.
In a 2015 interview with Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, he said judging between Turkey and the YPG was "not even a matter of discussion" since Turkey is "an important U.S. ally", despite his strong support for Syrian Kurdish forces, which have constituted the main local military force in the battle against ISIS.
Most of the nominees for cabinet-level posts have been critical of Erdoğan, supportive of Syria’s Kurds and opposed to Turkey's Syria policy.
Michele Flournoy, one of the top contenders to be Biden’s Secretary of Defense, served as the U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy between 2009 and 2012. She raised concerns about democracy in Turkey in discussions of the challenges posed by Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile system, and suggested that it be tied to security cooperation, in a 2019 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on NATO.
Former U.S. army officer and Senator Jack Reed, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has also been named as a potential nominee to lead the Defense Department. He is an outspoken Erdoğan critic who strongly criticised the Turkish invasion of Kurdish-dominated regions of northern Syria.
Reed has sponsored legislation calling for stronger U.S. action on human rights in Turkey throughout his legislative career, dating back to a 1996 bill that called on the United States to end all aid to Turkey until it “recognises the civil, cultural, and human rights of its Kurdish citizens, ceases its military operations against Kurdish civilians, and takes demonstrable steps toward a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue”.
Former military veteran and Senator Tammy Duckworth is another possible choice to lead the Defense Department. She sponsored legislation condemning Erdoğan’s crackdown on political dissent to Turkey’s incursion into northeast Syria, and broader human rights violations. She also supported sanctions on senior Turkish officials.