Biden’s new national security roster knows how to deal with Turkey

On Friday, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden officially announced a handful of upcoming appointments to key national security positions. The names continue the transition’s theme of selecting experienced former government officials who worked with Biden under former President Barak Obama.

The expected appointees signal the incoming administration’s intentions to counter Russian and Iranian actions, but several individuals on the emerging roster of officials are also well known by their counterparts in Ankara. Many possess extensive expertise on Turkey, but some hold policy views that are diametrically opposed to Turkey’s ruling coalition, particularly regarding the Syrian civil war.

Biden’s nominee for undersecretary of state for political affairs, the third-ranked official at the State Department, Victoria Nuland, is a retired career diplomat who managed U.S. relations with dozens of European and Eurasia countries as well as NATO and the European Union while Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs during the Obama administration.

For the National Security Council’s (NSC) senior director for European affairs, Biden will nominate Dr. Amanda Sloat, who was responsible for U.S. relations with Turkey, Cyprus, and Greece, as well as European engagement on Middle East issues as deputy assistant secretary of state for southeast Europe and eastern Mediterranean affairs under Obama.

Tensions between Turkey and its transatlantic allies will remain a challenge for the Biden administration across a variety of regional issues. Nuland and Sloat are not only well-versed on Turkey, but also have extensive experience in coordinating U.S. foreign policy with European partners.

While the U.S. and European positions broadly converge on Turkey-related issues, they diverge on where their priorities lie. In this context, Biden will need to rely on officials like Nuland and Sloat to develop shared concerns into meaningful action.

They, along with others on the national security team, likely share Biden’s general assessment of Turkey’s policies in recent years, and how best to approach Ankara going forward. In a New York Times interview on the campaign trail, Biden labelled Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan an “autocrat”, said the United States needs to support opposition parties to challenge Erdoğan electorally, and said he will support the United States’ Kurdish partners in Syria vis-à-vis Turkish aggression.

Under the leadership of another Biden nominee, retired General Lloyd Austin, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) formed an effective partnership with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in its campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) following the failure of earlier attempts to train and equip other Syrian factions. After leading the U.S. combatant command responsible for the Middle East, Austin - whose nomination for Secretary of Defence has drawn criticism from experts in civil-military relations - is well informed of Turkey’s role in the region.

Speaking with local Turkish outlet Medyascope recently, Dr. Ömer Taşpınar from the Brookings Institution, said Austin was seriously disturbed by Turkey’s handling of ISIS militants while simultaneously doing everything it could to marginalise Syrian Kurds working with CENTCOM. Taşpınar, who also teaches at the National War College and has briefed the general in the past, said Austin did not see the Syrian Kurds as a real threat to Turkey’s national security.

In October 2019, President Donald Trump gave Erdoğan the green light to invade territory in northeastern Syria held by the SDF. Turkey has longstanding concerns that the SDF’s core military arm, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is intimately associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency in southeastern Turkey, relying on safe havens in Syria and Iraq to sustain its efforts.

In an interview at the time of the Turkish operation, Nuland called the development a “strategic tragedy, and noted that, “when Trump made his decision, we were in the middle of a very intense negotiation with Turkey about how it could establish a buffer zone to protect its own territory without the U.S. having to leave and in a manner that would ensure that neither the Russians nor Assad nor ISIS regain that territory.”

Of all the Biden appointees, the choice of Brett McGurk to be the NSC’s senior director for the Middle East and North Africa will cause the most concern in Ankara, primarily due to his vocal criticism of Turkish actions in Syria. Like Nuland, he opposes Turkey’s push to shift control of the region to Russia and the Assad regime at the expense of Kurdish self-governance.

“McGurk’s policy vision has not only included vigilance against an ISIS resurgence but also against other Islamist militants, some of whom have found refuge in and support from the Turkish government,” Aykan Erdemir, the director of the Turkey Program at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Ahval.

“McGurk’s in-depth and nuanced understanding of the dynamics of Syria and Islamist militancy in all its forms makes him a suspect figure in Ankara, since the Erdoğan government has an acute awareness that their usual talking points will be ineffective against a U.S. official who can see right through them,” Erdemir concluded.

As a director at the NSC, McGurk will be a chief advisor to the White House on Syria policy, but he will not resume a direct diplomatic role like the one he held as the U.S. special envoy for the global coalition against the Islamic State during the Obama and Trump administrations. Instead, Turkey will fall under Sloat’s portfolio at the NSC, and she has expressed more empathetic awareness of the Erdoğan administration’s legitimate and partially legitimate concerns, including connections between the YPG and PKK.

That being said, Sloat is a strong proponent of principled engagement with Turkey that, congruent with Biden’s instinct to support opposition parties and democratic electoral processes in the country, takes a long view beyond the country’s current era of democratic backsliding.

As a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in 2018, Sloat wrote that, “what makes Turkey such a policy conundrum is that its problematic leadership faces real threats, a fact that often seems lost on the West”.

“At the same time, Turkey’s leadership is growing more authoritarian and moving the country away from democratic standards,” she continued. “In addition, Erdoğan’s anti-Western rhetoric and objectionable international moves have led some in the United States and Europe to question whether he takes seriously the trans-Atlantic alliance.”

Sloat views addressing Turkish security needs as a starting point for engagement. While recognising the motivators for Ankara’s Syria policy, she calls for renewed negotiations with the PKK and emphasises the destabilising effects of Erdoğan’s decisions both domestically and in Syria.

On the economic front, Sloat is also supportive of the need to revise the outdated EU-Turkey Customs Union that disadvantages Turkey. A successful effort to upgrade the customs union would not only be beneficial in terms of Turkish economic growth, but also require reforms that improve governance in Turkey. Should they prioritise such a goal, both Sloat and Nuland have the experience working with European partners to facilitate economic negotiations.

While cognisant of the need for the humility in American attempts to promote democracy abroad, Sloat says that principled U.S. engagement with Turkey will further entail “widening the aperture of government outreach to more officials on a broader range of shared interests; using the prospect of deeper trade and investment links to encourage better governance; expanding people-to-people ties and supporting civil society; and staying true to Western values by speaking out about rule of law and human rights abuses”.

The emerging Biden national security team will take a drastically different approach to Turkey than Trump, but any improvement in the bilateral relationship will also require the Erdoğan administration to adjust its orientation to the United States and to be open to compromises on difficult foreign policy issues.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.