Washington- The first round of the Turkish elections that took place the day before yesterday, Sunday, ended without any presidential candidate obtaining an absolute majority, which means that the two highest contenders will face each other again in the presidential run-off scheduled for May 28.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and opposition leader Kamal Kilicdaroglu will compete for the position of president, at a time when Washington is showing a neutral position and at the same distance from both candidates.
Difficult relations between the two countries
Washington and Ankara have difficult relations that are more complex than the traditional relations that combine a major country with interests around the world and a regional major country looking for influence in its geographical field.
The United States is the de facto leader of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), while Turkey has the second largest army participating in the alliance after the American one, and is considered an ally of the United States in general, but several files have contributed to the tension in the relations of the two countries during the past years.
The most prominent of these issues is Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, disputes over the Turkish military presence inside Syria, the human rights file and the “Armenian massacre”, the tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, and the Swedish accession file. To NATO, not to mention Turkey’s ballooning relationship with Russia.
The US hosting of Turkish dissident Fethullah Gulen is another factor that complicates relations between the two countries.
Albert Cochkun, an expert on Turkish affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes that Washington is concerned about deepening Ankara’s relations with Moscow, just as President Biden did not invite Erdogan to attend the two democracy summits chaired by the United States because of what Washington sees as a decline in the rule of law and freedoms in Turkey.
Turkey, in turn, remains angry at Washington’s policy of supporting Kurdish elements in Syria affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and Ankara is also concerned about deepening political relations and defense cooperation between its arch-rival Greece and the United States.
For his part, Charles Kupchan – a former senior official in the US National Security Council – says that the relationship between Washington and Ankara has improved greatly, and weeks ago the United States gave the green light to sell military software to Turkey to help it modernize its F-16 fighter jets. (F-16).
The volume of trade exchange between the two countries rose last year to nearly 34 billion dollars, of which 19 billion dollars were US exports compared to 15 billion Turkish exports.
During his 2020 campaign, President Joe Biden called Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan an “autocrat” and said the United States should support Erdogan’s opponents.
Relations between the two countries improved a lot after Biden came to power, and the two presidents met several times on the sidelines of NATO summits or G20 meetings.
The Russian war in Ukraine doubled Turkey’s importance to Washington, especially because of its position on supplying Ukraine with Turkish drones, and its pivotal role in the Ukrainian grain export agreement.
When asked the day before yesterday, Sunday, about the first round of the Turkish elections, Biden replied, “I only hope … whoever wins wins,” and thus his administration adopts a neutral position between the candidates.
And the official spokesman for the National Security Council, John Kirby, reaffirmed Biden’s position, saying, “We congratulate the Turkish people for expressing their wishes at the polls in a peaceful manner, and the Turkish people must decide what their government looks like.”
The results of the first round of the elections created an embarrassing situation for the Biden administration, as many of the pillars of his administration see Erdogan as an illiberal ruler who harmed democracy in his country, but at the same time they realize that Turkey is also a strategic ally in NATO and in Russia’s war on Ukraine, and in light of the ongoing tensions in Middle East Washington cannot simply turn its back on Turkey’s powerful ruler.
And the pillars of the Biden administration have remained silent about their preferences in recent months, although the majority of administration officials prefer losing Erdogan, who does not enjoy much sympathy among influential circles in Washington, mainly due to his Islamic and nationalist orientations, and that in the end he is a representative of the political Islam movement that does not favor Washington and most of the Western capitals and his arrival to power in the countries of the Middle East.
The Biden administration’s caution when speaking publicly about the Turkish elections stems from the cost of Washington showing that it is interfering in foreign elections other than calling for them to be free, fair and non-violent.
At the same time, the Biden administration does not want to provide material that President Erdogan’s campaign can use to get more votes.
The Turkish president has accused his opposition of working with Washington, and has criticized the US ambassador, Jeff Flake, for meeting with his rival, Kilicdaroglu.
Washington and Clejdar’s Promises
During an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the Turkish opposition candidate, Kilicdaroglu, indicated that Ankara would comply with Western decisions regarding sanctions against Russia, and he also pledged to agree to Sweden’s accession to NATO before its summit in July. Next.
Despite the promises of the opposition leader, Soner Cagaptay, an expert on Turkish affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes that US officials dealt with caution during the first round, and it is likely that they will continue to do so throughout the run-off.
“Washington’s policy was neutral in the hope that Kilicdaroglu would win, but it may not happen,” Cagaptay said in a paper published by the institute.
And Stephen Cook, an expert on Turkish affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations, believes that foreign policy during Erdogan’s era – if he wins – will not be different from what it is now, while seeking to reset relations with the United States.
But Cook said Kılıçdaroğlu’s foreign policy priorities are much more difficult, and he has remained silent about the nature of future relations with the United States.