Blinken calls Turkey’s FM Hakan Fidan, Sweden’s NATO bid tops agenda – Amberin Zaman / AL-MONITOR

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Turkey’s new Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan also touched upon bilateral relations and defense cooperation. By Amberin Zaman in Al-Monitor on June 8, 2023.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Turkey’s new Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan on Thursday to congratulate him on his appointment, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Blinken and Fidan discussed regional matters and the importance of the US-Turkey relationship, including « our longstanding defense cooperation. » The pair also highlighted the importance of NATO unity, and Blinken emphasized the need for Sweden to join the NATO alliance « as soon as possible. » « Secretary Blinken reiterated the importance of the [Turkey]-sponsored Black Sea Grain Initiative, » Miller added.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported that the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia was also brought up during the call.

The Biden administration is widely expected to continue to crank up pressure on Ankara to drop its objections to Sweden’s accession to NATO ahead of the alliance’s next summit on July 12 in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Last week, President Joe Biden called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him on his May 28 electoral victory, using the occasion to press Sweden’s case.

Ankara’s position appears unchanged. In a phone call yesterday with his Swedish counterpart, Tobias Billstrom, Ankara pressed for additional steps from Stockholm ahead of next week’s NATO talks between Turkish and Swedish officials about the Nordic state’s accession to the alliance.

Fidan trotted out the same talking points about the need for Stockholm to address Turkey’s “security concerns.” Turkey accuses Sweden of being a haven for “terrorists,” notably for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party and individuals associated with Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based cleric accused of engineering the failed coup to oust Erdogan in 2016. Ankara wants Stockholm to extradite a number of people it claims are linked to these groups and prevent anti-Turkish demonstrations in the streets of the Swedish capital — in other words, to bend its own constitution, critics say.  

Sweden’s Supreme Court has given the green light for the government to extradite an alleged PKK supporter who was sentenced in 2014 to four years and seven months in a Turkish prison for possession of marijuana, according to the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. The timing of the ruling has raised eyebrows.

“Right now all the administration’s focus is on getting Sweden into NATO before Vilnius, » said Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Center of American Progress and a leading analyst of Turkish affairs. “The United States is not going to throw brickbats at Erdogan between now and then.”

The broad consensus is that Erdogan’s election to a third five-year term means that the United States will likely take a more proactive approach in relations with its prickly NATO ally. “Clearly a lot of things have been on hold ahead of the election,” said Nicholas Danforth, a senior non-resident fellow at ELIAMAP, an Athens-based think tank. “There is a recognition that they have to work with Erdogan.” Moreover, “A competent foreign minister who is effective at communicating with Washington and with Erdogan will be of benefit to both sides,” Danforth added.

Eric Edelman, a former US ambassador to Turkey, believes that Erdogan “wants to cool things down at least for the period leading up to municipal elections [in March 2024].”

Edelman added, “But I suspect that will be a tactical adjustment since he has not given up his ambitions for Turkey to be a regional superpower and a global player.”

He continued, “Fidan, who is well known to Washington, will faithfully execute that tactical adjustment, but both he and [his successor as Turkish intelligence chief] Ibrahim Kalin are totally creatures of Erdogan and will loyally carry out whatever twists and turns he finds necessary to suit his domestic political imperatives.”

The tone in Washington has already shifted. In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, national security adviser Jake Sullivan called Turkey’s one-man rule system “a democracy.” Turkey is “charting an independent foreign policy, but one in which we can have a constructive relationship with them even in the defense space, where President Erdogan’s major request to President Biden is for the US to provide F-16 planes, which President Biden has said he would like to do,” Sullivan said.

The administration will need to convince Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, who is implacably opposed to the F-16 sales, in order for the deal to go through. The New Jersey senator may relent if Turkey approves Sweden’s membership, but Ankara wants watertight assurances on the F-16 before doing so. Its demands of Stockholm are seen as more of a foil.

Analysts say that even if a deal is worked out, an initial bout of enthusiasm about a reset in Turkey ties will soon be extinguished by a host of other problems bedeviling them. “There is not going to be any progress on any of the issues that have been choke-points for several years. As for opportunities to warm ties, it’s a pretty barren landscape,” Makovsky said. Foremost is Turkey’s fury at the Pentagon’s continued alliance with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in northeast Syria. Turkey insists the group is a PKK front and that the United States is effectively partnered with terrorists.

Claims attributed to a PKK operative that he had been flown from northeast Syria to Sulaimaniyah in northern Iraq in “an American helicopter” flown by “American pilots” were splashed all over the pro-government media this week.

Other major sticking points include the United States’ refusal to extradite Gulen and the continued incarceration of Metin Topuz, an employee of the US Consulate in Istanbul. In jail since 2017, Topuz was sentenced to eight years and nine months in prison in 2020 for his alleged connection with the coup plotters — a charge he denies.

Last but not least is Turkey’s deepening ties with Russia, which saw President Vladimir Putin defer natural gas payments and transfer billions of dollars to Turkey’s state coffers to bolster Erdogan’s election campaign. Turkey refuses to join Western sanctions against Russia or dispose of Russian-made S400 missiles that triggered congressional sanctions on military sales that the administration is now trying to skirt. Ultimately, the two countries will continue to “try to maintain the fiction of being allies when neither one really believes it and their interests increasingly diverge,” Danforth said.

By Amberin Zaman in Al-Monitor on June 8, 2023.

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