President Joe Biden met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania on Tuesday and praised the authoritarian Turkish leader for having the “courage” to stop blocking Sweden from joining the alliance.
Erdogan’s poor record on human rights and dodgy re-election campaign did not appear in Biden’s fawning remarks.
“Mr. President, it’s good to see you again. It’s a delight to be with you, and, you know, we’re in this historic meeting, resolving a lot of things, I hope. And we made it all the more historic by the agreement you reached yesterday in the admission of Sweden and how you’re going to proceed,” Biden told Erdogan during their hour-long meeting in Vilnius.
“Thank you for your diplomacy and courage, and how you took that on. And I want to thank you for your leadership. Mr. President, this summit is reaffirming our commitment to NATO, and the NATO defense and allies in NATO and I hope we can make it even stronger,” Biden gushed.
Biden told Erdogan he looks forward to meeting with him again over “the next five years,” which would presume Biden wins re-election. Erdogan recently won his own re-election bid with questionable tactics and began his third decade of increasingly authoritarian rule.
Contrary to Biden’s praise, there was not a whiff of “courage” about anything the iron-fisted ruler of Turkey did with respect to Sweden. Erdogan certainly is not worried about angering the Turkish public by being too nice to the Swedes. He is secure in power for years to come.
In the evening, President Biden participated in a bilateral meeting with President Erdoğan of Türkiye. pic.twitter.com/CkqzhIbe9S
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) July 11, 2023
Erdogan stubbornly opposed allowing Sweden into NATO since late last year, largely because Sweden refused to crack down on demonstrations against the Turkish government by outlawed and exiled Kurdish groups, prominently including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
In May, the PKK and its supporters in Sweden enraged the Turkish government by projecting a PKK flag onto the Swedish Parliament building while the Turkish election was in progress.
“It is completely unacceptable that PKK terrorists continue to act freely in Sweden, which is a candidate for NATO. We expect the Swedish authorities to investigate this incident and hold its perpetrators accountable,” an Erdogan spokesman thundered at the time.
In June, Sweden agreed to extradite a self-proclaimed PKK supporter and Turkish national living in Sweden to face decade-old drug charges, a move widely seen as an effort to mollify Erdogan. The Turkish president remained largely unmollified until this week.
Speculation is rife about Erdogan’s price for dropping his veto on Sweden, which was increasingly irritating to other members of NATO and threatened to make a mockery of the Vilnius summit.
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The most obvious payoff would be moving forward on Turkey’s long-stalled membership application to the European Union, a price Erdogan explicitly demanded for approving Sweden’s NATO membership on Monday. EU spokespeople have been taking pains all week to insist they will not lower their standards for Turkey in a crude bargain to get Sweden into NATO.
The Biden administration hinted on Tuesday that Erdogan might be rewarded by finally granting his persistent requests to purchase American F-16 fighter jets. White House officials insisted Biden has always favored making the sale, but the administration did not begin lobbying Congress in earnest to approve an F-16 deal until Erdogan caved on Sweden.
Turkey may still have trouble collecting its F-16s, because some members of Congress are reluctant to approve the sale, chief among them Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ).
“We’re having conversations with the administration. I still have concerns. I’ve told them about those concerns. If they can find a way to ensure that Turkey’s aggression against its neighbors ceases — which has been great, but that has to be a permanent reality,” Menendez said on Tuesday, referring to Turkish aggression toward Greece and Cyprus.
“If there is to be any sales to Turkey, that they will not use them to act in the belligerent way they have against other NATO allies, not just Greece,” Menendez added, conjuring such unpleasant images as Turkey using its new F-16s to bomb Kurds in Syria or Iraq.
Menendez suggested his concerns might be alleviated by U.S. arms sales to Greece that would give it a “qualitative military edge” over Turkey, perhaps including state of the art F-35 fighters that would trump the aging F-16s. That suggestion probably would not find a warm reception in Ankara, since Turkey was kicked out of the F-35 program in 2019 for insisting on buying advanced Russian surface-to-air missiles.
Al Jazeera News seemed convinced that Erdogan changed his mind about Sweden to get those F-16s, after a bit of last-minute arm-twisting from NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
“Ankara’s expectations over F-16s from Washington have been apparent in this process from day one. However, Turkey also sought a general normalization and improvement in its relations with the EU countries and the US in general through Sweden’s process, using it as a peg,” Middle East Council on Global Affairs Senior Fellow Galip Dalay told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.
Sweden released a statement on Monday promising to take Turkey’s security concerns seriously and refrain from supporting either the PKK or Erdogan’s other nemesis, the “Fethullah Terror Organization” or FETO – the followers of former Erdogan ally Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric who currently lives in Pennsylvania.
Erdogan blames FETO for the failed 2016 coup attempt against him and has been trying to extradite Gulen from the United States ever since. Human rights organizations have denounced Erdogan’s brutal crackdown on suspected Gulenists following the coup attempt, during which over 10,000 people were detained, physically abused, and driven from their jobs. Press freedom in Turkey, already in steep decline under Erdogan’s rule, was all but eliminated after the coup.
The Biden administration seems uninterested in dwelling on any of these unpleasant details, and the Swedes will apparently be biting their tongues.
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