United States President Joe Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in Brussels today at the NATO summit at a time when heightened tensions reign between the two uneasy NATO allies.
The global press waited more than two hours after President Biden was supposed to address them after emerging from the meeting with Erdogan.
The past two years have seen repeated incursions of Turkish vessels in the Mediterranean atop the continental shelves of both Greece and Cyprus as they search for oil and gas deposits.
The Turkish actions even occasioned the collision of naval vessels from Greece and Turkey as they maneuvered around each other in the Summer of 2020.
The election of Biden to the U.S. Presidency in January raised hopes amongst many in Greece and the diaspora that he would stand up to any future transgressions on the part of Turkey.
The US press pool was finally let in to the room where Biden and Erdoğan were meeting after waiting for nearly two hours for access.
Biden was seated at a table with secretary of state Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
Josh Wingrove from Bloomberg reported that Biden told the assembled reporters of his conversation with Erdoğan “We had a very good meeting.”
However, when a reporter thought he had missed some of what Biden had said, he asked the president to repeat himself. “I didn’t say anything,” the US president replied.
Recognition of Armenian Genocide brought Biden, Erdogan tensions to the fore
In April, Biden became the first American president to officially recognize the Armenian genocide in a speech given in commemoration of the atrocity, causing Turkey to react with anger.
President Erdogan accused “third parties” of interfering in Turkey’s affairs.
“Nobody benefits from the debates – which should be held by historians – being politicized by third parties and becoming an instrument of interference in our country,” Erdoğan said in a message to the Armenian patriarch in Istanbul.
Turkey “entirely rejects” Biden’s recognition of the 1915 events as a genocide, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said, minutes after Biden’s declaration.
“We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past. Political opportunism is the greatest betrayal to peace and justice,” Çavuşoğlu said on Twitter.
“We entirely reject this statement based solely on populism.”
Monday’s meeting was the first time the American and Turkish leaders had met after that incident.
On arrival in Brussels on Monday after the G7 meeting in Cornwall, England, President Biden said the United States maintains a “sacred obligation” to its allies. The European trip is Biden’s first as he navigates NATO’s waters after former President Donald Trump’s rocky relationship with the alliance. Trump had complained that the US pays far more than other nations to the alliance and speculated that there might be no further need for such an organization.
In the next few days, Biden will also participate in meetings with European leaders before finishing his trip with a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters after the summit with all the NATO leaders that the issue of the Southern Mediterranean did come up in discussions, adding that NATO “has to be able to respond to threats and challenges from all directions.
“We are in Greece in our training mission there. We strongly believe that prevention is better than intervention so the best way to stabliize our neighborhood is to train and build up the local capacity.”
He added that the mood at the summit was like the “first day back at school” and referred to what he called a “strong message” delivered by Biden today.
“It was really great to be together and to meet together in person, as a truly transatlantic family or as Prime Minister Johnson said, it was like the first day back at school seeing all your old friends again and that was really the atmosphere in the room,” he stated.
“We heard a strong message from President Biden on America’s commitment to NATO,” Stoltenberg added, saying that all the other allies had also made “an equally strong commitment” in return.
“All leaders agreed that in an age of global competition Europe and North America must stand strong together in NATO, to defend our values and our interests, especially at a time when authoritarian regimes, like Russia and China challenge the rules based international order,” the NATO head said.
After press held outside the Biden-Erdogan meeting for over 90 minutes, we went in.
Biden said it was a "very good meeting" and declined to speak beyond that.
We thought he may have, and @JonLemire said we couldn't hear. "I didn't say anything," Biden said.
Then we left. pic.twitter.com/XggEFQOcwN
— Josh Wingrove (@josh_wingrove) June 14, 2021
UK PM Johnson agrees with Erdogan to deepen defense, trade ties with Turkey
Earlier, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson met with Erdogan on the sidelines of the meeting, agreeing to “work to deepen the relationship between the UK and Turkey in a range of areas including trade and defence,” according to a statement released by the Prime Minister’s office.
“The Prime Minister welcomed the de-escalation of tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and stressed the importance of reaching a settlement in Cyprus through the UN-led process,” the statement added.
“The Prime Minister and President also discussed a range of other foreign policy issues including Syria, Libya and Afghanistan.”
Few were holding to any hope for a major breakthrough in Monday’s talks.
Turkey has the Western alliance’s second-largest military after the United States, but Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, disagreements over Syria, human rights have also strained the traditional ties between the countries.
The most challenging problem has been Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 systems, a rift that also divides NATO since the systems are designed not to be compatible with NATO hardware and reconnaissance systems.
The US has already removed Ankara from its F-35 fighter jet program and imposed financial sanctions over the 2019 acquisition of the missile system.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan had hinted that the two leaders would also touch on developments in Afghanistan, Libya and China.
“They will talk about political and economic issues that are more challenging … that have been challenges in our relationship, including human rights-related issues,” Sullivan told members of the press yesterday.
One area where Erdogan hopes to showcase a central Turkish role in NATO is Afghanistan, where Turkey has offered to guard and operate Kabul airport to secure access to the country after the U.S.-prompted NATO withdrawal.
At the start of the main leaders’ session at NATO, Biden spoke to Erdogan at length in a small group before they took their seats. He is expected to hold a news conference at 1800 GMT.
Reuters reported that leaving Turkey on Sunday, Erdogan had said he expected an “unconditional approach” from Biden to moving on from past troubles.
“Turkey is not just any country, it is an allied country. We are two NATO allies,” he told reporters at the time.
“There are many issues regarding defence industry that were left on the table. The most important one of these is the F-35 issue,” Erdogan said.
Turkish officials had earlier said they were hoping that a meeting between President Erdogan and his U.S. counterpart at the NATO summit would yield positive results. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last Wednesday that the meeting would be “critical.”
The two leaders met to discuss Syria, Afghanistan and other regional issues as well.
Speaking at an interview with state broadcaster TRT Haber, Cavusoglu said that in his opinion, the allies needed to take mutual steps to repair their ties, adding Washington was willing to working together with Ankara on regional conflicts, including Syria and Libya.
“Our expectations need to be met too. As long as problems remain, it is not easy for us to sincerely build cooperation. We need to take mutual steps in every area,” Cavusoglu said. “Our president’s meeting will be a critical meeting in every way. We hope the meeting will yield positive results,” he added.
Despite the many differences that remain between the two countries, officials say that Turkey has offered to guard and run Kabul’s airport after NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan, seen as a move that could serve as a potential area of cooperation between Ankara and Washington.
— Turkish Presidency (@trpresidency) June 14, 2021
Biden held a press conference after the summit at the NATO headquarters in Brussels where he acknowledged that he had a constructive meeting with Erdogan, calling it “positive and productive” and adding that the two countries are making “real progress” together. He was also quick to point out his commitment to the Nato alliance: “the U.S. commitment to article five of the Nato treaty is rock-solid and unshakeable.”