Biden criticises Turkey over East Med, Caucasus policies

The Democratic candidate issued a statement Tuesday urging Trump to pressure Turkey “ to refrain from any further provocative actions in the region against Greece.”
Wednesday 07/10/2020
Former US Vice President Joe Biden, Democratic presidential candidate, speaks at Gettysburg October 6, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (AFP)
Former US Vice President Joe Biden, Democratic presidential candidate, speaks at Gettysburg October 6, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (AFP)

WASHINGTON — US presidential candidate Joe Biden has called on decision-makers in Washington to press Turkey to stop antagonising fellow NATO member Greece and stay out of a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, heralding a more aggressive posture than his opponent, President Donald Trump.

Biden, a former US vice-president who has long been critical of Turkish foreign policy, issued a statement Tuesday urging Trump to pressure Turkey “to refrain from any further provocative actions in the region against Greece,” with whom Ankara is at odds over competing maritime claims in the Eastern Mediterranean. That came after an earlier statement singling out Ankara’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where it has been accused of dispatching Islamic extremists to support Azerbeijani forces.

Biden’s position on Turkey’s dispute with Greece comes after months of tensions between the two countries and Cyprus over maritime boundaries and drilling rights in the strategic East Med waters.

The dispute took a turn for the worse when Ankara signed a controversial maritime demarcation agreement with Libya’s western Government of National Accord (GNA) last November whose terms were disputed by neighbouring powers. Tensions spiked this summer when Ankara sent a survey vessel to probe oil and gas drilling prospects in territory claimed by both Greece and Cyprus, prompting Athens to reinforce its military capabilities and the European Union to warn of sanctions.

Turkey eventually brought the survey vessel, the Orus Rei, back to its territorial waters, but Turkish officials have warned the move does not mean they are “giving up on our rights there” or will cave to EU pressure.

“If the EU applies sanctions, this will not deter us. On the contrary this would increase our resolve,” one Turkish official told Reuters.

Biden, who supports strengthening ties with the US’s conventional allies, has backed the EU’s call for a peaceful resolution to the dispute.

“Disputes in the region must be resolved peacefully and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected and protected,” said Biden, while condemning Turkey’s “threats of violence.”

In the same statement, Biden called on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reverse his decision to convert the historic Hagia Sophia into a mosque, saying it should be restored to its former status “ as a museum, ensuring equal access for all, including Orthodox believers.”

Biden’s renewed criticism of Turkish policy is adding to Ankara’s concerns that a change of hands in the White House could disrupt their foreign policy aims, which Trump has offered little resistance to.

Last November, Biden infuriated Ankara when he called Erdogan an “autocrat” and said the US should support Turkish “opposition leadership” in their bid to defeat him.

“I’m still of the view that if we were to engage more directly like I was doing with them, that we can support those elements of the Turkish leadership that still exist and get more from them and embolden them to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan,” Biden told the New York Times editorial board at the time. “Not by a coup, not by a coup, but by the electoral process.”

During his tenure as vice-president, Biden also angered the Turkish government by highlighting its clampdown on free expression and voicing support for Kurdish nationalist movements that Erdogan has branded as “terrorist” groups and worked tirelessly to squash. In 2014, Biden even sparked a diplomatic row between the US and Turkey when he publicly suggested that Ankara had helped facilitate the rise of ISIS in Syria (comments he later apologised for.)

Turkish-controlled media has lashed out at Biden’s critical remarks as the US election draws near, warning they “obviously do not portend sunny skies for Turkish-American relations in the event he is elected President.”

“Such overtly hostile comments towards Turkey’s democratically elected leadership creates questions about Biden’s knowledge and his capacity to make intelligent judgements on key issues,” Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency wrote in August.

US voters will head to the polls November 3 to decide between Trump and Biden in an election largely dominated by domestic issues, such as the economy, the White House’s COVID-19 response and a crucial Supreme Court nomination. Biden currently holds a double-digit lead over the incumbent president, who is struggling to gain electoral ground while recovering from a coronavirus infection.