AnalysisHomeMeghan Bodette

What would a Biden administration mean for Turkey, Syria, and Kurds?

A video clip of U.S. Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden expressing support for opposition in Turkey and criticizing U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of troops from the Turkish-Syrian border in October 2019 has recently surfaced on social media.

Turkish officials have condemned the remarks, claiming that they prove that the United States was involved in the failed July 2016 coup attempt. American analysts and observers have argued that the comments show how Biden would be a uniquely pro-Kurdish president.

In reality, a potential Biden administration’s policies on Turkey are likely to depend more on Congress and political appointees across government agencies than on Biden’s personal record and views.

Over the course of his decades-long political career, Joe Biden has taken nearly every position possible on the conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish people.

In the 1990s, as a member of the influential U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he sponsored resolutions calling on Turkey to withdraw from Iraqi Kurdistan and calling for a negotiated settlement to the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK, a militant and political organization in conflict with the Turkish government since the 1980s).

As Vice President, he stated that Turkey had supported ISIS. However, he later apologized to Turkey and pivoted to their position, claiming in remarks made to Turkish officials that the PKK was equivalent to ISIS. He also called on the YPG to withdraw from Manbij after its liberation from the terror group in 2016.

The Obama-Biden administration had a mixed record on Kurdish issues in Syria. While they did decide to provide air support to the YPG at Kobani in 2014, their administration was also responsible for arming many of the jihadist rebel groups that have gone on to terrorize Kurds in Afrin, Sere Kaniye, and Tel Abyad.

In Turkey, the administration’s record was decidedly worse. The United States did little to support the peace talks in Turkey that took place from 2013 to 2015, and did not respond to Erdogan’s brutal crackdown when negotiations fell apart.

Biden’s pick for Vice President, California senator Kamala Harris, has said little on foreign policy in general. Elected to the Senate in 2016, she has not yet served a full term in office. During that time, she did not sponsor or cosponsor any bills related to Kurdish issues in Turkey or Syria. However, she criticized Trump’s withdrawal from Syria in televised debates, and has supported recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

If Biden is elected, his own ideas will likely matter less than the policy preferences of the individuals he appoints to key foreign policy and national security positions. The Trump administration has shown how the views of such appointees— such as sentiments by Ambassador James Jeffrey that could be viewed as pro-Turkish — can have an impact on policy.

Many observers have suggested that Biden will be relatively likely to delegate foreign policy details to subordinates, creating a similar dynamic to the one seen now. If he wins, careful attention should be paid to his choices of appointees and their previous records on Turkey, Syria, and Kurdish issues.

The position of the legislative branch will also be relevant. There is now bipartisan distrust of Turkey in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, with members exercising their authority to block arms deals and proposing legislation criticizing Turkey’s actions in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean. Trump has tried to stifle these efforts in a way that a Biden administration likely would not. Congress is also much more responsive to public pressure than the White House is— and, as the outcry over Turkish atrocities in October of last year illustrated, Americans have little sympathy for Turkish aggression.

It would be difficult for any administration to be more supportive of the most militarist and nationalist elements of the Turkish state than Trump and many of his advisors have been. In this regard, a Democratic victory in the November elections could be positive for Kurds in Turkey and Syria alike. Yet Democratic administrations, and Biden himself, have also historically given Turkey a blank check for war crimes in Kurdistan. International observers should be cautiously optimistic, and pay attention to decision-makers and influential voices outside of the White House.

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