Ankara tells Pompeo it is already on a Biden mode

No government meetings were scheduled as officials said Pompeo wanted to visit Istanbul to see the patriarch and was only ready to meet Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on the condition they come to him from the capital Ankara.

Wednesday 18/11/2020
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and his wife Susan tour The Patriarchal Church of St. George in Istanbul on November 17, 2020. (AFP)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and his wife Susan tour The Patriarchal Church of St. George in Istanbul on November 17, 2020. (AFP)

ISTANBUL – US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a fraught visit to Istanbul on Tuesday that included no official meetings and an agenda focused on religious freedoms that Ankara dismissed as “irrelevant.”

Relations between Washington and its strategic NATO ally have remained strained despite a personal friendship between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Around 25 members of a left-wing nationalist group, the Turkish Youth Union, staged a brief demonstration near the Patriarchate under heavy police presence, protesting Pompeo for meeting with with the Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople — the spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox world — instead of state officials.

The demonstrators chanted “Down with US imperialism” and “Yankee go home.”

During his meeting with the spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox world, Pompeo expressed his “strong position” on religious freedoms.

“An incredible privilege to be here,” Pompeo told the patriarch.

Earlier in July, Pompeo had publicly chided Erdogan’s controversial conversion of Istanbul’s emblematic Hagia Sophia monument into a mosque.

Wearing an American-flag face mask, Pompeo later toured the nearby Rustem Pasha Mosque, which was built by the Ottoman architect Sinan and is known for its elaborate blue-and-white tilework. His wife, Susan, wore a mask and also a headscarf during the tour in line with Muslim traditions.

The Turkish foreign ministry said ahead of Pompeo’s arrival that the US should “first look in the mirror” before making an issue of the “completely irrelevant” subject of the freedom of faith in Turkey.

Problems from the start

Pompeo’s seven-nation tour has been complicated by his unabashed support of Trump’s unsubstantiated claim of election fraud — and attempts by US allies to position themselves for Joe Biden’s incoming presidency.

The US diplomat’s two-night stay in Paris included a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron but no news conference that usually follows such talks.

Yet the Turkish leg looked destined for problems from the start.

Officials said Pompeo wanted to visit Istanbul to see the patriarch and was only ready to meet Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on the condition they come to him from the capital Ankara.

A meeting had seemed possible after intense negotiations before the talks fell apart.

“This was a scheduling issue,” a senior US official said.

“President Erdogan’s schedule shifted and made it impossible to fit the parameters that from the very beginning we had set out.”

Analysts believed Ankara wanted to covey to Pompeo it was already on a Biden mode and was not interested in discussing contentious religious issues with him.

It is difficult to gauge whether the election of Biden — whom Erdogan congratulated three days after his victory was called by US media — played a role in the imbroglio.

But it meant that Pompeo failed to discuss with Turkish officials the very problems he pointed to Monday after a meeting in Paris with Macron.

Mistrust of Turkey’s foreign policy

“President Macron and I spent a lot of time discussing Turkey’s recent actions and we agreed they are very aggressive,” Pompeo told the French daily Le Figaro.

Macron has sparred with Erdogan on a range of regional issues and shares Pompeo’s mistrust of Turkey’s robust foreign policy stance.

Pompeo said he and Macron touched on their mutual suspicion that Turkey “deployed Syrian forces” to help Azerbaijan in its six-week war with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

“We also mentioned its action in Libya where it also sent forces from third party countries, and its action in the eastern Mediterranean. I could continue this list,” Pompeo said.

The issues add to the dispute over Turkey’s defiant acquisition of Russia’s advanced S-400 anti-missile systems last year.

The US Congress has approved sanctions on Ankara for the purchase but Trump has given Turkey a reprieve.

“Sanctions is very much something that is on the table,” the US State Department warned last month.

The visit coincides with the publication of a New York Times report saying Trump last week asked his aides — including Pompeo — about the possibility of striking Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The officials “dissuaded the president from moving ahead with a military strike,” the report said.

Pompeo also met the Holy See’s diplomatic representative Paul Russell but did not talk to reporters before heading to Istanbul’s airport for his flight to the Georgian capital Tbilisi.