Biden rides into Turkish storm
Washington - US Vice-President Joe Biden is riding into a political storm as he embarks on a crucial visit to Turkey with the goal of repairing growing discord between the two countries.
Biden’s visit — scheduled for August 24th — is the first by a top American government official since a failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 15th. Erdogan, who recently met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has complained that Turkey’s Western allies failed to show solidarity with the elected government in Ankara.
While the United States and the European Union condemned the uprising, they also called on Erdogan to show restraint in going after suspected coup supporters. Some Western critics accuse him of launching a witch hunt against opponents of all stripes.
The West’s stance has angered pro-government forces in Turkey, the only predominantly Muslim NATO member and a US strategic ally since the 1950s. “Since July 15th, Western media have not stopped criminalising Turkey’s leader or people,” Saadet Oruc, a columnist for the pro-Erdogan newspaper Daily Sabah, wrote recently. “It is as if Western media and decision makers are dissatisfied that the coup attempt failed.”
The United States has taken the brunt of Turkish criticism; one Turkish minister suggested that the United States actually orchestrated the coup attempt, a charge that drew angry denials from Washington. The harsh tone derives from the US rejection of Erdogan’s demand to immediately extradite Fethullah Gulen, a 77-year-old Islamic cleric and scholar whom Ankara accuses of being the coup’s mastermind. Gulen denies the accusation. Erdogan has said America must choose between Turkey and Gulen.
Turkish news reports said initially US Secretary of State John Kerry would visit Ankara but the Obama administration decided to send Biden instead as a sign it regards the tensions between the two allies as a very serious problem.
This will be Biden’s second visit to Turkey this year. His first, in January, was overshadowed by differences between Ankara and Washington. On that visit, after meeting journalists known to be critical of Erdogan, Biden said locking up critics and curtailing internet freedom was “not the kind of example that needs to be set”. In response, Ahmet Davutoglu, then Turkey’s prime minister, said that by meeting the dissident reporters Biden had not seen “the full picture”.
The forthcoming visit could have an even sharper tone. Apart from criticising Washington over Gulen, Turkey is angry over US support for Kurdish factions fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said Ankara expected Washington to keep its word and make Kurdish rebels withdraw east of the Euphrates river in northern Syria following the capture of the town of Manbij from ISIS. Turkey is concerned that Syrian Kurds could carve out their own state along the border with Turkey. “The US needs to keep its promise,” Cavusoglu said.
Some observers in Washington have begun to question Turkey’s reliability as a strategic ally in the region. The Stimson Center, a think-tank, released a report saying that American nuclear weapons deployed in Turkey were under risk of “seizure by terrorists or other hostile forces”.
Ibrahim Karagul, editor of the pro-government daily Yeni Safak, called on Ankara to seize US nuclear weapons stored at the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey. “Nuclear weapons in Incirlik must be handed over to Turkey,“ Karagul posted on Twitter, or “Turkey must take control of the weapons by itself“.
Incirlik, which is about 200km from the Syrian border, has been used as a base for US and allied warplanes attacking ISIS positions in Syria. Turkish authorities claim the base was used by leaders of July’s coup attempt. The base’s power supply was cut temporarily as police hunted for suspects.
The Congressional Research Service, the research arm of the US Congress, also expressed concern about the safety of nuclear weapons at Incirlik. “Most experts agree that the weapons at Incirlik are not, at this time, vulnerable to theft or loss of control,” the report said, “but many have questioned the wisdom of the continued deployment of US nuclear weapons in Europe, in general, and in Turkey, in particular.”
Concerns about Turkey have surfaced in other Western countries as well. According to a leaked government document, Germany is worried about Erdogan’s sympathies for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and fears that Turkey had become a “platform for action for Islamist groups” in the region, according to German state broadcaster ARD.
In Washington, experts said the United States should end its reliance on Turkey. Steven Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations, told a panel at the Hoover Institution in Washington: “We cannot build a relationship on mythology”, in reference to the Cold War cooperation between the two countries.
“Looking at the costs and benefits of this relationship,” Cook said, “it may be time for the United States to think about alternatives.”