Mountain of bilateral problems blocks path to quick normalisation of US-Turkish ties
Washington - When Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim arrives for meetings with US officials in Washington, he is likely to find a mountain of bilateral problems blocking the path to a quick normalisation of the strained ties between the two NATO partners.
“What held the two together were common interests,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Centre for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “Now there are diverging interests.”
Turkey and the United States still describe themselves as strategic allies in official statements but the reality is different, Tol said. “Nobody is talking about that anymore. People in DC see Turkey as a problem to be dealt with,” she said.
Yildirim was scheduled to visit the United States in early November for talks in Washington and New York. The Turkish prime minister was to meet with US Vice-President Mike Pence and other officials.
Bilateral relations have been in crisis mode for months, even though US President Donald Trump, in a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in September in New York, declared that Turkey and United States were “as close as we’ve ever been.”
The latest eruption came after Turkish prosecutors had a Turkish employee of the US Consulate in Istanbul arrested on charges of colluding with the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Islamic cleric accused by Erdogan of being the mastermind of last year’s coup attempt in Turkey.
As a response, the United States stopped visa services for Turkish citizens in the country. Ankara answered with a similar move against US citizens. A senior Western diplomat in Washington described the US visa action against Turkey as a drastic sign of discontent and a “rather sharp weapon.”
Solving the visa crisis was likely to be high on Yildirim’s agenda in Washington. The Turkish Hurriyet newspaper reported there might be a chance to move things forward during his visit. It remains unclear, however, whether Turkey would be prepared to release the US consular employee, as demanded by Washington.
Even if both sides make progress on the visa front, a multitude of other issues remain. One is Turkey’s extradition request for Gulen. US officials say there is not enough evidence to prove Gulen’s alleged role in the coup.
Also, the United States is calling for the release of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor arrested in Turkey last year. Pence, a pious Christian, is taking a personal interest in the Brunson case and is expected to press Yildirim on it. Erdogan has suggested a swap of Gulen for Brunson, an idea rejected by the Trump administration.
Erdogan has complained bitterly about an investigation by New York prosecutors against Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian gold trader charged with violating US sanctions against Iran.
Zarrab is a key figure in a 2013 corruption scandal in Turkey that involved members of the Erdogan government and his family. Erdogan has called the charges against Zarrab a step against the Turkish state and has accused US officials of trying to turn Zarrab into an informant. Zarrab is to go on trial November 27 amid speculation that he might make a wide-ranging confession — possibly implicating people close to Erdogan — as part of a plea bargain.
A long-running dispute between Ankara and Washington over US support for a Kurdish militia in Syria remains unresolved. Washington views the Kurdish forces as vital allies in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) but they are rejected as a terrorist group by Turkey. Yildirim is unlikely to make headway on the issue.
As bilateral problems pile up, pressure is building in the United States for tougher steps against Erdogan’s government, which has overseen mass arrests of members of the opposition, academia and the media following the 2016 coup attempt. Ankara has also been accused of seeking a rapprochement with Iran and Russia. Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and an important voice of the right wing in US politics, told the Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat that “Turkey is the biggest danger” for the United States, more dangerous even than Iran.
Bannon is not the only prominent member of the US political scene sending out warnings that Turkey is a growing problem. “Over the past several years, Erdogan and his allies have corroded Turkey’s democracy by mounting an assault on the rule of law, using sweeping state of emergency authorities to stifle fundamental rights including free speech, undermining the independence of the judiciary and quashing any expressions of opposition,” 14 US senators from both parties said in a letter to Trump in October.
The lawmakers, who expressed outrage over violence by Erdogan’s bodyguards during the Turkish president’s visit to Washington in May, called on Trump “to send a clear message to President Erdogan.”
The anti-Turkish mood in Washington means Trump is unlikely to do much to please Erdogan in the various areas of disagreement, Tol said. “He won’t use his political capital to save Erdogan,” she said about the US president.
Compromises are difficult because some of the open issues, such as the Gulen case or the Zarrab charges, were “existential” questions for the Turkish leader, she added. “Normally I try to be optimistic,” Tol said, “but this time it’s difficult.”