The hosting of Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım by U.S. Vice President Michael Pence at the White House on Nov. 9 resulted in some rather warm statements from both sides, especially compared to the bad-tempered exchanges of the past few months.
When the U.S. stopped providing visa services at its consulates in Turkey last month – in a disproportionate response to the arrest of two Turkish employees of its missions in the country, which was reciprocated by the Turkish government – matters went beyond a simple skirmish of words.
Even worse moments in relations between the two NATO allies can be recalled, such as the Johnson Letter of 1964 over the Cyprus issue, the closure of the strategic İncirlik air base to U.S. flights in 1975 over the issues of opium farming and Cyprus, and the arrest of Turkish officers in Iraq in 2003 after the Turkish Parliament’s refusal to take part in the invasion.
All of those issues were related to diplomacy and security. But now the outlook is rather more complicated.
Turkey complains about U.S. inaction against the activities of Pennsylvania-resident Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, who is accused of masterminding the July 2016 military coup attempt. But in Washington, Gülen is often not viewed as the head of an illegal network – as the majority of Turks see him – but as a peace-loving opponent of Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan, meanwhile, is often simplistically portrayed as an autocrat – a portrayal encouraged by the Gülenist influence among many Washington power circles.
Another issue poisoning relations is the U.S. partnership with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The YPG is the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist group by both Turkey and the U.S.
Yıldırım said that during their 1 hour, 20 minute meeting, he told Pence that the U.S. should now end this cooperation because ISIL has been defeated. The answer he received was that the U.S. “acknowledges Turkish concerns” about the heavy weaponry delivered to the YPG, but the U.S. military could remain in Syria for some time longer. Washington, after all, sees cooperation with the YPG as akin to hiring a hit man to kill a worse mass murderer.
There is also the case of Reza Zarrab, the Iranian-origin Turkish citizen, and Hakan Atilla, a Turkish public bank manager currently under arrest in the U.S., who are accused of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. Yıldırım said he opened up the subject with Pence, saying the evidence in their indictment was not collected through legal means. In response, Pence stressed the separation of powers and court independence, as time continues to tick ahead of a key court hearing in the case on Nov. 27.
Erdoğan and Yıldırım give the same answer when U.S. President Donald Trump and Pence request the release of jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson and employees of U.S. diplomatic missions in Turkey, Hamza Uluçay and Metin Topuz.
Yıldırım said he complained in the meeting with Pence about the poisonous effect of all these court cases on political relations between the two countries.
It is true that with the Pence-Yıldırım meeting the White House said it had “opened a new chapter” in relations, which is a positive remark in all languages. But the same statement also included human rights concerns, not only limited to the arrest of U.S. citizens and employees by also including arrested journalists in Turkey.
It is also true that Yıldırım welcomed the stance of Pence as “very constructive” and expressed satisfaction about the 24/7 telephone contact to intervene to possible new problems. But that did not evaporate Turkish concerns about the PKK or Gülen, the case of Zarrab being a totally unique matter.
The Yıldırım-Pence meeting has reached its maximum goal to stop the bleeding in relations and to establish a political communications channel between the prime ministers of the two countries at a time when channels between the presidents are not working well. The Nov. 9 meeting helped stop the worsening of Turkey-U.S. relations, but there are more steps to be taken before we can talk about the ties getting better.