If Mike Pompeo takes over his new post as U.S. Secretary of State from Rex Tillerson before March 19, then a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu will be among his first in Washington with a foreign guest.
Whether he meets with Tillerson or departing CIA director Pompeo, Çavuşoğlu will be discussing the ongoing rift between Ankara and Washington with the top U.S. diplomat at an important junction for American foreign policy. President Donald Trump had high hopes from Tillerson but in the end he did not even bother to tell him he was fired; Tillerson said he learned about his removal through Trump’s tweet.
Tillerson had agreed with Çavuşoğlu during their talks in Ankara on Feb. 16 to meet again on March 19, while the “working groups” between the two sides started meeting in the meantime. The first working group meeting was held in Washington on March 8-9. During it, diplomats and security officials from the two NATO allies reportedly agreed to finalize a plan on the security and governance of the disputed Syrian town Manbij, which was supposed to be completed by Tillerson and Çavuşoğlu. There is now a question mark regarding the future of that process.
Turkey-U.S. relations did not get any better during Tillerson’s term as secretary of state. None of the existing problems between the two countries were solved, while new ones were added. But that had little to do with the personal stance of Tillerson. With few prejudgments regarding Turkey, Tillerson’s stance was largely shaped by the military requirements conveyed through Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and CIA Director Pompeo.
Pompeo, on the other hand, does have prejudgments regarding Turkey. As a former soldier and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Pompeo tweeted the following on July 16, 2016 (the day after Turkey’s military coup attempt) in response to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s message of solidarity: “.@JZarif & #Iran govt about as democratic as that of @RT_Erdogan — both are totalitarian Islamist dictatorships.” Pompeo later deleted the message and closed his account after he was named by Trump as the next CIA director, but it is not so easy to erase people’s memories.
Trump reportedly could not agree with Tillerson on issues such as Iran. And his choice to appoint Gina Haspel – who has been criticized amid allegations of involvement in the CIA’s infamous torture program – as the new CIA director also shows that Trumps wants a more hawkish foreign policy. That could have big consequences in the Middle East and Europe, as well as in the U.S.’s relations with Turkey.
It is not clear whether Turkey-U.S. ties will get better or worse under Pompeo. But based on what we know so far there is not much room for optimism.