There has never been a dull moment in relations between Ankara and Washington in the months since U.S. President Donald Trump took office. Despite the Turkish government’s high expectations that Trump would change the course of how the U.S. conducts business with Ankara, developments in the main problem areas have only gone in the opposite direction.
The first major disappointment for Turks was the inaction over their demands to extradite Pennsylvania-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, accused of being the mastermind of the July 2016 coup attempt.
The second major disappointment has been the Trump administration’s determination to partner with and provide heavy weapons to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. The YPG’s close links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have become undeniable for the U.S., especially after the Syrian Kurds dedicated the Raqqa victory to jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan.
Further complicating matters is the arrest warrant for President Erdoğan’s bodyguards for brawling with protestors at Washington’s Sheridan Circle on May 16. There is also the detention of a number of U.S. citizens in Turkey, as well as local employees at U.S. consulates, which has resulted in the suspension of U.S. visa services in Turkey for a month so far.
Despite progress to partially return to visa services prior to Prime Minister’s Binali Yıldırım’s trip to Washington this week, a return to a full resumption could take quite a while. The U.S. insists that its accused members of staff are innocent and therefore should be released.
Last but not the least is the court case against Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab in Manhattan for conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions on Iran, which also involves Ahmet Hakan Atilla, a deputy general manager of Turkish state-run Halkbank.
The first two files on the “troubles checklist” were confirmed by a U.S. State Department official at a panel organized by the pro-Turkish government Washington-based think-tank SETA prior to Yıldırım’s visit. Although Colonel Richard Outzen from the State Department’s Policy Planning team under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he was sharing his personal observations, it is unthinkable that the mood would be different at where he works.
Outzen argued that the Gülen file has become a “structural problem” between the two countries, because although the U.S. sees the coup attempt as a criminal and violent act, it also thinks it should be punished within the boundaries of the law. Concerns over the exercise of rights and due process weigh very heavily in the minds of the Americans on this issue.
Outzen also suggested that the reason why the YPG issue has turned into a “structural problem” is that the Americans are only focusing on its role in fighting ISIL, and thus find the YPG admirable. He signaled that Turkey should not expect a change in these U.S. perspectives soon.
Prior to his meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Yıldırım gave similar messages in Washington, confirming that Ankara is not very hopeful about rapid progress on difficult files but still has the political will to improve relations. The visit is in fact the first time that Ankara has publicly voiced disappointment with President Trump, as Yıldırım was quoted in the Washington Post as complaining that ‘it is sad, nothing has changed.’ In a meeting with American journalists, Yıldırım compared the current outlook of the U.S. with the Obama era.
There were other firsts too during the visit. After Yıldırım’s meeting with Pence, which took considerably longer than scheduled, the Turkish side made a direct reference to the Zarrab case in the readout of the meeting. “The so-called evidence in the court cases in New York are fabricated and have been collected through illegal methods,” said the Turkish readout. This is a clear sign that Ankara is contemplating “worst case scenarios” at the New York court in the coming weeks.
Rumors that Halkbank and several other Turkish banks could be penalized for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran have also been giving Ankara the jitters.
Indeed, it seems like the Zarrab case has the greatest potential to set President Erdoğan’s tone, regardless of whether the Yıldırım-Pence meeting really does herald a new chapter in relations. Hopefully the “hotline” that will supposedly be established between Ankara and Washington will not simply turn into a line where nothing other than trying to manage the fallout of fiery public statements gets done.