The meeting between President Barack Obama and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on September 4 at the G20 provided the two leaders with their first face-to-face opportunity to discuss the aggravated tensions in the U.S.-Turkish relationship since the July 15 coup attempt.
Obama’s comments at their joint appearance after the meeting made it clear that he wanted to build on the fence-mending efforts of Vice President Joe Biden during his visit to Ankara on August 24. According to the White House transcript, Obama strongly condemned the coup and promised “to cooperate with Turkish authorities to determine how we can make sure that those who carried out these activities are brought to justice,” an obvious reference to the ongoing Turkish extradition request for Fethullah Gulen as the alleged mastermind of the coup attempt.
At the same time, Obama sought to emphasize the positive aspects of the U.S.-Turkish relationship by focusing on the joint fight against ISIS, welcoming “cooperation which has helped push it back, especially along the Syrian-Turkish border.” He was clearly referring to the recent assumption of control over the 96 kilometer strip between the Euphrates and the town of Azaz by opposition groups backed by the Turkish military. Adding that the United States and Turkey “now need to finish the job,” Obama said that the two leaders had “discussed ways in which we can further cooperate in that regard.”
For his part, Erdogan, in contrast to the mostly negative rhetoric directed at the United States from Turkey since July 15, praised Obama’s “support against the coup attempt.” He also made a point of referring to the two countries as “strategic partners and very close allies,” which, under Obama’s leadership, had developed into “a model partnership.” Erdogan also said that relations were “getting stronger” after “the terrorist attacks and the failed coup.”
However, while pledging that Turkey would “forge a very close cooperation and a solidarity with the coalition forces” against ISIS, Erdogan specifically identified the Syrian Kurdish PYD and YPG as “terrorist organizations” Turkey would also fight in its effort to prevent the establishment of “a belt of terrorism” beyond its southern border. Erdogan also confirmed that “post-coup attempt related documentation and evidence” about Gulen would be submitted to the United States and that the Turkish Justice and Foreign Ministers would then travel to Washington to “concentrate their efforts on the elaboration of this evidence.”
In view of the strong likelihood that the extradition process will take much longer than Ankara would like, the two countries will have to try to find a way to maximize their cooperation in spite of this cloud hanging over their important relationship. However, this is likely to be difficult if the two countries continue to differ fundamentally on the issue of U.S. involvement with the PYD/YPG in the effort against ISIS, as Turkish Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin pointedly noted on September 6.
Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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