Biden Back in Turkey: Personal Diplomacy After the Coup Attempt
Vice President Joe Biden will be back in Turkey on August 24 on a hastily arranged one-day trip designed to ease additional tensions which have arisen in the U.S.-Turkish relationship since the failed coup attempt on July 15. Biden last visited Turkey in January, following his earlier visits in 2011 and 2014. This trip, which is almost certainly his last while in office, promises to be considerably more difficult than his previous ones.
The fact that it is Biden who is traveling to Turkey rather than Secretary of State John Kerry, who was originally scheduled to go to Ankara, underlines the Obama Administration’s recognition of the seriousness of the current malaise in the relationship. Biden, who is known to be proud of his abilities at personal diplomacy, clearly believes that his meetings with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish leaders will help steer U.S.-Turkish relations back on track. However, while he is likely to leave without solving the issues on the agenda which will continue to cast a shadow over the relationship, the reestablishment of a dialogue at the highest level between Washington and Ankara, combined with positive optics associated with the visit, will surely help to ease strains to some extent.
If there had not been a coup attempt, U.S.-Turkish divisions relating to Syria would have inevitably dominated Biden’s discussions in Ankara. Turkey has become increasingly troubled by the growing U.S. reliance on the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in the struggle against ISIS despite repeated Turkish warnings that it should not side with the YPG, linked to the Turkish Kurdish separatist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which Turkey has been fighting for over three decades. The expulsion by the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces of ISIS from the town of Manbij close to the Turkish border on August 12 has further alarmed Ankara, leading to a pointed reminder by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on August 15 that Washington had long promised that the YPG would withdraw behind the Turkish ‘red line’ of the Euphrates after its operation.
On August 18 Erdogan underlined the message to Washington by saying “The YPG attacks happening in northern Syria at the moment constitute a threat to us. We tell those who want to trap Turkey with its domestic matters and create a ‘fait accompli’ on Syria that we are aware of everything. We are also watching to see whether the commitments on northern Syria are being implemented.” The message was further emphasized by Turkish shelling of Manbij on August 21 and reports that Ankara-backed Syrian opposition groups were massing on the Turkish side of the border in preparation for an incursion into northern Syria. It remains to be seen whether Biden will be able to find a formula which bridges the gap between Ankara’s hardening position and the desire of the Obama Administration to continue to rely on the Syrian Kurds as it begins to focus on the goal of capturing Raqqa, the ‘capital of the ISIS Caliphate,’ as part of its goal of ultimately destroying ISIS.
Important as the discussions on Syria are likely to be during the visit, they will inevitably take a backseat to those related to the July 15 coup. The potential impact of the coup attempt on the relationship was made clear by Erdogan himself even as it was still collapsing. In a speech to jubilant supporters at Istanbul airport in the early morning hours of July 16, Erdogan immediately blamed Fethullah Gulen and his followers for the coup and appealed directly to Obama to return him for trial in Turkey. He said “Mr. President, I previously asked for the repatriation of the person living in Pennsylvania. I am repeating my call after this coup attempt. If we are strategic partners, meet this demand of your partner.” The following day he said that “the U.S. should not keep such a terrorist.”
Erdogan conveyed his demand directly to Obama during a phone conversation on July 19 and repeated it publicly on a number of occasions. On August 10, for example, he declared “Sooner or later the U.S. will make a choice. Either Turkey or Gulen.” On August 21 he referred to the extradition treaty between the two countries and claimed that the U.S. was obliged to respond positively to the Turkish request. He accused Washington of “vacillation” which was “casting a shadow over the strategic partnership” and said that “this would be conveyed clearly to Biden.” Erdogan’s call was echoed by other members of the Turkish government. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on August 19 that he had discussed the issue at length in a phone conversation with Biden a few days after the coup attempt and followed up on August 20 by saying “We want the process to be accelerated. This man was the leader of the coup. What are we waiting for?”
Although the Turkish government’s focus has been on Gulen, there has also been broader dissatisfaction with the U.S. reaction to the coup. There have been repeated comments from Ankara about the perceived tardiness and less than wholehearted support from its most important ally for Turkish democracy, along with complaints about greater concern shown over the extent of the post July 15 purge than about the coup attempt itself. Erdogan complained on August 8, for example, that the planned trip by Kerry was “Late, too late.” At the same time, there were accusations directed at the U.S. relating to its alleged involvement in the coup attempt. On July 16, for example, Turkish Labor Minister Suleyman Soylu stated on TV that “America was behind the coup,” an allegation that was subsequently expanded by some Turkish newspapers to include American military officers. To be sure, Cavusoglu said on August 19 “we never said that the U.S. was behind this coup attempt, we never took these rumors seriously.” However, he added “We asked the U.S. to send Gulen back to Turkey. The U.S. asked for evidence that he was behind the coup…This perception will persist in Turkey unless the U.S. extradites Gulen…Our relationship will be affected because public opinion is a determining factor in all relationships.”
The message Biden will be delivering to Turkish leaders in response was flagged by the White House readout of the Biden-Yildirim conversation on July 21 which noted that Biden had “reaffirmed the importance of the strategic relationship between the United States and Turkey and reiterated the United States’ strong condemnation of the attempted coup against the democratically elected civilian government of Turkey.” Biden’s reported comments were followed by public comments from Obama the following day when Obama stated “We strongly reject any attempt to overthrow democracy in Turkey and support the democratically elected government.” Obama continued by saying “Any reports that we had any previous knowledge of a coup attempt, that there was any U.S. involvement in it, that we were anything other than entirely supportive of Turkish democracy are completely false…Rumors like that threaten what is a critical alliance and partnership between the United States and Turkey.”
Obama also tackled the issue of the extradition of Gulen in his only public utterances on Turkey after July 15. He said “President Erdogan and Turkey have a strong belief that Mr. Gulen, who is in Pennsylvania, a legal resident of the United States, is somehow behind some of these efforts. What I said to President Erdogan is…we have a process here in the United States for dealing with extradition requests made by foreign governments…I told President Erdogan that they should present us with evidence that they think indicates the involvement of Mr. Gulen, or anybody else who is here in the United States, and it would be processed the way that it is always processed, and that we would certainly take any allegations like this seriously. But America is governed by rules of law, and those are not ones that the President of the United States or anybody else can just set aside for the sake of expediency. Even when we are deeply supportive of Turkish democracy, and even when we care deeply about any attempts to overthrow their government or any other illegal actions, we have got to go through a legal process.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest had confirmed on July 19 after the Obama-Erdogan phone conversation that “materials have been presented by the Turkish government in electronic form to the U.S. government related to Mr. Gulen's status.” Exactly a month later, on August 19, the Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag confirmed that four separate dossiers had been delivered to Washington in connection with Turkey’s demand for his return in accordance with the extradition treaty between the two countries. Bozdag added that, although this was a legal process, the final step would ultimately be “a political decision.” On August 22 officials from the U.S. Justice and State Departments arrived in Ankara to discuss this issue. Cavusoglu revealed that he and Bozdag would be going to Washington to follow up.
On July 29 Erdogan criticized U.S. CENTCOM Commander Joseph Votel, who has operational responsibility over Washington’s military campaign in Syria, for his comments about the impact of the coup on U.S.-Turkish military cooperation against ISIS. He said “My people know who is behind this scheme...they know who the higher mind behind it is. With these statements you are revealing yourselves, you are giving yourselves away…you are standing by the putschists.” On July 30 he claimed that Gulen was “merely an instrument” and that there is “a higher mind behind him.” On August 6, Erdogan said that “the danger was not over as the higher mind was pressing mercilessly” before following up the next day by saying “We know the forces behind the coup. When the time comes we will reveal them.”
Although Erdogan was careful not to point the finger directly at the U.S., his comments were generally interpreted in Turkey as evidence of his deep suspicions relating to Washington’s policies and goals. Consequently, the current mood in Ankara is not conducive to the kind of constructive conversation Biden would have preferred to have about Syria and Iraq or the implications of Turkey’s recent rapprochement with Russia and the diversification of Europe’s energy supplies, let alone the prospects of a settlement of the long-running Cyprus problem he has long followed closely.
Instead, Biden will be grappling primarily with the fallout from July 15. At the same time, he will be trying to ensure continued cooperation over the use of Incirlik airbase–like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford and Air Force Chief David Goldfein who visited Turkey recently–in operations against ISIS without making his hosts feel that he is oblivious to their concerns over the YPG and expressing concern over the extent and scope of the post-July 15 purge without exacerbating Turkish sensitivities about the attention Washington is directing at this issue to the detriment of concern over the coup itself. Biden is also no doubt hoping that his willingness to travel to Ankara for personal diplomacy just a few months before leaving office will reduce the impact on the relationship of Washington’s apparent unwillingness to accede to Ankara’s demand for immediate action on its extradition request.
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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