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US Vice President Biden to reassure Turkey

Chase WinterAugust 23, 2016

Turkey and the United States have a history of overcoming differences. US Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Ankara this week is an opportunity to show Turkey it's still an important partner at a critical time.

Turkish and US flags hang side by side
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

US Vice President Joe Biden will visit Turkey on August 24 to reassure an ally at a critical juncture in its political history, making him the highest ranking Western official to visit the country since last month's failed coup attempt.

The visit comes during a nadir in the US-Turkish relationship that has spawned speculation about a fundamental break in a decades-long strategic partnership that has historically been marked by troughs and peaks. Doom and gloom commentary about the US-Turkish relationship, however, belies the fact that the two have a history of mending fences.

"US-Turkish relations have always had ups and downs, they have always been high maintenance and transactional," said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Ankara. "Today, we are going through another difficult period."

Before the July 15 coup attempt, the US-Turkish relationship was already under strain due to differences over Syria, even as Ankara played - and continues to play - a vital role in the US-led coalition against the "Islamic State" (IS).

The failed coup attempt, in which the plotters bombed the Turkish parliament, killed more than 200 people and almost assassinated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has added to already simmering tensions.

Turks call out Washington

Turkey's leadership as well as broad segments of the population have accused the US of - at worst - supporting and - at best - taking a soft stance on US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose followers Ankara blames for the coup attempt and considers terrorists.

"Sooner or later, the US will make a choice. Either Turkey or FETO," Erdogan warned last week, using the Turkish government's name for Gulen's movement: "Fethullah Terror Organization."

Turkey demands the United States extradite Gulen, who heads a shadowy global network of schools, charities and businesses. Turkey accuses the movement of infiltrating the state over several decades and forming a "parallel state," to which it has responded with massive purges.

Any extradition request would be a long and drawn-out process that would require concrete proof of Gulen's direct involvement in order to stand up in a US court. It would also require sufficient assurances he would receive a fair trial in Turkey.

Fethullah Gulen
Ankara sees Gulen as having been at the heart of the attempted coupImage: Reuters/C. Mostoller

There is a substantial body of circumstantial evidence that Gulenists were involved in the coup attempt. In Turkey's polarized society and politics, it is telling that all four parties in parliament opposed the coup and blame Gulen.

At this point, Turkey hasn't even filed an official extradition request related to Gulen being involved in the coup, but only submitted documents to the US regarding alleged criminal activity from before the coup. The Turkish government first labeled Gulen's movement a terror organization in 2013.

In a sign the US is taking Turkey seriously, a team of experts from the Justice and Department and State Department were expected in Ankara to meet and advise their Turkish counterparts ahead of Biden's visit. This step, combined with Biden's reassurances over the two country's partnership, may help sooth tensions by showing the US is taking Turkey's concerns seriously.

"The vice president's visit is an extremely constructive step toward working through the problems and issues and not just talk about them, not just blame one another, but to work constructively through the issues," Ross Wilson, a former US ambassador to Turkey, told DW. "That is the right approach the US has to take, it's the approach that has worked in the past, and it's the way you conduct a relationship with a friendly country."

Wilson, now at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, DC, said US policymakers should work with Turkey to determine whether a case against Gulen can be substantiated.

"To the extent that the US government is working constructively with Turkey on this problem, the problem is then much less of an irritant in US-Turkish relations," he said.

Syrian conundrum

A second item on the top of the agenda during Biden's visit is the fight against IS in Syria and Iraq, as well as international efforts to reach a political solution in Syria. In both areas, Turkey is a vital ally whose cooperation will determine the success or failure of US strategy in the region.

Turkey allows the US-led coalition to use Incirlik airbase in the country's south to conduct airstrikes against IS, but the two allies don't always see eye-to-eye on strategy. Turkey is concerned that the US has empowered the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, whose political wing, the PYD, has carved out an autonomous region along the Turkish border.

Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist organization due to its ties with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a more than three-decades-long insurgency in Turkey. Washington also considers the PKK a terrorist organization, but views the PYD/YPG as a separate organization. For Turkey, there is no difference between IS, PKK/PYD and Gulen - they are all terrorists.

A YPG fighter carries his weapon as he stands near a tank in Hasakah, Syria
Turkey and the US are at odds on whether the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG are terroristsImage: Reuters/R. Said

The US backs the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a joint Arab and Kurdish force dominated by the YPG, to fight IS on the ground in Syria. Considered the best fighting force on the ground, the SDF has pushed IS back on multiple fronts with the support of US airpower and about 300 special forces advisors.

Turkey's main concern is that in prioritizing the fight against IS the United States will empower the Syrian Kurds to unite its territories to the northeast with Afrin, a Kurdish-controlled territory further to the west. This would give the Syrian Kurds control of an uninterrupted stretch of territory encompassing nearly its entire border with Syria.

Turkey fears Syrian Kurdish gains will embolden its own Kurdish population and lead to the ethnic and sectarian break up of Syria, and the formation of a PKK-controlled statelet on its border.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters over the weekend his country would be more active as a regional player in the next six months. "This means to not allow Syria to be divided on any ethnic base - for Turkey this is crucial," Yildirim said.

To this end, Turkey has sought to repair relations with Russia, Israel and Iran, and even hinted at a shift in its hard-line stance over Syria. After several years of deteriorating relations with its neighbors, Turkey appears to be in for another foreign policy shift. However, this does not mean there will be a fundamental break with the US or a so-called pivot to the East in Turkish policy.

A refugee boy sits on the ground at the Syrian-Turkish border
More than two million Syrian refugees have fled to TurkeyImage: Dona Bozzi/Pacific Press/picture alliance

Syria is a complicated battlefield space and political environment at the intersection of local, regional and international political interests. In this regard, Turkey does not alone have the diplomatic, political and military power to achieve its interests in Syria, namely preventing spillover from across the border and the preservation of Syria as a state.

Therefore, as the world's only global superpower, the US will always have a special role for Turkish policymakers, and vice versa. While the US needs Turkey, Turkey also needs the US.

"The US Turkish relationship is a strategic one, it's rooted in an alliance that is decades old, that is highly valued on both sides," Wilson said. "I don't see a high likelihood of a fundamental change in the US-Turkish relationship at anytime in the foreseeable future."