The US is finally ready to send an ambassador to Ankara
John Bass, the last ambassador of the United States in Turkey, bid farewell to the country last October in the midst of a visa crisis just after Washington decided to temporarily suspend visa services in Turkey as a reaction to the detention of U.S. Consulate employee Metin Topuz. Since they believed Bass personally contributed to the furor in Washington, the Turkish government—unofficially but at an emotional level—declared him some kind of a “persona non grata.”
Although being publicly targeted by top officials, Bass did not back down but further maintained that Topuz’s detention was motivated by elements of “revenge rather than justice” within the Turkish government.
Bass has not been the only U.S. ambassador in recent history to openly receive animosity from Turkish counterparts and to be demonized by the media. Judging by the massive scope of turbulence between Ankara and Washington, which has accelerated further in the past two years, no one should expect things to be a lot brighter for the next U.S. diplomat to be appointed to Turkey. However, recent months have proven that leaving that post open for a long time is not a good idea either.
In fact, the reason why the U.S. still does not have an ambassador in Ankara six months after Bass left has a lot more to do with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson than the protracted crisis. The post in Turkey is only one of nearly 40 ambassadorial ranks, which have been left open in the last 15 months since the Trump administration took over. Tillerson’s micro-management style, which mostly depended on his own cabinet, made things worse for the diplomats.
After months held in suspense, it is understandable why many U.S. diplomats are cautiously optimistic that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was sworn in two days ago with a grand Trumpian show, would make use of their much needed expertise. Pompeo is said to already be going over open vacancies and coming up with lists of possible names.
One of Pompeo’s priorities is said to be filling in the ambassador post in Turkey. And rumors say the next U.S. Ambassador to Ankara will be a career diplomat, not a political appointee. Until recently, it was speculated that the White House was in favor of a political appointee for Turkey, maybe someone with a business background or a former governor. The option of appointing a Turkish-American has also been on the table for some time. Rumors said leading Turkish-Americans like Muhtar Kent have been considered as possible candidates. Imagine the kind of bashing a Turkish-American ambassador in Ankara would have received when things went wrong as they often do!
It seems finally the wisdom has prevailed and Washington is focusing on the “career diplomat” option for Turkey and the name of a potential candidate is already circulating at Foggy Bottom; Assistant Secretary of State (Acting) for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield.
Satterfield is a veteran diplomat with almost 40 years of experience, who had served extensively in the Middle East, holding key posts at U.S. missions in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Lebanon. He was a senior advisor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice under the George W. Bush administration. During those years, he also served as the Department of State’s top coordinator for Iraq.
Satterfield, who is one of the key people working on the Syria file at the State Department, has caught Ankara’s attention quite a bit in the recent months. One occasion was his testimony before the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee on Jan. 11, when he said the U.S. is not going to declare victory in Syria and leave. He further added that this is not his opinion but the president’s strategic judgment.
In fact, that president has ordered his national security team to come up with a plan of withdrawal in Syria, which made it clear that strategic judgment Satterfield was talking about was not his but rather the national security establishment’s. It would be interesting to watch how he incorporates his recent expertise on Syria if he is appointed to Turkey, considering the first big question on his table will be how to overcome the Manbij knot.
There is still a long way for the U.S. side to go, even if Satterfield’s name is officially endorsed by Mike Pompeo. It is highly likely confirmation hearings of a U.S. ambassador nominee to Ankara could go quite wild in a room full of senators who are not big fans of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule.