Pence-Yıldırım to work on troubled US-Turkey ties
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım is scheduled to travel to the U.S. on Nov. 7-9, where he will speak to U.S. Vice President Michael Pence. The trip comes at a time when U.S.-Turkey relations are going through an almost historic low.
Turkish official sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said planning of the visit has been “in the pipeline for a long time.” They say it should not be directly related to either the recent Istanbul Consulate visa crisis between the two countries, which came on top of a large existing pile of bilateral problems, or the current interruption in communication lines between Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump.
A ranking Turkish source told the Hurriyet Daily News that they have been working on this visit since the Yıldırım-Pence meeting in Munich at the International Security Conference on Feb. 18.
“The date of the visit was changed twice due to the schedules of Trump and Pence and twice because of the hurricanes that hit the U.S. When we finally got confirmation we were hesitant about whether it was a good time to go because of all the problems between Ankara and Washington. But after evaluations a decision was made, based on the principle that it is always good to talk, especially in difficult times,” they said.
Yıldırım is expected to speak to Pence in Washington, but contacts have also been made for Yıldırım and his economy team to address investors in New York and promote investment opportunities in Turkey. This prospect comes at a time when there is ongoing speculation following reports – later denied in some cases – that sanctions could be imposed against Turkey due to ongoing cases in the U.S. and claims about the violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran.
The agenda in the Yıldırım-Pence talks is expected to be heavy, with a series of accumulated problems that could be summarized as follows:
* Ankara wants the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen who is accused of masterminding Turkey’s July 15, 2016 coup attempt, to be extradited or at least be the subject of legal action. U.S. authorities say the evidence that the Turkish government has so far provided is insufficient and the decision is up to the independent courts anyway.
* The U.S.’s continued preference to work with the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the fight against the outlawed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The PKK has been fighting for over three decades against Turkey, a NATO ally of the U.S., and the partnership in Syria has caused outrage in Turkey. As a result, Ankara has moved to cooperate more closely with Russia and Iran in the Syria theater, despite being a partner in the anti-ISIL coalition led by the U.S.
* Trump has officially asked for the release of the İzmir-resident U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson (an Evangelist, like Pence) who is currently under arrest accused of having links with the illegal Gülenist network. Erdoğan has said that it is down to “independent courts” to rule on this issue, but he has also addressed Trump by saying “Give your cleric, take our cleric,” implicitly referring to Gülen and Brunson.
* Two Turkish employees of U.S. consulates in Turkey - one in Adana and the other one in Istanbul - are currently under arrest over alleged links with the PKK (the Adana employee) and the Gülen network (the Istanbul employee). The U.S. administration has strongly reacted against those arrests, halting U.S. visa proceedings for Turks at all consulates in Turkey. This move was responded to in kind by the Turkish government, which led to the current deadlock.
* There are arrest warrants against 13 Turks, including Erdoğan’s bodyguards, over their brawl with protesters in front of the Turkish Ambassador’s residence in Washington during Erdoğan’s visit in May. There is also an arrest warrant against Erdoğan’s former Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan, whose name was involved in a corruption probe in late 2013 over allegedly taking bribes from Iranian-origin businessman Reza Zarrab. Erdoğan has denounced that investigation as a Gülenist coup attempt and the cases were later dropped. The prosecutors and judges who oversaw the probe were also put on trial.
* Zarrab has been under arrest in the U.S. for nearly two years, accused of violating sanctions on Iran by organizing gold-for-oil and gas trade between Turkey and Iran. Earlier this year Hakan Atilla, deputy director of the Turkish public bank Halkbank, was also arrested in the U.S. during an official visit, accused of being involved in the same sanctions-busting trade. The Zarrab case is due to have a key hearing on Nov. 27 at court in New York.
Yıldırım’s upcoming visit to the U.S. and his talks with Pence are expected to have a positive effect on troubled Turkey-U.S. relations. But with such a pile-up of problems, noone has a clear idea yet about what kind of improvements can be expected.