US-Turkey relations on the up?
Following his roughly two-hour meeting this week with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged that “things are getting a little better” between the two, a sharp contrast to Tillerson’s first trip to Turkey just a few short months ago. Tillerson asserted that after a long period of tension, the U.S. and Turkey are beginning to rebuild trust.
While Tillerson’s remarks to the staff at the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul largely focused on the changing nature of the Syria conflict and its potential to change the face of U.S.-Turkish relations, this is just one issue between the U.S. and Turkey that has recently modified the surface of bilateral relations.
It may seem that many of the problems that have recently developed between Turkey and the U.S. have been swept under the rug or lost their vigor with time.
The issue of Fethullah Gülen has been mentioned less frequently in official, public dialogues on both sides as a broader range of issues open up between the U.S. and Turkey. In fact, the only mention of Gülen surrounding the meeting (that I have thus far found on official record) came during a July 5th State Department background briefing on Tillerson’s trip to Istanbul as a reporter from state-run Anadolu Agency inquired as to whether the Gülen issue would be raised. The State Department official quickly dismissed the question, saying it had been discussed from the Secretary on down as a legal matter.
While the tension between the U.S. and Turkey over the former’s support of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) has not dissolved, tension over the U.S. plan to arm the group for the long-awaited battle of Raqqa has become irrelevant given that the battle is underway. It is unclear exactly what Secretary Tillerson meant in saying in his Istanbul remarks that he hoped the U.S. and Turkey could “replicate” U.S. success in Syria. However, given that the U.S. has no concrete plans for an end or post-conflict setting in Syria, this nod to the Turks has brought reassurance that the NATO ally could be a partner in this situation, despite its aggression toward the YPG.
Human rights issues
Regardless of the Washington Post’s scathing and direct criticism of Tillerson’s failure to raise human rights issues with Ankara in his most recent trip, the Trump administration continues to remain silent on a number of recent issues and events, including the opposition’s Justice March from Ankara to Istanbul. The Trump administration has been largely consistent in its decision to avoid commenting on human rights, much to the pleasure of Ankara. However, the violence instigated by Erdoğan’s security guards during his mid-May trip to Washington has not left the collective memory of the American people.
As the anniversary of the July 15 coup attempt nears - and celebrations of its demise have already begun across Turkey - the risk that anti-U.S. rhetoric will permeate the national dialogue runs high. Likewise, in America, the date cannot be brought up without discussion of the subsequent mass purges and arrests. Will the Trump administration’s “better” relations with Turkey, lack of criticism on human rights, and perceived optimism in U.S.-Turkish relations stave off such rhetoric and begin to propel relations forward? This seems to be an overly optimistic scenario.
The rhetoric on the U.S. this weekend, as well as how Ankara perceives the U.S. to be remembering the coup attempt, will be more immediately telling of whether or not Turkey and the U.S. will be able to repair surface relations than Tillerson’s visit. The result of Tillerson’s diplomacy will only be seen with time and perhaps hindsight.
*Megan Gisclon is the managing editor of and a researcher at Istanbul Policy Center.