US ambassador on Turkey–US ties: Let’s wait and see

US ambassador on Turkey–US ties: Let’s wait and see

U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass did not have much to say yesterday when he met a group of journalists and academics to discuss the presidential election results, which ended in favor of Republican candidate Donald Trump. He underlined that the results have taken many by surprise in the U.S., including those who professionally watch American politics. 

“Our democracy begins and ends with the voters and the American people clearly thought the current government was not meeting their needs. They decided to take a different approach by choosing a non-traditional candidate,” Bass said. 

He also had little to say on the future of Turkish–U.S. relations. “I’d say we should wait and see,” Bass simply said, stressing that the views and perspectives of people who president-elect Donald Trump will choose to work with will also determine the course of relations. 

Neither Bass nor anybody else has a reliable prediction on how Trump will handle foreign policy, let alone U.S.–Turkey relations. No one knows. It is fair to guess that Trump himself may not even know whether he will be able to put into practice what he said he would during the campaign. 

Bass said they will continue to support the Obama administration in its final months in office and execute the decisions taken by it, while they will also help the transition team prepare to understand the issues and challenges that Washington and its allies are facing. “I think we will see a high degree of consistency in policies,” he said in reference to the period until the formal transition of power, which will take place on Jan. 20.

Does that mean military operations planned against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) will continue as planned? The current administration wanted to leave a clean slate for the eventual Clinton administration. Will the operations continue with the same resoluteness? 

In any case, what this administration leaves behind in terms of relations with Turkey is a far from clean slate. Both Turkish and U.S. officials readily admit the tension in relations. That tension stems from differences in priorities, as well as a lack of trust. 

There is a clear divergence of views and mistrust regarding the operations conducted against ISIL in Raqqa and Mosul. Washington seems to be trying to convince Turkey that even if a majority Kurdish force takes Raqqa, the Syrian Kurds will not ultimately be the ones to govern the city. U.S. officials also try to convince Ankara that they are not arming the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). 

But Ankara does not trust Washington, fearing that the overriding priority to finish off ISIL may be pursued at the expense of undermining Turkey’s security concern about strengthening the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which in its eyes has organic links to the YPG. As of today it is hard to predict the degree to which the gap will get wider or narrower on that issue before Trump takes over the presidency.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s demand on the extradition of Pennsylvania-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, believed to be behind the July 15 coup attempt, will be another dossier that Trump will find on his plate. Up to now, the general feeling that dominated the U.S. establishment was that the evidence submitted so far by Ankara does not satisfy the burden of proof. For Ankara, however, it is simply a matter of political will. 

The Turkish government should not raise its hopes for a quick extradition of Gülen. Firstly, even if Trump is convinced about the necessity of Gülen’s extradition, the case will still have to convince the U.S. justice system. The evidence provided by Ankara might still fall short of satisfying the necessary criteria.