Ankara’s psyche: It is payback time with the United States
The release of jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson last month, after a two-year detention in an İzmir prison on accusations of being a member of a terrorist organization, has not ended the political bargain between Ankara and Washington. In fact, the bargain has just started for Ankara. During those tense months of Brunson negotiations, the Trump administration kept saying if the Turkish government had shown good will by letting go off Brunson, it would be reciprocated by some positive steps from the U.S. side. Thus, in Ankara’s world, it’s payback time.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s recent visit to the U.S. capital needs to be analyzed against this backdrop. Çavuşoğlu came to Washington with concrete demands on four major files, all of which have been occupying the Turkey-U.S. agenda for quite some time now.
The first file in Çavuşoğlu’s briefcase was Ankara’s long overdue request for the extradition of the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fetullah Gülen, who is regarded as the mastermind of the failed coup attempt of July 2016. During his last phone conversation with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Donald Trump asked for a full list of names that are according to Ankara key figures of Gülen’s network in the United States. On the request of Trump, Çavuşoğlu handed a list of 84 names to both State Secretary Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. This may well be taken as a confirmation that Trump is essentially looking for ways to extradite his people if not Gülen himself.
Furthermore, this time, Ankara is quite content with the state of a recent investigation by the FBI on Gülen’s approximately 180 charter schools in the U.S. The FBI has been investigating tax and visa fraud, as well as money laundering, allegations against schools known for their ties to Gülen. My sources familiar with the investigations say that for starters, 20 to 30 schools might be banned.
The second dossier in Çavuşoğlu’s briefcase was the Turkish state bank Halkbank’s case. Çavuşoğlu himself confirmed in a news conference following his meetings in Washington that there are two investigations underway in the U.S. against Halkbank for evasion of Iran sanctions, one at the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the other at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY). Çavuşoğlu said he submitted a written assessment of their take to his U.S. counterparts on why and how the investigation at the SDNY should be terminated.
Turkey had hired the New York-based private firm Exiger, which oversees financial crimes and advises on best ways to restructure compliance processes. According to Çavuşoğlu, Exiger’s assessment confirms Ankara’s longstanding defense that Halkbank cannot be fined or prosecuted.
It should be noted that despite the Turkish government’s confidence that the SDNY investigation is tied to the Justice Department, thus Trump might interfere, State Department officials keep telling them it is not possible.
Numbers three and four on Çavuşoğlu’s priority list in Washington were Ankara’s demand for permanent exemptions from recent U.S. sanctions on imports of Iranian crude oil and the extension of the implementation of the Manbij road map to the east of River Euphrates.
As for Washington, three priorities dominate their agenda with Ankara. The first is undoubtedly the expectation for the release of three U.S. consulate staff and U.S. citizens in Turkish jails, including the NASA scientist Serkan Gölge. The second priority for the United States is to persuade Ankara to stop targeting People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions in northeast Syria, which, according to U.S. officials, is hurting the final phase of the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). And the third priority is to convince the Turkish government to halt the S-400 deal with Moscow and buy U.S. Patriots instead.
Pentagon officials were in Ankara the week before Çavuşoğlu was in Washington. A fresh and possibly better Patriot offer is on the table. Meanwhile, Pentagon is trying to prevent Congress from rushing a hasty decision, which would potentially enforce the Trump administration to terminate Turkey’s participation in the F-35 fighter jet project. They are telling lawmakers to give a chance to their pressure campaign over Ankara reminding that similar pressure campaigns have worked in halting a deal for Ankara’s purchase of Chinese missiles in 2015 and also for the release of Brunson. If its renewed Patriot offer is to be considered by Ankara, the U.S. side will most likely build a language in the agreement that would suggest a parallel purchase of S-400s might lead to the termination of the deal.
It is highly likely that Erdoğan will wait and see Washington’s moves first before making adjustments to his policies on three priority areas for the U.S. Erdoğan expects serious gestures from Trump on the four files put on the table by Çavuşoğlu last week in Washington. After all the drama that took place in relations since Trump took office, the Turkish side still seems to believe that the chemistry between the two presidents might be the antidote to curb the resistance of state institutions on key files for Ankara.
However, they must not forget that despite his repeated promises and assurances on the very same files in his face-to-face meetings, as well as phone calls, with Erdoğan, Trump has vastly failed to deliver. And not to mention that we are talking about a president who in last week’s call responded to Erdoğan’s criticism on the continued support of the U.S. to the YPG by saying “Oh, is the YPG terrorist? I’d better tell it to Mattis!”