Turkey’s face off with Trump’s men

Turkey’s face off with Trump’s men

As expected, new CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s recent visit has made the headlines of the Turkish press. Pompeo is not only the head of world’s most famous spy agency, he is also a perfect example of U.S. President Donald Trump’s favorite kind of operator. 

It was not surprising to see pro-government newspapers stressing that Ankara had delivered a warning that the U.S. should stop its cooperation with - or at least to limit the involvement of – the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the upcoming Raqqa offensive. But amid the standard coverage of the CIA chief’s first visit to Turkey, it is worth noting that some columnists were sticking to their conspiracy-minded rhetoric ongoing since the July 2016 coup attempt, openly putting the CIA at the center of alleged support for the movement of U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen.

The extradition of Gülen was possibly one of the discussion topics between Pompeo and his Turkish counterparts. In this context, one lawmaker from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was quoted in the pro-government press as saying that Washington would never extradite Gülen but kill him and make it look like suicide.

Indeed, key figures from the AKP have been pointing fingers at American intelligence agencies for “grooming” the Gülen movement as a clandestine organization to destabilize Turkey. The same circles consider the U.S. support for the YPG, which is considered by the Turkish state as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) Syrian branch, as well as recent ISIL attacks in Turkey, to be part of the same destabilization effort. 

Similar rhetoric is also popular in the opposition, even among die-hard secularists who are traditionally known for their rejection of anything that comes from the AKP. Conspiracy theories putting the U.S. under the spotlight once again peaked after the deadly attack on the Istanbul nightclub Reina on New Year’s Eve, which killed 39 people.

It is difficult to imagine someone holding a post like Pompeo not being aware of popular Turkish conspiracy theories about his organization. I can’t help but wonder what was going through Pompeo’s mind when he sat down with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or his Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan. To imagine the psychology in the room during the meeting in Ankara, let’s remember for a minute who Mike Pompeo is.

 As a Republican congressman from Kansas since 2011, he has made no secret of his views. When in 2014 the Senate released a portion of its report on the CIA’s use of torture on detainees between 2001 and 2006, Pompeo defended the perpetrators by saying “These men and women are not torturers, they are patriots.” At the time he was a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Later, after he was announced as Trump’s pick to become CIA director, he said in a public event that the U.S. should spy on world leaders, including its closest allies.

For the Turkish government, what should be more worrisome is what Pompeo tweeted on the night of the attempted coup, considered as a moment of life or death for President Erdoğan. In the early hours of July 16, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted “Turkish people’s brave defense of democracy & their elected government proves that coups have no place in our region and are doomed to fail.” Two hours later, Pompeo quoted Zarif’s tweet and wrote exactly this: ‘@JZarif & #Iran govt about as democratic as that of @RT_Erdogan -both are totalitarian Islamist dictatorships.” Later he deleted the tweet.

There is no doubt that the checkered pasts of key figures in the Trump administration like Mike Pompeo carry a potential hand grenade effect for relations between Ankara and Washington. American diplomats believe it will not be easy to keep the Trump team calm if the Turkish side keeps feeding public opinion with the narrative that the U.S. is the mastermind behind all the evil that takes place in Turkey. 

Traditional American diplomacy did not have hard time convincing former President Barack Obama to not create unnecessary drama over anti-American rhetoric in Turkey. But now they are worried that the same rhetoric might be responded to with a harsh tone by Trump’s men, who are famous for their stern patriotism. To create room for hope about their high expectations from the Trump administration, perhaps it is time for the AKP’s media strategists to fine-tune the mood in their neighborhood.