Marriage of convenience between Turkey and US
It was not clear a few days ago whether Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan would meet U.S. President Barack Obama during his stay in Washington DC for the Nuclear Security Summit on March 31-April 1. It was underlined that Obama had no scheduled official bilateral contact with any of the 52 leaders attending the summit, and Erdoğan would instead be meeting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
There were reports, particularly in the American media, that Obama actually did not want to meet Erdoğan and no longer feels close to him, mainly due to his Syria policy - especially after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) entered the stage with mind blowing acts of terror, which began to make Bashar al-Assad look not so bad after all.
The situation started to change a day before Erdoğan’s departure from Turkey. After a meeting with his host U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu - who was in DC for preparations for Erdoğan’s visit - said Turkey would not make a bilateral problem out of U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) against ISIL. Turkey sees the PYD as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is also regarded as a terrorist organization by the U.S. among others.
A hint then came from American sources that Obama could perhaps meet Erdoğan “unofficially” on the margins of the summit, after Kerry visited Erdoğan at the hotel where he was staying. That implied an on-the-spot contact for perhaps around 15 minutes, perhaps during the conference or the gala dinner, giving the Turkish president a photo opportunity for domestic consumption. Meanwhile, in photos after their official meeting, Erdoğan’s surprise at Biden’s unusually close hugging could clearly be seen.
Back in Turkey, interesting developments were going on. Erdoğan had made a speech about threats to the unity of the military, addressing officers of the Military Academy in Istanbul on March 29 before his departure.
On March 30, before his departure, he had also asked publicly why U.S. prosecutors had not opened money laundering probes against Fethullah Gülen, as they had opened cases against the Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab. Gülen, an Islamist ideologue living in the U.S., was a close ally of Erdoğan but is now accused of trying to overthrow him and his Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government via sympathizers within the state apparatus, including the military. On the morning of March 31, before Biden’s meeting with Erdoğan, the Turkish military even felt the need to make a statement saying there was no weakness in the chain of command and rumors about coup plots from within (implying Gülenists) were baseless.
What’s more, Turkey was also busy issuing an indirect answer to Russia, whose spokespersons said they wanted to see “a sign” from Ankara to normalize relations - which hit rock bottom after Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet last November over border violations. Ankara gave permission to a Russian military inspection team to carry out observations at a marine infantry base on the Aegean Sea; while more spectacularly Turkey also detained a certain Alpaslan Çelik, who claimed to have shot dead the Russian pilot who was parachuting after his plane was hit by the Turkish military. With Russia now the U.S.’s major diplomatic counterpart in the Syria theater, any relief in Turkish-Russian relations means relief for Washington these days.
Another development came during Erdoğan’s interview with CNN International’s Christian Amanpour broadcast on March 31. Erdoğan once again complained that Turkey had been “left alone” against terrorism by its Western allies; but he also underlined that the West fell short in understanding the severity of the threat posed by “jihadists.” The fact that he did not refer to ISIL or al-Nusra, but used a word sourced from the Islamic tradition itself, showed that his line was getting closer to that of the U.S.
Following his meeting with Biden, a statement said Erdoğan would be meeting with Obama in the White House.
Then came the March 31 PKK attack in Diyarbakır, which killed seven policemen. The attack was referred to in the White House’s readout after the 50-minute one-on-one meeting between the two presidents.
Obama and Erdoğan may or may not like each other. But the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. is still at the marriage of convenience stage, and will remain there for as long as it works on key issues. It seems that it will continue to do so for the forseeable future – as long as the two countries see no other way for their own national interests.