Turkish PM’s visit could boost dialogue with US
Fresh indications suggest that Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Nov. 8 could boost dialogue between the two countries.
The latest indication of this was a report late on Nov. 6 about an easing of visa restrictions in U.S. consulates in Turkey for Turkish citizens, one day before Yıldırım’s departure for Washington. As soon as the story was reported by Reuters the steady fall of the Turkish Lira against the U.S. dollar for the last few weeks halted. The recovery was only slight, but it reflected hope that tension between the two countries could soften a little.
The visa restrictions were imposed by the U.S. administration following the arrest of a Turkish employee of the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, Metin Topuz. Topuz was arrested on suspicion of being linked to the illegal network of Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania-based Islamist preacher accused of masterminding Turkey’s July 2016 military coup attempt.
American officials say Topuz has been working for the consulate for almost three decades and is in contact with Turkish law enforcement and legal officials as part of his work. They say he therefore cannot be held responsible if those Turkish officials are members of the Gülen network, adding that if he himself is a member of the network then they would like to see evidence.
There is also another Turkish citizen employee of a U.S. mission in Turkey, translator Hamza Uluçay, currently under arrest over suspicion of having links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The U.S. administration has been asking Ankara for the release of both employees, but the Turkish government’s response has been the same as the one they receive from the Americans regarding legal action against Gülen: It is up to the independent courts.
But could the latest easing of restrictions, before the release of those employees, break the current stand-off, which is just the latest in a chain of unfortunate developments driving Turkey and the U.S. apart?
Unfortunately, the consulate crisis is not the only issue between them. On the American side there is also the ongoing arrest in Turkey of Pastor Andrew Brunson, again on charges of links with the Gülen network. U.S. President Donald Trump requested Brunson’s release in his conversation with President Tayyip Erdoğan during their last meeting in September at the U.N. General Assembly. Now it is likely that Pence could ask the same question to Yıldırım, perhaps even with additional enthusiasm as both Brunson and Pence are Evangelists.
On the Turkish side, meanwhile, there are three other major problems apart from the situation of Gülen. One is the U.S.’s ongoing partnership against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syria extension of the PKK (which has fought against Turkey for over three decades and is also designated a terrorist group by the U.S.). The second issue is the trial against Iranian-origin Turkish citizen Reza Zarrab, together with a high-ranking official of the Turkish state-owned Halkbank, on charges of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. The third problem is the court case opened against a number of Turks, including a number of President Erdoğan’s security guards, who forcibly dispersed protesters during Erdoğan’s visit to the U.S. in May.
Some Turkish commentators have been underestimating the importance of Yıldırım’s visit to the U.S., highlighting the fact that President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be in China during the visit. But actually that is perhaps the point that U.S. diplomats have wanted to make: Yıldırım’s meeting with Pence could be a quiet opportunity to mend fences.
For the good of both sides, this opportunity should be taken advantage of. But we should not also neglect the possibility of unpleasant new surprises by courts on both sides while Yıldırım is there.