Will Pompeo open a new page in US-Turkey ties?
U.S. President Donald Trump paid his first ever visit to the Department of State on May 2, 2018 since he assumed power in January 2017. He was there for the swearing-in ceremony of former CIA director, new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Vice President Mike Pence held the Bible on which Pompeo took his oath, perhaps intended as a high-level demonstration of the launch of the “real Trump era in U.S. foreign policy.” It was no surprise that Pompeo said he would bring back the “swagger” of the state, which possibly meant a more active and pre-emptive strategy.
With the start of Pompeo’s term in office, State Department-oriented talks with Turkey are expected to resume. President Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters in Seoul on May 3 that Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu would go to Washington soon to talk to Pompeo about the status of the Syrian town of Manbij.
Turkey wants the U.S. to pull back its ground partner, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), from the town to the east of the river Euphrates. Ankara sees the YPG as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but the U.S. has picked it as its ground partner against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria, despite the fact that Washington has also designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.
The partnership between the U.S. and the YPG has been one of the major rifts between Ankara and Washington, two NATO allies, since 2014. But it is certainly not the only problem between them.
The Turkish government has demanded from the U.S. administration to expel or at least take legal action against Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher living in a mansion in Pennsylvania, over masterminding Turkey’s July 2016 military coup attempt.
There are two employees of the U.S. diplomatic mission who are Turkish citizens and an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who are under arrest over having links with the Gülenist network, or the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ), as the indictments against them claim. Trump broadcasted a tweet criticizing Turkey after a Turkish court ruled for the extension of Brunson’s arrest.
Turkey’s increasingly close relations with its neighbors Russia and Iran is another topic of conflict between Ankara and Washington. Turkey, Russia and Iran are members of the Astana process for a lasting ceasefire in the Syrian civil war. However, the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria has disturbed a number of regional countries, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia, as highly favored countries by the Trump administration.
A Turkish public bank manager, Hakan Atilla, is under arrest in the U.S. over allegations of breaking Iran sanctions, after statements in court from Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab. Another matter of debate between the two countries is Turkey’s choice to purchase the S-400 air defense missile systems from Russia (which is not interoperable with NATO) because the U.S. had declined to sell Patriots.
However, Turkey still hosts U.S. and NATO forces at its strategic İncirlik Air Base, opens its airports and ports to NATO and anti-ISIL coalition missions, and remains a key member of the Western defense alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has recently said, “anyone who can look at a map can understand the key role Turkey plays” in the defense of Western interests.
With Pompeo, it seems U.S. foreign policy is likely to go under a revision. It can mean a new page in relations with Turkey and in order to have it in the right direction, wrinkles need to be ironed out in their relations.