So, Obama is still poisoning Turkey-US ties?
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Ankara on March 30 in a first ministerial visit to Turkey since the Donald Trump administration entered office in January.
Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil who has little diplomatic experience outside the energy area, held talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, as well as his counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, on a number of highly sensitive issues. He tried to avoid to giving fixed answers to some very important questions.
Apart from his introductory remarks at the outset of the press conference, highlighting the importance and value of the U.S.’s relationship with Turkey, Tillerson gave evasive answers to questions on the role of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) in future phases of the anti-jihadist fight in Syria, and on Turkey’s demand for the extradition of Pennsylvania-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, said to be the mastermind behind the July 2016 military coup attempt.
But at the same time, Tillerson stressed that Turkey will remain a key U.S. partner in efforts to halt the resurgence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the region, reiterating already announced plans to establish stabilization zones in Syria. In a clear disappointment for Turkey, Tillerson hinted that the U.S. will continue to work and support the PYD and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as its partner during the upcoming Raqqa operation.
As for Turkey and Turkish officials, Tillerson’s visit provided an important opportunity to – once again - reiterate its expectations from the Trump administration. Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu was as blunt as possible, but at the same was careful, in making these points public at the press conference, but he chose to criticize the previous Obama administration as the main source of these disagreements in a bid to avoid a direct confrontation with Trump’s top diplomat.
Çavuşoğlu accused the Obama administration of “allying with the YPG” and of “ignoring Ankara’s concerns” over the Syrian Kurdish groups’ real intentions in the war-torn country. He also recalled that the Obama administration had not taken any visible step on Turkey’s demand of the extradition of Gülen, in a clear and highly critical tone.
He also referred to the arrest of Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab and a senior Halkbank executive as part of the same investigation, which first began during the Obama administration and which he described as “political cases.”
Çavuşoğlu sought to imply that the Trump administration found these issues in its inbox upon entering office and did not have much space to change them. This approach reflects Ankara’s strategy and optimism about making a good new start with the new U.S. administration, despite all aforementioned problems.
It looks like Ankara will hesitate – for now - to directly blame the new administration in Washington over continued disagreements. But of course things cannot go on like this forever.
A projected meeting of President Erdoğan with Donald Trump in late May, on the occasion of the NATO leaders summit, will mark an important turning point in Ankara’s ties with its ally. Until then, Obama will continue to serve as the punching bag for both the Erdoğan and Trump administrations.