As Turkey and US agree to disagree, Erdogan heads east
Turkey and the United States have failed to iron out differences in key areas of their relationship, including a visa dispute, during high-level talks that put a spotlight on tensions between Ankara and the West.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim met with US Vice-President Mike Pence in the White House on November 9 in the first face-to-face contact by senior officials of the two NATO partners since the United States angered Ankara a month earlier by suspending visa services for Turks in response to the arrest of an employee of the US Consulate in Istanbul by Turkish authorities.
A White House statement issued after the Pence-Yildirim meeting expressed hope for a “new chapter in US-Turkey relations” as well as agreement “on the need for constructive dialogue.” Yildirim told Turkish reporters travelling with him that, while Pence had displayed a “positive” approach towards Turkey, the visa problem remained unsolved. “We will follow developments,” he said.
Turkey introduced similar restrictions for US citizens and both countries had relaxed their visa bans before Yildirim’s visit.
The White House and Turkey were unable to resolve other issues as well. Yildirim said Pence had made it clear that US support for a Kurdish militia in Syria, seen as a terrorist group by Ankara, would continue despite Turkish protests. Pence pressed Yildirim on the case of Andrew Brunson, a US pastor under arrest in Turkey, and Yildirim criticised an indictment by US prosecutors against Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader awaiting trial in New York. Reports have said Zarrab’s trial might rekindle corruption allegations against the Erdogan government.
“We have decided to continue the dialogue,” Yildirim said about his meeting with Pence, the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported. The prime minister and the vice-president agreed to create a direct phone link and Yildirim said: “Our telephones will be reachable 24 hours.”
Some observers saw Yildirim’s visit as a failure.
“The trip’s futility is hardly surprising for Turkey watchers,” Aykan Erdemir and Merve Tahiroglu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think-tank, wrote in an analysis. “The Turkish prime minister probably had no illusions of his ability to extract any concessions from his American counterparts but, as Erdogan’s loyal caretaker, Yildirim performed the role that his boss had demanded.”
While Turkey’s ties with the United States and key European allies remain difficult, Ankara is strengthening its relations with Russia. Less than two months after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Turkey, the Turkish leader was to see him November 13 at Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Turkey raised eyebrows in the West by cooperating with Russia in the Syrian crisis and by talking with Moscow about buying a Russian missile defence system, S-400, a highly unusual step for a NATO country.
Erdogan was also to fly to Kuwait for talks that are expected to centre on the row between Qatar and a Saudi-led quartet of neighbouring countries. Turkey is a supporter of Qatar, while US President Donald Trump has taken a strong stance against what he calls financial support for terrorism by the government in Doha.
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.