Turkey-U.S. relations are going through a difficult period. At least until the upcoming presidential election, both sides need to be extra careful.
There are two reasons why Washington needs to pay attention right now.
First, President Barack Obama, since becoming a lame duck, has been reluctant to make big decisions. Instead, his administration remains a placeholder until the next president enters the White House. As such, the executive branch will ostensibly be in damage control mode for the next couple of months.
Moreover and more important, the overall dislike of Turkey and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan by the White House, the State Department, Department of Justice, Pentagon and the CIA has a negative impact on bilateral relations. In a recent interview with the Turkish media, former U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey made it perfectly clear that Washington's frustration has nothing to do with the Turkish leadership's so-called authoritarianism. The main problem, Jeffrey argues, is that the Turkish government, including the president and the military, question U.S. demands. By engaging in lengthy negotiations with the U.S. and publicly questioning the West's double standards, Turkey has apparently upset a lot of people in Washington. Nonetheless, it would be irresponsible for Turkey and the U.S., whose partnership dates back to the 1950s, to let tensions get out of control.
In an effort to address post-coup attempt tensions, the Obama administration has decided to send Vice President Joe Biden to Turkey on Aug. 24. The visit will also serve as a response to Turkey's complaints about no Western leader visiting the country to express their solidarity.
It would appear that Biden's main purpose is to reiterate Washington's commitment to its friendship and alliance with Turkey. The main items on the U.S. Vice President's agenda will be the pending extradition of Fethullah Gülen and the situation in Syria. However, it is no secret that the United States is unwilling to send Gülen back home or revisit its cooperation with the People's Protection Forces (YPG), the PKK's Syrian franchise.
Attending a panel discussion on the July 15 coup attempt hosted by the SETA Foundation in Washington, D.C. last week, I got the sense that the U.S. authorities are desperately characterizing Gülen's extradition as an exclusively legal issue. However, I wouldn't be surprised if U.S. authorities fast tracked the paperwork in an effort to reduce tensions. Nor would it be shocking if the court would decide to hear Turkey's case. By launching the legal process, U.S. authorities will seek to win some time until there is a new president in the White House.
Washington's current game plan, however, cannot possibly satisfy the Turks. At this time, Turkey demands more active cooperation from the U.S. on Gülen. Sharing intelligence with Turkish authorities on meetings between senior Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) leaders and Gülen, among other things, would be a great first step.
ORGANIC LINK BETWEEN FETÖ AND THE PKK
Another problem with Washington's efforts to slow down the extradition process is the Turkish public's association of FETÖ with the PKK. For some time, Ankara has been deeply concerned by Washington's support to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and YPG in northern Syria. Since the coup attempt, the two countries have a new problem - FETÖ. The PKK's decision to step up their terror campaign and exploit the post-July 15 atmosphere leads more and more people to believe that the coup plotters had some kind of relationship with PKK terrorists. What Washington should worry about is that both groups can be traced back to the White House via northern Syria or Pennsylvania.
Finally, a recent statement by President Erdoğan, where he suggested Turkey could strike the PYD/YPG as part of counter-terrorism operations, further complicates the picture. Having kissed and made up with Russia, Turkey now has the capacity to launch airstrikes in northern Syria.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's upcoming visit will hardly be enough to fix Washington's relationship with Turkey. Moving forward, U.S. officials have to convince Turks that they are willing to work together with Ankara in the fight against the PKK/PYD and FETÖ. If Washington cares about its relationship with Ankara, Biden should be prepared to talk business.