Biden said nothing about Fethullah Gülen

Published 25.08.2016 23:49

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit was a symbolic yet important effort to contain the rise of anti-American sentiment in the country. In other words, it was a glorified public relations stunt.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why many Turks are angry at the U.S. government.

First and foremost, the Obama administration was reluctant to side with Turkey's democratically elected leadership and the ordinary people who risked their lives to defy the would-be coup, peacefully resisting tanks, helicopters and jets. At the very least, Washington proved incapable of grasping the magnitude of what happened and seemed more concerned about the coup plotters than their victims. Unsurprisingly, the Turkish people became convinced that the U.S. was behind the failed coup attempt.

Washington's ostensible unwillingness to extradite Fethullah Gülen, the coup's mastermind who lives in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, didn't help either. Once again, it looked like the Obama administration was sheltering a known terrorist.

Finally, the cooperation between the United States and the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian franchise of the globally recognized PKK terrorist organization, has been unpopular in Turkey for some time. Here's what many Turks believe: While the PKK spills blood and kills innocent people every day, the White House continues to work with YPG forces in northern Syria. At the same time, the YPG has been shipping weapons and ammunition across the Turkish border to the PKK, whose deadly campaign is thereby funded by the American taxpayer. To make matters worse, the YPG, under the pretext of fighting DAESH, pursues a thinly veiled agenda of carving out a PKK-controlled territory south of the border.

To be clear, Mr. Biden delivered a great performance in the Turkish capital, as he desperately tried to express sympathy with the people of Turkey and responded to the widespread criticism. At the very least, it's a good sign that the United States is trying to communicate. But it remains to be seen whether concrete progress will be made.

Let's start with U.S. support for the YPG in northern Syria. Hours before Mr. Biden was due to arrive in Ankara, Turkey launched an offensive to liberate Jarablus from DAESH. Led by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the charge proved extremely effective, as ground forces and air cover were made available to the fighters. In the end, it took roughly 16 hours for Turkey-backed moderate forces to seize control of a major DAESH stronghold in northern Syria. The operation also aimed at preventing the YPG from taking Jarablus and gaining complete control over Turkey's border with Syria. Appearing before cameras in the Turkish capital, the U.S. vice president recalled that the international coalition provided air cover to the FSA and publicly threatened to cut U.S. support for the YPG if the PKK's Syrian franchise refused to withdraw to the east of the Euphrates. Speaking to Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu, Secretary of State John Kerry informed his counterpart that the YPG had started withdrawing already - which was the Obama administration's way of reassuring the Turkish people.

Still, Biden's visit highlights were all related to the July 15 coup attempt. Having repeatedly told the press that the U.S. government had no prior knowledge about the coup plotters and expressed the administration's support for the elected government, the vice president even apologized to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for not having visited the country earlier.

From the Turkish perspective, his most important message was related to FETÖ leader Fethullah Gülen. Mr. Biden not only acknowledged that Washington was aware of the Turkish people's anger toward the coup's mastermind, but also called him a terrorist. He added that the U.S. had "no, no, no interest in protecting" the Pennsylvania-based fugitive.

To be clear, the vice president's statements don't mean that the United States will send Fethullah Gülen back home right away. As a matter of fact, the whole visit was an attempt to explain in detail why the coup's mastermind can't be brought to justice immediately. Providing detailed information about the U.S. legal system, Mr. Biden made the case that U.S. President Barack Obama would get in trouble if he tried to interfere with the court system before committing to technical-level cooperation to fast track the process. Around the same time, a group of experts from the Department of Justice were in a meeting with their Turkish counterparts on the extradition request.

Vice President Biden may have made the trip to Turkey to convince the Turkish people that the Obama administration was acting in good faith. But it's hard to say that he was able to win back the battle over hearts and minds - which, as Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said, depends on Gülen's extradition - let alone answering all the relevant questions. As I mentioned in the past, what Mr. Biden said during his visit is largely irrelevant. We are desperate to see what he is willing to do when he gets back to the White House. The fact that a federal court will evaluate the extradition request doesn't mean that the Obama administration can sit on their hands. Under an extradition treaty between Turkey and the United States, Washington has an obligation to detain the suspect and keep him behind bars until the final decision is made. Unless the U.S. is willing to honor our agreement, the Turkish people won't buy into Mr. Biden's talking points.

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