The unbridgeable gap between American and Turkish policies in Syria was on a vivid display during Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to a wary Turkey on Thursday.
His efforts to assuage the Turkish side’s jolted nerves over cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish militia, declared nemesis of Ankara, proved to be ineffective. At least remarks delivered by both sides after meetings offered no reassurance for resolving disparity in their strategies to defeat the Islamic State, an enduring problem that hobbles an effective cooperation in Syria.
“They are difficult options, let me be very frank. These are not easy decisions,” Mr. Tillerson said in a public acknowledgment of the difficulties that risk imperiling a looming offensive against ISIS-held Raqqa, and strain ties between two NATO allies.
The heart of the dispute centers on divergent views of the Kurdish fighters. For Turkey, they are no more than an affiliated group with its domestic insurgents, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). For the U.S. military, which had grown tired of the inability of disparate, rag-tag Syrian rebel groups to forge a potent fighting force, the Kurdish-led SDF proved to be the most capable organization to take down the ISIS.
Mr. Tillerson met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara. For all Mr. Tillerson’s efforts to soothe Turkey’s smoldering resentment over America’s policy choices in Syria, there was little he could do to overcome overwhelming sense of animus in the Turkish side after Washington’s alignment with the Kurdish YPG.
The Turkish foreign minister well summed up resurgent anti-American tide among the Turkish people during the joint press conference in Ankara. “It has negatively affected the Turkish people’s sentiments toward the United States,” he said.
Mr. Tillerson said there was no space between Turkey and the U.S. in their determination to defeat ISIS. However, there seems to be no agreement on the modalities of the cooperation. The countries will discuss the matter further, he noted.
But even if the conflicting strategies and agendas in Syria can be finessed, there are still thorny issues that keep relations at peril, far from the full recovery of former cordiality.
The arrest of a senior executive at one of the Turkey’s largest state-owned banks in New York City this week dropped a bombshell in Turkey. The Turkish government railed against the arrest of Mehmet Hakan Atilla on charges of conspiring with Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab who has been jail in the U.S. since last year, to evade Iranian sanctions. The reaction blended incredulity with alarming horror given the ramifications of the case for Turkey’s unruly domestic politics.
Mr. Cavusoglu fumed over the incident, describing the arrest as a “political” move. He impugned former U.S. attorney for Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, assailing him for “being a Gulenist” after he put Mr. Zarrab into jail as part of an investigation into the breach of sanctions against Iran.
The disparaging remarks and public jibes directed at Mr. Bharara had a particular reason in Turkey. Mr. Zarrab had a close connection with President Erdogan who described the arrest of Mr. Zarrab last year as a coup attempt. He identified the businessman as a philanthropist.
The story went back to 2013 when Turkish prosecutors arrested Mr. Zarrab as part of a broader corruption investigation that implicated Mr. Erdogan’s family, cabinet ministers, and his close associates. Shellshocked then-Prime Minister Erdogan launched a sweeping purge to dismiss police officers and prosecutors who initiated the graft probe, eventually killing off the case that he regarded as a coup against his rule.
He placed the blame on U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen’s sympathizers within police and judiciary. The late fallout between former allies escalated into an all-out, earth-scorching crackdown by President Erdogan on real and perceived supporters of Gulen within the bureaucracy.
Though Mr. Erdogan was able to scotch the graft investigation in Turkey by forcing the judiciary into submission with whatever possible means at his disposal, he has no control over the forces that shaped the outbreak of an inquiry into Mr. Zarrab in the U.S.
When FBI first arrested Mr. Zarrab in March 2016, Mr. Erdogan saw it as a move against him, preferring to ignore legal aspects of the case. He raised the subject during former Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Turkey last year, lamenting about the “political motives” embedded in the case.
The businessman then and now claimed that he acted under the knowledge of and in cooperation with the Turkish authorities, rejected charges of bribing ministers and money laundering through channeling billions of dollars to Iran as part of evasion of international sanctions.
The Zarrab case is a thorn in the Turkish side. And yet Mr. Erdogan’s government sees a Gulen link in the case, accusing Mr. Bharara of being affiliated with Gulen movement, a charge that he sternly denies.
That brings the issue of the cleric’s continuing residence in the U.S. to the fore, a source of simmering friction between the two allies.
The U.S.-Turkish talks over the extradition of Mr. Gulen are deadlocked. Ankara holds Mr. Gulen as responsible for a botched coup attempt last summer and presses for his extradition to Turkey.
Turkish demands have so far not fallen on receptive ears in the U.S. after Ankara has repeatedly failed to persuade its ally about the claim that linked the cleric to the coup attempt.
But Turkish authorities fell on a simple conviction that appeared to be unyielding and unchanged. Mr. Cavusoglu stuck to that line, insisting that Turkey provided evidence to the U.S, and adding that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is committed to “evaluate documents meticulously.”
At least, he reflected Turkey’s demand, that the U.S arrest Gulen while evaluating the Turkish extradition request. “We are expecting concrete steps. We need to take mutual steps to put relations with the U.S. back on track,” the foreign minister said.
The euphoria on the Turkish side after the surprising election of President Donald J. Trump gave way to a sense of pessimism and despair dogged by the belief that the new U.S. administration did not budge much to meet Turkey’s demands both in Syria and over the extradition issue.
Mr. Erdogan’s reserved tone against Mr. Trump even after travel bans against Muslim countries to curry the favor of new American president has yet to pay dividends. And Tillerson’s efforts to highlight positive points that bind two countries for common cause may not be enough for a demanding Turkey.
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