[Prefatory Note: a prior version of this post was published by Al Jazeera Turka; there are continuing concerns in Washington and Ankara about whether and to what degree United States-Turkey relations can be restored; it depends on the behavior of the two governments, and likely will be influenced by the outcome of the American presidential elections.]
It may seem a bit strange that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Barack Obama had to travel all the way to Hangzhou, China to take a welcome step toward restoring good relations between the two countries. But this is the way with 21st century diplomacy. Leaders meet in groups all over the planet, and were in Hangzhou between September 4 and 6 for the annual G-20 gathering devoted to global economic policy, and some seized the opportunity to conduct bilateral diplomacy. In this vein the most notable achievements of the 2016 G-20 meeting is probably best associated with so-called ‘sideline meetings’ that are not part of the group agenda. What is likely to be longest remembered such occurrence after the political leaders go home is not what was agreed upon about global inequality or stimulating growth but rather the dramatic joint ratification of the Paris Climate Change Agreement by China and the United States, the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses.
Another feature of modern diplomacy is the importance of tone, nuance, and atmospherics. What Erdoğan and Obama achieved was mainly in this realm of intangible signs of mutual appreciation and understanding. It was undoubtedly pleasing for Erdoğan to hear the American president refer to the events of July 15th as “terrible coup attempt.” And further, when Obama expressed his admiration for the way the Turkish people took to the streets to defend democracy and support the elected government. Such sentiments convey a spirit of solidarity that was noticeably missing throughout the earlier diplomatic discourse. It contrasts, for instance, with what John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, said on July 15th, the night of the failed coup, which seemed indifferent to the fate of Turkey’s democratic government even when violent challenge by the failed putsch. In his statement Kerry called for “stability and peace and continuity within Turkey,” which was correctly heard by the Turkish people and their leaders as, at best, a statement of neutrality as to which side was favored by Washington, and seemed to express the view that as long as there was stability in Turkey and continuity with respect to the West, the United States ‘had no dog in the fight.’
When Obama personalized his message by saying “this is the first opportunity that I have had to meet face to face with President Erdoğan” since July 15, and then added, “We’re glad you’re here, safe, and that we are able to continue to work together” it contributed a tone of personal warmth to the reaffirmation of the critical strategic relationship between the two countries. When it came to the issues that have recently caused tensions between Turkey and the United States nothing very concrete transpired, at least in public. Obama talked about unity in fighting against ISIS, while Erdoğan stressed the importance of opposing all terrorist groups. Underneath these vague assertions was the apparently persisting disagreement about how to deal with Kurdish anti-ISIS and anti-Assad political actors, especially the Syrian militia, YPG (Popular Protection Unit) that the US treats as an ally and Turkey views as a Syrian extension of the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), and as such, regards as a terrorist organization. From what was made public no steps were made by either side to change their approach, but the atmosphere of collaboration at Hangzhou suggests that the two leaders at least listened to each other’s concerns, and were careful to avoid any confrontation.
Without doubt the complexity of the Syrian conflict is such that none of the participants have pursued a consistent course of action that avoids contradictions, and this is certainly true of the United States and Turkey. I would expect a tacit understanding of the differing priorities of the two governments to emerge, allowing tensions over Syrian policy to diminish, if not disappear. Turkey and the United States agree on ISIS and support for anti-Assad forces, but also on urgently seeking a prolonged ceasefire as a prelude to some kind of political compromise that ends the conflict. It seems likely that the U.S. will quietly defer to Turkey’s insistence on avoiding a Kurdish de facto state bordering Turkey in northern Syria. This will not be the first time that the United States has opportunistically relied on Kurdish armed militias during a conflict only to withdraw their support at a later stage when greater strategic interests, as here, present themselves. In this regard, American relations with the YPG are likely to deteriorate as those with Ankara improve, especially on joint policy in Syria.
The same reliance on atmospherics rather than tangible results was evident in dealing with the equally delicate issue of the extradition of Fethullah Gülen. Obama affirmed the importance of bringing the coup perpetrators to justice and offered full cooperation on the mechanics of the extradition process. For his part, Erdoğan spoke of gathering evidence to establish convincingly the link between the allegations and the event. In Turkey there is virtually no dissent from that part of the official version of the coup attempt that charges Fethullah Gülen with being the mastermind, which underlies a strong consensus that he should be extradited to face criminal charges in a Turkish court. In Europe and the United States where Gülenist influence remains surprisingly strong, skepticism remains as to who should be blamed for the coup, and there is a tendency to doubt the Turkish insistence that it was the work of the Gülen movement, and its mysterious leader who claims spiritual power and supposedly runs the organization with an iron hand. The Hangzhou meeting sidestepped this underlying awkwardness probably to avoid spoiling the efforts of both leaders to reaffirm the relationship and even to imply adherence to common goals in Syria.
Shortly before the meeting in China, Obama made a constructive statement in a CNN interview: “What we want to do is indicate to them [Turkey] the degree to which we support the Turkish people, but like any good friend we want to give them honest feedback if we think the steps they’re taking were going to be contrary to their long-term interests and our partnership.” What is notable here is Obama’s careful phrasing that avoids condemning the Turkish government for its post-coup attempt efforts to find elements throughout the government and society that were directly or indirectly complicit in the events of July 15. Again this kind of statement contrasts with the many shrill and decontextualized international condemnations of Turkish security measures without any appreciation of the subversive nature of the persisting threat faced by the government. Obama’s statement reaches for higher ground in the ways that Washington conveys concerns about human rights and democracy to Ankara, and although still somewhat patronizing (making it hard to imagine Turkey giving friendly advice to Washinton), it seems fully consistent with the geopolitically conditioned friendship between the two governments. Of course, if Turkey has similarly lectured the United States after the 9/11 attacks about torture or the detention of Muslims it would have been met with anger, but this merely reminds us that international relations is not conducted between equals.
In the end, we are left asking whether the spirit of Hangzhou restores the constructive side of the US/Turkish relationship in a lasting manner, seemingly so vital for the future of the region, or whether this is a flash in the pan soon to be forgotten. The fact that Obama’s term is about to end is of concern in this respect, but there is some confidence that Obama’s approach represents a US Government consensus that will endure. What will clarify this prospect, above all, will be the approach taken by the winner of the American presidential elections this November. Also important, the manner that the two governments handle their substantive differences (on Syria, extradition, and likely Russia and Iran), and whether Erdoğan is able to sustain the inclusive approach (unfortunately excluding Kurdish participation) that he has so far mainly taken in Turkish domestic politics after July 15.
Undoubtedly, although these issues are all quite explosive, the one that poses the most danger to the future of relations between Turkey and the United States, involves how the extradition request will be handled with respect Fethullah Gülen in the months ahead. A Turkish journalist, Ogüz Kaan Salıcı captured the prevailing mood in Turkey by calling attention to a comment by a member of the Turkish Parliament—“there are only two things 90% of Turks agree upon: That there is a god and that FETO (Fethullah Terrorist Organization) was behind the coup.” If as seems quite likely, the extradition request will be denied in the United States for respectable legal reasons, the Turkish leadership and the public are bound to view the legalistic explanations as political evasions. If this interaction occurs, it will take a diplomatic miracle to avoid a collapse in the long cooperative relationship between the two countries. Their shared interests and long history of close collaboration will be put to one side, at least temporarily. Some wounds are just too deep.