Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went to Ankara on Thursday on a trip loaded with geopolitical significance. The two countries share an important, long-standing alliance — Turkey boasts NATO's second-largest army after the United States — and the Trump administration needs Turkey onside in its quest to defeat the Islamic State.
But the U.S.-Turkey relationship has been on the rocks in recent years. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a powerful and polarizing figure, sparred with the Obama administration, and his allies in the Turkish media fumed over supposed American complicity in a failed coup attempt last July. The Turkish government blames the putsch on Fethullah Gulen, an aging Turkish cleric who has lived in exile in Pennsylvania for nearly two decades.
In the months since the coup attempt, Erdogan has presided over a vast purge of his country's state institutions and civil society. The crackdown has led to condemnation from governments in Europe, which in turn has deepened Erdogan's public animosity toward the West.
Here are the story lines to keep in mind as Tillerson meets with Erdogan and other key officials.
A web of conspiracies and proxies
On Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he would bring up the question of Gulen's extradition in his meeting with Tillerson. Turkish authorities are convinced of Gulen's guilt, but officials in the West have cast doubt on the cleric's direct involvement in the coup plot. They also fear he would not receive a fair trial in Turkey.
A report issued last week by the British Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee said that although “there is evidence to indicate that some individual Gulenists were involved, it is mostly anecdotal or circumstantial.” Germany's intelligence chief, Bruno Kahl, concurred this month, much to Ankara's irritation.
It's not clear what the White House intends to do about Gulen's presence in the United States, if anything. But the Trump administration has a number of curious connections to Erdogan and his lieutenants.
Ousted national security adviser Michael T. Flynn was being paid to lobby for Ankara even while he assisted the Trump campaign last year. According to former CIA director James Woolsey, Flynn held meetings with Turkish officials last year and discussed ways to remove Gulen from the United States — possibly outside the established extradition process. (A Flynn spokesman rejected the claim.)
Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former U.S. attorney general Michael Mukasey, two staunch Trump supporters, are part of the defense team representing Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian gold dealer accused of illegally funneling millions of dollars to Iran in violation of sanctions. He was arrested last year while on a family trip to Disney World and has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Erdogan has come out in support of Zarrab — a key figure in an earlier corruption scandal that implicated Erdogan's government — and claims that his arrest and detention in the United States is politically motivated. The picture grew even murkier this week when U.S. authorities arrested the deputy general manager of Halkbank, one of Turkey's largest state-owned banks, in connection with the Zarrab case.
Cavusoglu told Turkish media he would also raise this matter with Tillerson
The mess in Syria
The main reason behind Tillerson's visit is the battle against the Islamic State. Turkish officials are irked by Washington's continued support for a coalition of Syrian Kurds and allied Arab militias. The United States will depend on those groups during the coming offensive on Raqqa, the city in eastern Syria that is the de facto capital of the Islamic State.
Ankara considers the YPG, the preeminent Syrian Kurdish faction, an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, a Kurdish separatist group in Turkey that has waged a decades-long insurgency against the state. Turkey recently conducted its own military operation in Syria, which observers suggest was as much about curbing the gains of the YPG as it was fighting the Islamic State.
The Syrian war has mostly been a strategic disaster for Turkey. Erdogan once loudly clamored for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and tacitly allowed a host of rebel factions, including some connected to Islamist extremists, to operate along the Turkey-Syria border. That led to hideous blowback, including a spate of Islamic State-connected terrorist attacks on Turkish soil. Meanwhile, Russia intervened in the conflict and blew up Ankara's ability to shape the Syrian endgame.
Now Turkey is tagging along with Russia and Iran, both staunch Assad allies, to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian war. It can only hope that Tillerson and other administration officials adopt their concerns about the predominance of the YPG.
Erdogan's power grab
Tillerson arrives just weeks before a referendum in which Turks will decide whether to scrap parliamentary democracy in favor of a presidential system that would cement Erdogan's power. Even if the April 16 vote does not go Erdogan's way — polls show a neck-and-neck race — he and his Justice and Development Party still dominate the country's political landscape.
Turkish authorities have systematically dismantled the leading opposition Kurdish political party, jailing its main leader, Selhattin Demirtas, and 12 of its other members of parliament. On Tuesday, it sentenced in absentia another prominent Kurdish politician, Kamuran Yuksek, to more than eight years in prison on terrorism charges that critics say were trumped up.
Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey program director for Human Rights Watch, told Al-Monitor that the conviction was “the latest episode in a pattern of removing or jailing Kurdish politicians at the national and local levels.” She also expressed disappointment in the Trump administration's seeming disinterest in the erosion of Turkish democracy. Tillerson will not meet with any opposition figures.
“You would expect the secretary to show the United States is evenhanded in advance of a referendum on the future of the country,” Sinclair-Webb said. “It's extraordinary that he isn’t making time for the opposition on what will be his first visit to Turkey as secretary of state.”