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 Editor in chief: 
Abdus Sattar Ghazali

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August 24, 2016

Joe Biden visits Ankara for solving pressing Turco-US issues

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden sought to reassure Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of American support during his one-day visit to Ankara on Wednesday August 24, 2016. Biden is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Turkey since the July 15 failed coup.

According to Washington Post, the goal of Biden’s visit was to convince Turkey that the United States had no role in, and did not condone, a July 15 coup attempt that has sent the country into a whirlwind of conspiracy theories, mass arrests and estrangement from Washington at a crucial moment in the campaign against the Islamic State.

The head of Political Science Department at Bahcesehir University of Istanbul, Gulnur Aybet, says the relations of Turkey and the United States were not in a very good state before the last month’s failed coup attempt. However, since then relations have taken a turn for the worst.

Al Jazeera quoted her as saying “as Vice President Joe Biden visits Turkey today, he is facing four pressing items on the agenda.”

1. The first is the Turkish request for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, who is widely believed to be the hand behind the failed coup attempt.

Turkey says the failed putsch was orchestrated by Fethullah Gulen, who has lived in Pennsylvania for 17 years. Pape Escobar has called Gulen a CIA asset. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has called on the U.S. to extradite Gulen.

Washington has yet to do so, but the U.S. State Department confirmed for the first time on Tuesday that documents submitted by Ankara constituted a formal extradition request.

The perception of a slow response by Washington has angered Erdogan and sparked an outpouring of anti-Americanism from the Turkish media.

Addressing a press conference after talks with Turkish President Tyyap Erdogan, Biden said he understands the “intense feeling” against Fethullah Gulen.

We have “no interest whatsoever in protecting anyone who has done harm to an ally,” Biden said. “But we need to meet legal standard requirement under our law,” adding that it would be an “impeachable offense” for President Obama to deliver Gulen without going through the U.S. justice system.

There was already an ongoing investigation against Gulen before the coup attempt, and on May 26 the Turkish National Security Council officially labelled the organisation as a terrorist group - the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO), to be disbanded as a primary threat to Turkey's national security.

Gulnur Aybet says further evidence coming from the testimonies of the arrested coup plotters indicates without a doubt that FETO was behind the coup attempt.

2. The second pressing item on the agenda is the war in Syria and the US-backed advance of predominantly People's Protection Units (YPG)-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Vice President Biden told the press conference, the Obama administration will cut all U.S. support for its Syrian Kurdish allies if they do not comply with Turkish demands that they withdraw to the east of the Euphrates River.

Biden said the Kurds, who Turkey says intend to establish a separate state along a border corridor in conjunction with Turkey’s own Kurdish population, “cannot, will not, and under no circumstances will get American support if they do not keep” a commitment to return to the east.

The Kurdish force has been instrumental in a series of victories against the ISIS over the past year in Syria, including the retaking this month of Manbij and other key towns west of the Euphrates River.

Gulnur Aybet says when the SDF seized control of Manbij from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) on August 13, this crossed Turkey's red line that the YPG should stay on the east of the Euphrates.

Turkey does not wish to see a contiguous YPG-controlled territory running adjacent to its 911km border with Syria, and considers this a national security priority because it views the YPG and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) as one and the same. The PKK is considered a terrorist organisation not just by Turkey but also by the US and the European Union.

3. The third issue is surfacing US concerns over the Incirlik airbase, controlled by the Turkish and US air forces.

Given the fact that power was cut to the base after the failed coup, and the Turkish commander of the base, Bekir Ercan Van, was arrested as one of the plotters - who gave the permission for a a tanker plane to take off and support rogue fighter jets on the night of the coup attempt - some US analysts are concerned about the safety of US nuclear weapons stored in the base, says Gulnar Aybet adding: 

Additionally, the base is the main operations headquarters for the aerial attacks against ISIL positions in Syria. In this respect Turkish-US cooperation is vital. This is crucial for the interests of the US, which has a focused, tightly timetabled mission to clear ISIL from Syria and Iraq. Mending ties with Turkey is important for the continuation of coalition use of the Incirlik base for combat flights.

As Biden visited Ankara, Turkey launched an operation against ISIS elements in Jarablus, Syria. This was Turkey’s first major US-backed incursion into Syria after the failed coup. 

4. The fourth issue is the need for readjustment of US public diplomacy towards Turkey. Official and unofficial reactions from the US, especially those from the media, to the failed coup attempt are much to blame for the rise of anti-American sentiment in Turkey.

Gulnur Aybet argues that if the US leadership fails to see Turkey in a new light and insists on the usual parameters of engagement - that is hand-picking who it considers its "friends" vis-a-vis a legitimately elected government it does not seem to like very much and remaining oblivious to Turkish sensitivities to the terror threats of ISIL, the PKK and FETO - then these two allies are likely to drift further apart. Let us hope wisdom prevails.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America.