Claire Sadar
Mar 17 2018

Turkey takes Pompeo’s nomination in its stride

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Tuesday morning Twitter announcement that he was relieving Secretary of State Rex Tillerson of his duties and planned to replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo came just weeks after Tillerson appeared to patch up rocky relations with Turkey in what was described as a “make or break” visit.

Tillerson’s Ankara meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu resulted in the creation of working groups to try to overcome the impasse over conflicting Turkish and U.S. policies in Syria.

Tillerson’s discussions with the president and foreign minister, notably without a translator or note-taker present, at least temporarily arrested the downward spiral in diplomatic relations. But now, both Tillerson’s exit of and the appointment of Pompeo raise serious questions about the future direction of those relations.

The fact that no other U.S. official was present during Tillerson’s meeting means there is no one currently in the administration who can to attest to exactly what was discussed and what, if anything, was agreed by both parties.

Tillerson’s presumed replacement is not exactly the ideal candidate to continue a reset of Turkish-U.S. relations. Pompeo has been branded an Islamophobe, an accusation he denies, and in his public comments before coming to office shown himself not to be fan of the Turkish government. After the announcement of his appointment, screenshots of a now deleted tweet that Pompeo made during the coup attempt in Turkey started making rounds. In the tweet, Pompeo characterises both the Turkish and Iranian governments as “totalitarian Islamist dictatorships”.

Thus far, the reaction of Turkish government officials to Pompeo’s nomination has been measured. The Turkish president, prime minister and foreign minister all made statements about the changes to Trump’s cabinet on Wednesday. Erdoğan boasted that he berated Tillerson regarding U.S. involvement in Syria and support for Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia there and that Tillerson had “nothing to say” in return. Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist group.

Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım meanwhile evaded the issue of Pompeo’s previous comments about the Turkish government, telling reporters that “whoever comes in, Turkey's stance is clear. It is not so important to us what the new secretary thinks about Turkey". Çavuşoğlu, speaking to reporters in Moscow, on the other hand clearly alluded to the political elephant in the room when he told reporters that “we do not want to comment on (the selection of secretary of state), but whoever it will be, they need to first learn how to behave, approach and respect us”.

Nate Schenkkan, Project Director for Nations in Transit at Freedom House, said Pompeo’s previous statements would likely be downplayed, at least initially, by the Turkish government. “Both sides have a lot at stake that will encourage sweeping those things under the rug as much as possible, and there's nothing like a change at the top to try and announce a fresh start,” Schenkkan told Ahval.

Trump himself is precedent for exactly this kind of convenient amnesia on the part Turkish government. Despite his famous anti-Muslim statements on the campaign trail, and orders banning travel and immigration to the United States by citizens of certain Muslim-majority countries, the Turkish government was positive about Trump’s ascension to the presidency, especially during the first months of his term. Just before Trump took office, Erdoğan characterised the change in administration as a reset that gave Turkey the opportunity to press the United States to change its policy on major issues, such as the support of the YPG, that were sticking points with the Obama administration.

However, Turkey was disappointed to find less flexibility in policy under the Trump administration than it had hoped, and the switch from Tillerson to Pompeo may have similar results, or lack thereof. “It is too soon to tell whether Pompeo would take a different approach toward Turkey,” Amanda Sloat, Robert Bosch senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, toId Ahval. “Though I wouldn’t expect the direction of U.S. policy to change significantly.” She explained that the working groups put in place after Tillerson’s Ankara meetings were something that multiple other secretaries of state had used in the past to address tough policy issues, and that there was no reason why this particular group could not continue under the new leadership.

A major issue for the United States that Tillerson did not make any progress on during his meetings was Turkey’s prosecution and detention of an American citizen and three Turkish employees of US diplomatic posts. Pastor Andrew Brunson, a U.S. citizen and decades-long resident of Turkey, is charged with “membership and management of a terrorist organisation”. He has been in pre-trial detention for a year-and-a-half. Erdoğan has said he is willing to exchange Brunson for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish religious leader who has lived in Pennsylvania since 1999 who the Turkish government accuses of ordering the 2016 failed coup attempt. Turkey may be hoping that such an exchange could now be possible under a new secretary of state.

gülen
Fethullah Gülen

However, it will almost certainly be disappointed. Under Pompeo, U.S. policy on the issues of Brunson and Gülen will not change, Sloat told Ahval. The executive branch will continue to advocate for Brunson’s release but, “questions concerning Turkey’s requested extradition of Gülen are being handled by the Justice Department, as this is a legal question regarding whether the Turkish government has provided sufficient evidence to suggest probable cause.”

Turkey has provided what it says is sufficient evidence, but according to Nick Danforth, senior policy analyst for the Bipartisan Policy Center, “it is increasingly clear that Gülen will not, and should not, be extradited to Turkey.” Danforth told Ahval that “the Brunson case serves as a reminder that Turkish policy will ultimately be decisive in determining the future of the relationship.” At least in the case of policy and relations with Turkey, it is likely that the more things change in the Trump administration, the more things will stay the same.

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