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Pence-Yildirim talks promise to open new chapter in Washington-Ankara ties

Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim meets with US Vice President Mike Pence at the White House in Washington on Thursday. (Reuters)
ANKARA: The meeting between US Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on Thursday provided a new opportunity for the two allies to reaffirm their strategic partnership and mutual interest in preserving stability in the Middle East.
“The leaders expressed hope that the meeting would help to usher in a new chapter in US-Turkey relations and agreed on the need for constructive dialogue, as friends and allies, on bilateral challenges,” according to a statement from the White House.
During one of the longest meetings between the Trump administration and high-level Turkish officials — an hour and 20 minutes — the White House said that Pence welcomed Turkey’s continuing contributions to global security and its efforts to counter Daesh.
“He underscored the US commitment to stand with Turkey against the PKK and other terrorist threats,” the statement said.
The US is using Turkey’s southern Incirlik air base in its campaign against Daesh. The Pentagon also supported Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation — which was launched in August 2016 and ended this year in March — through intelligence and airstrikes for clearing Daesh from Jarablus in northern Syria, just across Turkish border.
However, the US’s support of Syrian Kurdish militia (YPG/PYD) by providing them with weapons and ammunition in the fight against Daesh remains a source of tension between the two countries.
Ankara objects to the partnership between the US and Syrian Kurdish militia because it fears that one day these arms might be used against the Turkish state. Turkey insists that YPG/PYD is a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), listed by Turkey, the US and Europe as a terrorist organization.
On his way to New York following his meeting, Yildirim defined his meeting with Pence as “very productive.”
The Turkish premier also said that he conveyed Ankara’s expectations of an end to all activities of Gulenists in the US and the extradition of their leader Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric considered to be the mastermind behind last year’s coup attempt in Turkey.
Yildirim said that on the topic of the need to reactivate a UN-backed Geneva process for the settlement of Syrian conflict, “I told them that the Astana talks are not an alternative to Geneva, and we have to stop the civil war with a new formula.”
The recent visa row, which was sparked by the arrest of two local employees at the US Consulate in Istanbul, highlighted deteriorating relations between Ankara and Washington, which mutually suspended the processing of all non-immigrant visas for each other’s citizens last month.
In an attempt to mend the rift, the consular missions of both countries resumed visa services on a limited basis, “prioritizing medical, humanitarian, and student visas,” just two days before the Turkish state visit to Washington.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, who heads the German Marshall Fund in Ankara, highlighted the fact that “at the joint press conference during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington, Trump said that the US and Turkey would have an unbeatable friendship, but relations got even worse afterwards.”
“When Erdogan and Trump met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, Trump said, ‘I think right now we are as close as we’ve ever been,’ and the relationship got no better,” he told Arab News.
Similarly, according to Unluhisarcikli, opening a new page in the relationship that was announced by Pence is, for now, just a rhetorical statement.
“The crisis between the US and Turkey is both very broad and very deep and can’t be resolved in the short term, particularly when tactics take over strategy in Washington and policy in Ankara is based on the never-ending election cycle,” he said, adding that in the medium term both allies would have to think more strategically, and that is when the “new page” would be opened.
According to Megan Gisclon, a researcher on US-Turkey relations at the Istanbul Policy Center, as the Trump administration has been silent on several undemocratic developments inside Turkey, many analysts have highlighted the emphasis that Pence placed on the rule of law and human rights issues during the meeting.
“However, such a view overestimates the Trump administration’s potential and will to correct Turkey’s human rights record,” Gisclon told Arab News.
“Pence’s remarks stem more from his conscience and identity as an Evangelical Christian — especially with regard to imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson — rather than represents the administration’s shift toward a human rights-based Turkey policy,” she said. Brunson has been imprisoned in Turkey for more than a year on charges linked to Gulenists.
While it is unclear what exactly ushering in a “new chapter” means for bilateral ties, Gisclon thinks that in terms of security it is hard to see any headway that the Vice President will make given that his influence on security policy is relatively limited compared to the generals Trump has put in charge.
“The most optimistic takeaway from this meeting is that communication between the two leaders may increase in the near future, which will hopefully prevent future crises from erupting between the US and Turkey,” Gisclon said.

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