Strained relations between the United States and Turkey will not improve unless Washington takes steps to address Turkish concerns over its actions in Syria and its failure to extradite a Turkish cleric sought by Ankara on terrorism charges, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in Washington on Wednesday.
Yildirim said he would take up these and other issues in a meeting Thursday with Vice President Pence, in hopes that the two countries can “start a new era” of cooperation.
But there were no signs that the Trump administration is moving toward addressing Turkey’s demand that it extradite Fethullah Gulen, a U.S. permanent resident who Ankara says was the mastermind behind a coup attempt in July 2016 in which hundreds were killed.
The Justice Department has said it is still studying evidence presented by Turkey, which so far has not been deemed sufficient to present to a federal court that must make the final decision on extradition.
“They have not given any answers. No steps have been taken,” Yildirim said in a meeting with American reporters.
Turkey considers the coup attempt akin to the September 2001 al-Qaeda attacks in the United States, the prime minister said, and the Turkish public increasingly views American failure to act on its request as an indication of U.S. involvement in a Gulenist plot.
“The head of a terrorist organization” — Gulen — “is being hosted by our ally, our friend, and nothing is being done,” Yildirim said. “That is the biggest obstacle to improvement” in relations.
When President Trump met at the United Nations in September with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he said the NATO allies were “as close as they have ever been.”
Just a month later, the two suspended issuing visas to each other’s country following the arrest of two local employees of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Turkey, part of a massive post-coup crackdown that has led to the arrests of tens of thousands of Gulen followers and ordinary critics of the government.
The crackdown has brought widespread international criticism.
This week, both countries announced they would resume limited visa issuance.
But Yildirim said that Turkey remains disappointed in the Trump administration. “It’s sad,” he said. “Nothing has changed” since relations nose-dived under former president Barack Obama.
In addition to the Gulen situation, Turkey was outraged when Trump decided in the spring to provide U.S. weapons directly to Syrian Kurdish forces the United States has used as its main ground force in offensives against the Islamic State in Syria. At the time, Turkey intimated that it might refuse U.S. access to Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, from which airstrikes are launched against the Islamic State.
Turkey considers the Kurdish force an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a separatist group that both Turkey and the United States have designated a terrorist organization.
“Unfortunately, an ally of Turkey, the United States, resorted to” the Kurds “to lead the fight against ISIS,” Yildirim said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “This was wrong.”
The Americans, he recalled, “said it was a necessity,” and that the United States would “part ways” with the Kurdish force once the militants had been defeated.
Instead, the Syrian Kurds have expanded the territory they control inside Syria, and weapons provided by the United States have been used in attacks against government forces inside Turkey, Yildirim said.
“They are a greater threat now that they have all sorts of weapons, thanks to our American friends,” he said. “These weapons need to be taken back.”
Turkey’s recent agreement to buy a sophisticated antimissile defense system from Russia came only after the United States refused to address Turkey’s needs, Yildirim said.
“We wanted to do it with the Americans,” he said. “We are obliged to defend our country.”
“We will tackle all of these issues in an open manner” with Pence, Yildirim said. “We have a positive outlook. We are hopeful.”