Over the past few weeks, several world leaders have made visits to Turkey. As the United States and its allies battle the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden visited Ankara in an attempt to secure greater Turkish cooperation, while Turkey attempted to push its own agenda. Pope Francis also visited Turkey, bringing a message of Muslim-Christian unity against extremist violence and attempting to bridge the gap between the Catholic and Orthodox faiths. Lastly, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Turkey to strengthen Turkey and Russia’s economic and energy ties, proposing an alternative pipeline route through Turkey.
Of the three, Putin was most successful, Pope Francis was the most inspirational, and Biden returned to Washington empty-handed.
Vice President Biden
Over the weekend of November 22, Biden visited Turkey, in an attempt to bridge the gap between Washington and Ankara on operations against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. In particular, the United States wants to gain both access to Turkey’s İncirlik Air Base for combat operations against IS and permission to use Turkish airspace. Turkey is using İncirlik as a bargaining chip to receive what it wants from the United States: a shift from an anti-IS strategy to an anti-Assad one, including a no-fly zone within Syria.
Turkey has been attempting to persuade its allies that establishing a no-fly or buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border would be a sound strategy with which to combat IS’s advances. In fact, Turkey has essentially given the United States an ultimatum: create a buffer zone or fight IS without Turkey. Press reports claim that, at least rhetorically, the Obama administration has begun to consider this option. Secretary of State John Kerry has called the buffer zone an idea “worth examining” and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that he anticipated that “there could be circumstances in the future where that [the buffer zone strategy] would be part of the campaign.” Still, the administration seems overall unenthusiastic about the strategy.
As part of his visit—the only part garnering any real success—Biden announced that the United States would provide nearly $135 million in additional humanitarian assistance “to help feed civilians” from Syria who have taken refuge in Turkey. Much of that funding, nearly $11 million, is slated for the World Food Program for household food rations and vouchers for refugees.
Biden spoke about the depth of U.S.-Turkish relations, saying that the bilateral relationship is “as strong as it’s ever been,” and about how the United States “needs” Turkey. Biden’s praise for Turkey came after his remarks at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in October, where he said “our biggest problem is our allies,” and named Turkey along with the United Arab Emirates as providing arms to the Islamic State—remarks which had President Erdoğan declare, “Biden is history to me.”
However, Biden returned to Washington empty-handed. Though he praised Turkey as a vital partner of the United States, the gulf between Turkish and American Syrian policy remains vast.
On November 27, Pope Francis became the fourth pope to visit Turkey, following the visits of Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who made the most recent visit in 2006. Francis stayed in Turkey for a total of three days, and his agenda included meeting with fellow clerics (both Muslim and Christian) and visiting Christian and Muslim landmarks in Turkey. During his time at the Blue Mosque, Pope Francis faced toward Mecca and stood for two minutes of reflection next to a top Islamic cleric, stating, “I prayed for peace, for Turkey, for everyone, for myself. It was a moment of sincere prayer.”
Pope Francis used his time in Turkey to cast a spotlight on religious minorities in Iraq and Syria who face persecution by Sunni Muslim extremists: “[h]undreds of thousands of persons have been forced to abandon their homes and countries in order to survive and remain faithful to their religious beliefs.”
Turkey’s Christian community is small—just around 80,000, only a small portion of which are Catholics, in a country of roughly 75 million Muslims. On his last day, Francis sought to unite this 80,000 by urging to end the millennium-old (since 1054) schism between Orthodox and Catholic Churches, explaining that unity was all the more important considering the advances of IS extremists. During a prayer service, the pope bowed his head and asked Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew to kiss him on his brow, in a show of humility toward the patriarch.
After speaking with President Erdoğan, Pope Francis called for a dialogue among all faiths to end Islamist extremism. Referring to IS, Pope Francis stated, “[p]articular concern arises from the fact that, owing mainly to an extremist and fundamentalist groups, entire communities, especially—though not exclusively Christians and Yazidis, have suffered and continue to suffer barbaric violence simply because of their ethnic and religious identity.”
The pope’s visit, however, did raise a point of contention. During his flight back to Rome, Pope Francis voiced his support for the reopening of the Turkey-Armenia border, saying that he hoped the 100-year anniversary of the mass deportation of Armenians from Turkey in 1915 would be an occasion to strengthen Turkish-Armenian relations. These remarks were met with backlash from the head of Turkey’s National Action Party (MHP), who retorted that the Pope had no right to call for the reopening, and that such remarks were “dangerous.”
On December 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Ankara to discuss Turkey’s energy needs. Though the two nations stand on the opposite side of the Syrian conflict — Russia is one of Syrian leader Assad’s strongest supporters, while Turkey has been a vocal proponent of Assad’s ouster — Putin stated that Russia is preparing to increase gas exports to Turkey and signed a protocol on energy cooperation with President Erdoğan. Russia is Turkey’s second highest trading partner and the countries seek to increase bilateral commerce to $100 billion a year by 2020.
Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov said that the Syrian issue will not outweigh cooperation on energy issues. “The first and last thing there is to know about Turkey’s relationship with Russia is that 60 percent of Turkey’s natural gas imports come from Russia. … Turkey can’t afford to follow the U.S. and EU-led efforts to squeeze Russia by cutting off trade, particularly with the instability on its own border and with its lack of alternative options.”
Putin arrived with a proposal to scrap existing plans for the South Stream pipeline that was supposed to run under the Black Sea to Bulgaria and to instead route a new undersea pipeline to Turkey. With an annual capacity of 63 billion cubic meters, the proposed pipeline could deliver four times more natural gas than Turkey’s existing annual purchases from Russia. With a gas hub on the Turkish-Greek border, the pipeline would still be able to supply Southern Europe. To sweeten the deal, Russia offered Turkey a six percent discount and has agreed to supply Turkey an additional three billion cubic meters of gas.
This move could be dangerous for Turkey, which already depends on Russia for almost 60 percent of its gas, increasing Turkish dependence on Russia and placing Turkey further at odds with the European Union over its energy policy.
Marie Farley contributed to this post.