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What Can Biden Bring Turkey?

By Nicholas Danforth

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Turkey this week is the first high-level visit from a U.S. official since the country’s July 15 coup attempt. In the intervening month, U.S.-Turkish relations have come under remarkable strain; some in Turkey have gone as far as accusing the U.S. government of orchestrating the coup while others are simply angry Washington has not been more “supportive” in its aftermath. Amid a flurry of often absurd anti-Americanism, U.S. policymakers might be tempted to conclude that investing too much political capital in trying to assuage Turkish anger would be futile. Yet given the long history behind the American-Turkish relationship, the trauma Turkey has just endured and the legitimacy of some of Turkey’s own frustrations with the United States, there are a few high-profile gestures it would behoove Washington to make for its own sake.

Get to the bottom of Fethullah Gülen’s role in the July 15 coup attempt in the most transparent and high-profile way possible. 

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Between conspiracy theories and coerced confessions, Turkey seems intent on discrediting whatever proof it may eventually present to the U.S. government about Gülen’s alleged complicity in the coup attempt. But knowing what actually happened is too important to be left to tainted evidence or diplomatic tussling. Were Congress to hold hearings on the subject when it returns next month, it could provide a valuable forum for finding answers that Washington would take seriously. It could also help demonstrate that the United States took Turkey’s fundamental concerns about the Gülen movement, and its extensive lobbying activities in this country, seriously as well. Hearings will not stanch the stream of accusations coming from Turkey. But they can provide a crucial reference point as the U.S. government tries to calibrate its approach to Turkey’s extradition request, and its response to Turkey’s anti-Gülenist purges.

Make clear that Washington will continue to coordinate with Turkey about U.S. cooperation with Kurdish forces in Syria.

To date, Washington has restrained the Democratic Union Party (PYD) from uniting its territory in northern Syria and worked to ensure that its cooperation with the group does not aid the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States. Most recently, Washington provided coalition air support for a Turkish-backed operation in Jarablus that would prevent the PYD from seizing territory along Turkey’s border. These efforts have hardly satisfied Ankara, but abandoning them would make a bad situation worse. As importantly, if more long-term, Washington should stress that when Turkey is prepared to return to the negotiating table with the PKK, the United States will use its leverage to pressure the group into doing so as well. While a political solution may prove impossible in the near future, Washington should push both sides toward clarifying their negotiating positions and moderating their terms for a final settlement.

Keep up the criticism where justified but don’t begrudge Turkey sympathy and praise when due.

Expressing support for the Turkish people following a brutal and unprecedented attack on the country’s democracy should not be seen as a concession to President Erdoğan or his government. Likewise, acknowledging the courage and heroism ordinary citizens displayed on the night of July 15 is something that would, in other circumstances, come naturally. Ordinary people confronting tanks, from Budapest 1956 or Tiananmen Square, are staple images in America’s cherished repertoire of democratic iconography. Washington would only gain by waxing a bit more effusive in expressing solidarity where it is deserved. Biden’s visit is, if nothing else, an opportunity to do so.

U.S.-Turkish relations will remain strained for the foreseeable future, but taking these steps will minimize the chances of a more serious breakdown, and lay a foundation for rebuilding relations on a better footing as the opportunity arises in the future.

KEYWORDS: FETULLAH GULEN, PKK, PYD, SYRIA, TAYYIP ERDOGAN, TURKEY, VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN