Biden mends fences with Turkey, at the expense of Kurdish forces in Syria

Biden and Erdoğan in Ankara. [Twitter]

On a visit to Ankara, US Vice President Joe Biden sought yesterday (24 August) to ease tensions with Turkey which have been growing since the 15 July coup attempt.

Biden arrived in Ankara over a month after the coup attempt with a lengthy agenda, including regional matters and anti-terror cooperation. Turkish Prime Minister Yıldırım and Biden held a nearly four-hour meeting, and another meeting with the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan followed.

As Turkey has repaired ties with Russia, the US fears that it could lose a strategic ally.

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Turkey is demanding the extradition of cleric Fethullah Gülen, in exile in the US since 1999, whom it considers to be the mastermind being the coup attempt, and the head of FETO, the so-called Gülenist Terror Organisation. Ankara compares the 15 July events to 9/11 and complains that the US reaction has been weak. Many Turks believe that Washington wasdirectly involved with the attempted putsch.

Last but not least, Turkey wants the US to drop its support for the Kurdish rebels in Syria, in their fight against Islamic State.

The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia forces, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have acted as ground forces for the US-led airstrikes, since 2014. Military analysts regard the YPG as the most effective regional militia fighting Islamic State, and the Western alliance has sought to bolster the YPG, providing it with arms and advisors, in lieu of formally committing ground forces to Syria.

The Kurdish effort to create an autonomous state in eastern Syria, dubbed ‘Rojava’ has turned the YPG into icons for the left in the West, as the militia has sought to create a multiethnic socialist enclave in the region, and attracted hundreds of foreign fighters, including former US and UK servicemen, leftwing European activists, and even Israelis. Contra Ankara, the PYD have paid lip service to Assad, claiming that it is seeking autonomy, not independence.

However, Turkey considers the PYD as a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered to be a terrorist organisation both by the US and the EU. Similar to the situation during the US invasion of Iraq, the Syrian war has helped the PKK to bolster its power and try to build a state, Tukey claims, putting US-Turkish ties to the test, as both sides have collided over Washington’s support for the Kurds.

Biden has reportedly made the effort to please his Turkish hosts as much as possible. Among other things, he compared the 15 July events to 9/11, and hailed the “bravery” of Erdoğan on in the night of the coup attempt.

The US vice president’s visit seems to have achieved at least one major Turkish objective. In Ankara, Biden made it clear that the US new position is that the Syrian Kurdish forces must return to east of the Euphrates river after seizing control of the Syrian town of Manbij. Ankara has said it expects Syrian Kurdish fighters to withdraw across the river after the Manbij victory by the US-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

Turkish forces and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels crossed the border to take the town of Jarablus from Islamic State on 22 August, in an operation described by Ankara as aimed at securing its frontier against both the jihadist group and Kurdish fighters.

Syrian Kurdish officials attacked Turkey’s military intervention in Syria as “a blatant aggression” and warned that Ankara was entering a “quagmire”.

Aldar Xelil, an influential Syrian Kurdish politician, called the Turkish intervention “a declaration of war” on the autonomous administration set up by Kurdish groups in northern Syria since 2011.

The most difficult issue

Biden denied allegations that Washington had foreknowledge of the coup attempt, and called those involved in the coup attempt “terrorists”.

Turkey’s demand for the extradition of Gülen seems to be a more difficult issue. Erdoğan had said Washington had “no excuse” for hosting Gülen, whom Ankara accuses of operating a network of followers inside the armed forces and civil service to take over Turkey.

Speaking after meeting Erdoğan in Ankara, Biden said that the US had more lawyers working on the Gülen extradition request than in any other such recent case.

“We will abide by our system. We will continue to abide by the system and, God willing, there will be enough data and evidence to be able to meet the criteria that you all believe exist,” Biden said. “We have no reason to shelter someone who would attack an ally and try to overthrow a democracy.”

The Turkish press reported that Biden had said he wished Gülen was in another country, not in the US.

“For us the priority is the extradition of Gülen as soon as possible,” Erdoğan said in a joint press conference with Biden. “But the agreement between the United States and Turkey requires the detention of such people. This individual continues to manage a terrorist organization from where he is.”

Lawyers say the process could take years. Even if approved by a judge, an extradition request would still have to go to the US Secretary of State, who can consider non-legal factors, such as humanitarian arguments.

The government has cracked down on suspected Gülen followers, detaining more than 40,000 people and formally arresting about half of them. About 80,000 people in the judiciary, police, civil service and elsewhere have been sacked or suspended.

Turkish authorities fired more than 2,800 judges and prosecutors on Wednesday, in the latest purge related to the coup, broadcaster CNN Turk reported.

Critics fear Erdoğan is using the coup as a pretext to curtail dissent. Biden, who made strong statements on free speech and free expression on his last visit to Turkey, was less vocal this time. A US reported asked a question about the purges in Turkey, but Biden pretended he didn’t head.

Biden said that the prime minister, the foreign minister and others had made it clear they would adhere to constitutional principles and that the rule of law would prevail.

“Let’s give them some time. I believe they mean what they say. And so let’s move on,” said Biden.

No information has filtered whether the sides discussed the issue of the US nuclear weapons at the Turkish airbase of Incirlik.

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