In what appeared to be a rare instance of diplomatic camaraderie between Ankara and Washington, some constructive rhetoric was exchanged in October. But major disagreements continue to cast a shadow over future ties.
The release of US Pastor Andrew Brunson on October 12, following a court order, may have a positive impact on Turkey-US ties after some of the worst years in their bilateral relationship.
Though many experts described Brunson's release as a "good sign" for Turkey-US ties, the-elephant-in-the-room situation continues to haunt the relations.
The US has yet to withdraw its support from PKK terror group's Syrian wing, the YPG, in northern Syria and extradite Fetullah Gulen, one of Turkey's most wanted fugitives who lives in self-imposed exile in the US.
The Brunson issue
The American pastor’s two-year-long detention on terrorism-related charges triggered a diplomatic tussle between Washington and Ankara. A trade spat followed the dispute, sending the lira currency to a record low in early August as US President Donald Trump authorised the doubling of steel and aluminium tariffs on Turkey.
“Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!” Trump said in a tweet.
Describing the tariff hikes as “economic attacks,” Turkey increased tariffs on some US imports in retaliation.
But soon after Brunson’s release, Trump's shrill rhetoric against Turkey began to change. Trump tweeted saying the move could lead to a “good, perhaps great, relations between the United States & Turkey.”
“I hope that the United States and Turkey continue cooperation in a manner that benefits two allies,” Erdogan responded in a tweet, stressing upon Turkey's judicial independence as the decision to release Brunson was taken by an independent Turkish court.
Not long after, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate in early October. The Turkish investigation and shocking details that emerged, pointing to a bigger conspiracy most possibly hatched in the uppermost echelons of Saudi Arabia's ruling family, led Washington and Ankara to establish some degree of collaboration.
Almost a week after Khashoggi's killing, Trump told reporters that he hoped the case “will sort itself out.”
But as Turkey mounted pressure on Saudi Arabia, the US’ strategic partner in the Middle East, Washington began to show serious interest in the next stages of the investigation.
Gina Haspel, head of the CIA, visited Ankara to review the evidence related to Khashoggi's killing.
The CIA later concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing at Saudi's Istanbul consulate.
The YPG issue
Though experts believed Brunson's release has brought Turkey-US relations back on track, Erdogan continued to insist the US rethink Washington’s support of the YPG, an armed Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which has been designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU.
In September 2014, Washington began cooperating with the YPG on the pretext of fighting Daesh in Syria, sidelining the Free Syrian Army (FSA), one of the major opposition groups that fought against the troops loyal to Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad. A year after the US formed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance led by the YPG. The move angered Turkey since the PKK has waged a terror campaign against the Turkish state for several decades.
As the diplomatic rift intensified, Washington promised Ankara to keep the group confined to the east of the Euphrates River. However, the SDF crossed the river from the western banks, taking control of Manbij. The YPG has still not withdrawn from the occupied territories.
On October 2, Washington announced it would dispatch joint patrols with Turkey in the YPG-controlled Manbij, while continuing to support the YPG on the east of the Euphrates River. The statement was perceived positively in Turkey.
A week later, the White House announced that it had put a combined bounty of $12 million on three key PKK leaders – a step widely seen as yet another positive gesture toward Turkey. But Ankara raised some concerns.
Turkish Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said he welcomes the decision but “the US can’t deceive anyone by distinguishing the YPG from the PKK.”
Besides the YPG issue, Turkey's request for the extradition of Fetullah Gulen is pending.
The leader of the Fetullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO), Gulen and his followers attempted a military coup in July 2016. The failed attempt claimed the lives of 249 people and injured more than 2,000 others.
The case has not made much progress in American courts over the last two years. Ankara has supplied US prosecutors with fresh and compelling evidence against Gulen on several occasions, but the US Justice Department has refused to extradite the preacher and has asked for more proof.
An NBC report, however, recently claimed that Washington was looking at ways to extradite Gulen, in order to placate Turkey over the killing of Khashoggi.
Both Turkey and the US denied any link between the homicide investigation and Gulen’s extradition.