Binali Yıldırım’s stopover in Washington

Many social media users in the United States only became aware of Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s official visit to Washington D.C. when he published his own photographs, taken around the capital’s parks and next to landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial and the Martin Luther King monument.

Having arrived in Washington with a mountain of problems that he had no chance of solving, Yıldırım would have been all the more exasperated to hear that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence had delayed their meeting by 24 hours to attend a funeral in Texas.

Binali Yildirim in Washington DC park
Binali Yildirim is in Washington DC sightseeing


Yıldırım had set foot in the city with fresh hope about improving U.S.-Turkish relations. Washington had just announced that it would restart issuing visas in Turkey on a “limited basis” almost a month after implementing a ban. But the optimism was short-lived. Three hours after the U.S. announcement, the Turkish Embassy in the city responded critically, describing the Americans’ statement as “odd” and “not reflecting the truth”. Contrary to U.S. claims, it said, Washington had not been given assurances by Ankara about the arrest of consular staff. So, Yıldırım’s trip then proceeded not with hope, but with crisis.

When he arrived on Tuesday, Yıldırım learned that his meeting with Pence had been set back a day to Thursday. So then he convened a well-attended meeting of think-tank representatives to talk about Turkey and the Turkish-U.S. relationship. But, when American journalists asked why several members of U.S. think tanks and U.S. officials had been accused of complicity in the coup attempt last year, Yıldırım responded rather acidly that almost everyone in Turkey feels that the U.S. refusal to extradite Fethullah Gülen, a cleric Turkey blames for the coup, demonstrates its involvement. “Sometimes appearances are more powerful than reality,” Yıldırım added.

Meanwhile, back in Turkey’s capital Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continued his tirades against the United States.

The meeting between Yıldırım and Pence lasted about 70 minutes. As Yıldırım is known for his slow talking and has zero English, one would assume that the translations took up a significant portion of the time they spent together. The White House statement declared an agreement on “the need for constructive dialogue in their bilateral relations,” as well as the hopes that the meeting would “usher in a new chapter in U.S.-Turkey relations.”

But, as if to spell out that the White House has not forgotten the acrimonious events of the past few weeks, the statement continued severely:

“The Vice President expressed deep concern over the arrests of American citizens, Mission Turkey local staff, journalists, and members of civil society under the state of emergency and urged transparency and due process in the resolution of their cases.”

Diplomatically speaking. the words and tone Pence used in the statement to Yıldırım were about as critical as a foreign guest might ever expect.

According to senior U.S. officials who spoke to Ahval, Pence raised concerns in the meeting about Andrew Brunson, the American pastor held in Turkey for over a year. Pence, known for his strongly-held conservative and religious views, also brought up Brunson’s case during talks with Erdoğan last May. Since then, Brunson has been charged with attempting to overthrow the Turkish parliament and government.

Turkey’s prime ministry, in turn, expressed its own concerns over the “arming of the YPG terrorist organisation” and demanded an end to U.S. support. The statement also reiterated a demand that ringleaders of the "Gülen organisation (FETO)" should be rounded up and extradited to Turkey. It also referred to the Reza Zarrab trial in New York, describing it as illegal, based on fake evidence and as harming U.S.-Turkish relations. It should be noted that, while the Turks placed emphasis on the YPG problem, the American side did not mention it at all. Similarly, Erdoğan raised the same issue during his May trip, not President Trump.

As for Reza Zarrab, the Turkish statement was taken as a slight on the U.S. judiciary, claiming, as it does, that the case had been put together using falsified evidence. This is, without a doubt, an insult to American security and law enforcement personnel, investigators and attorneys who have been working on the case since 2010.

Yıldırım was unable to make any progress on the extradition of Gülen, the release of Zarrab, or the sticky issue of U.S.-YPG relations. On top of that, another case that lurks uncomfortably close to the Turkish government is that of Trump’s former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn. The number of stories in the American press about Flynn’s unexpectedly close links to the AKP government seems to grow with each passing day.

Thus Yıldırım, having arrived in Washington under these circumstances, but knowing that he is only a player on Erdoğan’s team in Ankara, concluded his rather low-profile visit.

Only a day after the Washington trip, it turned out that U.S. federal investigators have been probing Flynn’s lobbying efforts on behalf of Turkey, including an alleged meeting with Turkish officials in December last year, in which Flynn was allegedly offered millions of dollars to secure the return of Gülen and to see that a U.S. case against a Turkish-Iranian national, Reza Zarrab, was dismissed. Neither Flynn's December 2016 meeting with Turkish Government officials, nor his involvement with the Zarrab case were reported before.

Yıldırım also spoke behind closed doors in Washington, at events organized by the SETA “think tank”, which is known as being a mouthpiece of the Turkish government. He also spoke at an embassy event at the invitation of another institution with close ties to the AKP government. He did not speak at any American institutions or think tanks to describe his vision. No American mainstream press organisations published news on his visit, though he gave an interview to CNN's Fareed Zakaria to be broadcasted on Sunday. Still, no one besides those with an interest in U.S.-Turkey relations had any idea about his arrival.

Nor was it even very clear why Yıldırım came. There was not so much as a single surprising sentence uttered about Turkish regional affairs, nor was there anything noteworthy said about relations with the United States. There was no joint statement with Pence on how they could deal with the countries’ disagreements. The likely reason for this state of affairs was Yıldırım’s lack of a Western education and constraints placed on him by President Erdoğan.

After Washington, Yıldırım travelled to New York. There, as is becoming the custom for Turkish officials, he met with leaders of the Jewish community. He was also due to meet with investors, who he is trying to persuade to invest in Turkey, or at least provide credit for the Turkish Sovereign Wealth Fund.

And finally, in traveling to New York, Yıldırım was treading the streets of the city where Reza Zarrab and Halkbank deputy chief executive officer Mehmet Hakan Atilla are arrested. Yıldırım's Washington visit was not going to bring a solution to any problems between the two countries. Any meetings in New York with Zarrab's or Atilla's lawyers could be much more significant, however.