Biden aims to reassure Turks of US support after failed coup
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Vice President Biden sought Wednesday to reassure Turkey that the United States has its back, less than two months after a failed military coup that Ankara has blamed on a 75-year-old Muslim cleric living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
A potential strain in relations — Turkey’s request that the US extradite the cleric, Fethullah Gulen — was expected to top the agenda during the vice president’s brief visit to the country, along with ongoing efforts to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The trip comes as Turkey launched a new campaign Wednesday to clear ISIS from a border town in northern Syria after recent attacks in the region that the government has blamed on terror groups.
In a press conference at Çankaya Palace following his meeting with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, Biden said the US was committed to helping the Turks bring to justice those responsible for the coup attempt.
“We are cooperating with Turkish authorities,” Biden said, referring to the extradition request. “We have no, no, no interest whatsoever in protecting anyone who has done harm to an ally, none. But we need to meet the legal standard requirement under our law.”
Some American officials privately doubt Gulen’s involvement and have been critical of the heavy-handed Turkish government response to the coup attempt.
The fallout has left US-Turkish relations at their most fragile point in decades.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist AKP have taken positions contrary to American preferences even as Washington depends on its NATO ally for support on a host of regional issues, ranging from fighting terrorism to dealing with Syrian refugees and foreign fighters who transit through the strategically located country.
In the wake of the coup attempt, Turkish leaders have accused the US of insufficient support for the government and even alleged possible American involvement — which the Obama administration has strenuously denied.
Yildirim said Wednesday that while the Turkish government accepts the US assertion that it wasn’t involved, there may be some people in the country who believe differently and he pointedly suggested the successful extradition of Gulen could affect those perceptions.
“The US administration, President Obama and Mr. Vice President as well, have clearly and explicitly condemned the coup attempt,” Yildirim said, indicating he accepted the validity of their words.
But he continued, “There might be different opinions among the people,” which he said the extradition of Gulen would “in a short amount of time return or rectify the people’s perception back to their normal positive situation.”
Biden stressed Wednesday that the decision of whether to extradite Gulen would be handled by a judge, not the President. Such a move would be an impeachable offense, he said, noting that US legal experts are working closely with Turkish officials to review relevant evidence to be supplied to an American court.
The vice president also expressed “admiration” to the Turkish people for taking to the streets during the coup attempt to “take back” their democracy.
“The people of Turkey have no greater friend than the United States of America,” Biden said. “We’ve seen that borne out each time we stand together to face down threats to our shared security and common values.”
The Turks have submitted four extradition requests for Gulen, but all of them were related to allegations of criminal behavior that predated the coup attempt, said a senior administration official who briefed the press traveling with Biden.
The official said the Turks had not yet provided extradition requests related to Gulen’s alleged involvement with the coup attempt on July 15, nor provided evidence of his connection to it.
Gulen has denied any involvement in the failed coup, which left more than 200 people dead.
The Department of Justice is taking the extradition request “very seriously” and has more lawyers on the case than any recent extradition request they have handled, according to the senior administration official. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that some Justice Department officials were set to travel to Turkey this week to meet with their counterparts to review some of the materials that have been produced by Turkish officials.
Within Turkey, Erdogan has launched a massive crackdown on judges, teachers and journalists whom the West sees as unlikely to have joined with the military officers behind the plot. The effort has raised significant human rights concerns.
Biden said he had addressed the issues in his meetings with Turkish leaders Wednesday. He was due to meet with Erdogan later in the day.
“They plan on making sure their constitutional principles are adhered to and that the rule of law will prevail,” Biden said. “Remember the confusion after 9/11? Let’s give this some time. Let’s give them some time. I believe they mean what they say and so let’s move on.”
Maintaining strong relations with Turkey is particularly important as the US and coalition countries battle ISIS. At one point after the coup attempt, the Turkish government temporarily cut off power to Incirlik Air Base, which Biden called a “linchpin” of US anti-ISIS efforts. US forces have relied on Incirlik for launching air strikes and conducting surveillance and reconnaissance missions against the terror group.
Biden said he regretted not being able to travel to Turkey sooner to show solidarity with the Turkish people and the Turkish government.
Before the new conference, the vice president also toured the parliament building, badly damaged by air strikes during the coup attempt, with the Speaker of Parliament Ismail Kahraman and Biden noted the psychological impact the damage has on the public.
“This is devastating, can you imagine if this happened at home?” Biden said after seeing windows blown out by the blast, broken glass and rubble in the complex’s courtyard. “Can you imagine what the American public would be saying or doing?”
Biden later talked about the damage “striking at the heart of Turkish democracy” and said he was thankful the speaker had not been in his office when the building was struck.