From the minute he stepped off the plane this week, United States Vice-President Joe Biden’s trip to Turkey seemed ill-fated.
Intended to smooth relations frayed by last month’s botched coup in the country, Biden’s visit instead showcased acrimony with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey sent low-ranking officials – including Ankara’s deputy mayor – to greet Biden at the airport. And even before the vice-president’s visit ended, the Daily Sabah, a pro-Erdogan newspaper, declared that “Biden wasted a trip, Turkey wasted time”.
Biden was apologetic and conciliatory during his joint news conference with Erdogan. As he spoke, the Turkish leader sat back in his chair, stone-faced.
Turkish animosity towards the US ratcheted up after the failed coup on July 15, followed by a purge of thousands of soldiers, government officials and even teachers by Erdogan’s government. The Turkish government blames a self-exiled cleric living in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gülen, for inciting the coup and has demanded his extradition.
Biden repeatedly offered condolences for the coup, sounding a different note than his boss, President Barack Obama, who chastised Turkish officials for spreading rumours that the US was responsible.
“I want to make it unmistakably clear that the United States stands with our ally, Turkey,” Biden said. “Our support is absolute and it is unwavering.”
Erdogan called the relationship with the US “a model partnership” but then accused Gülen of operating a global terrorist network and demanded that the US immediately detain the preacher. At that, Biden put his face in his hands. His frustration showed through as he tried to explain the US justice system.
“The Constitution and our laws require, for someone to be extradited, that a court of the United States has to conclude there’s probable cause to extradite,” Biden said. “How long it will take will depend on what evidence is presented. Thus far, until yesterday, there has been no evidence presented about the coup.”
Senior administration officials acknowledged ahead of the trip that anything short of Gülen’s return would be a disappointment to the Turks, and said that raw feelings were understandable in the aftermath of a coup attempt that shook the country.
Even with the cool reception for Biden, co-operation between the US and Turkey continued unimpeded in the battle against Islamic State. On the same day that the vice-president visited, Turkish forces mounted an offensive in Syria against the movement, an operation that the US helped plan and supported with airstrikes, reconnaissance and intelligence.