Europe

What will US vice-president find in Turkey?

US Vice President Joe Biden Image copyright Reuters

Turkey's biggest cities have witnessed a spate of deadly bombings and a bloody attempted coup this year. As US Vice-President Joe Biden arrives in the Turkish capital, Ankara, how do relations between the two countries stand?

When Barack Obama chose Turkey as the first Muslim country he visited as President, in 2009, the praise here was gushing.

He told the Turkish parliament his trip was a "statement about the importance of Turkey not just to the United States but to the world".

"He won our hearts," read one Turkish headline.

The then Prime Minister, now President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, purred that Turkey and the US would walk "hand in hand towards a bright future".

Fast forward seven years into that future, and the relationship has badly soured.

Since the failed coup here last month, anti-American sentiment has peaked.

Polls show the majority of Turks, a nation well-versed in conspiracy theories, believe the US was complicit in the attempt.

Daily headlines scream of Turkey's betrayal by its ally.

Joe Biden, on a valedictory visit to Turkey, will face rather less of the warmth than his boss encountered in 2009.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Turks tried to challenge rebel tanks as they took to the streets of Ankara

Why the coldness? Well, picture 15 July: a group of rebel soldiers bombed their own parliament with fighter jets.; others drove tanks into or fired at those resisting their attempt to take over the Bosphorus bridge in Istanbul; commandoes almost captured the president.

It was arguably the gravest ever attack on the Turkish state.

Some 240 people were killed, responding to President Erdogan's call to flood onto the streets and stop the tanks.

Parliament remains scarred by rockets.

Banners commemorating the "15 July martyrs" hang everywhere.

Three weeks of nightly vigils - labelled a "democracy watch" - drew vast crowds.

Turkey has united in condemnation of the failed coup, and 15 July has become almost a moment of national rebirth: the date when this nation declared that, whatever it thought of a still-divisive president, he and his government would be chosen at the ballot box, rather than ousted by tanks.

The US, along with many other governments, immediately condemned the attempted coup and expressed support for Turkey's democratically elected government.

But there was little more.

No Western leader came to Ankara to stand with Nato's second-largest army and a candidate for EU membership.

Their public statements have focused less on the trauma of the coup night and more on the tens of thousands arrested or dismissed since then.

There is a widespread feeling here that Turkey was abandoned by its allies.

Image copyright AFP/getty
Image caption Mr Gulen denies involvement in the coup

Rage is particularly fierce towards the US because of one man: Fethullah Gulen.

The cleric is alleged to have masterminded the attempted coup with his huge network of followers across Turkey.

Since 1999, he has lived in self-imposed exile in the US state of Pennsylvania.

He is now public enemy number one here, his effigy hanged in public rallies.

Ankara has demanded his extradition.

But Washington says it needs proof of his alleged complicity.

"The US must choose: Gulen or Turkey," said an emboldened President Erdogan.

Many believe that, amid talk of reinstating the death penalty here and grave doubts over judicial independence, Fethullah Gulen will never be put on a plane back to Turkey.

"One of the challenges is a dichotomy about how the coup night is viewed in Turkey and out of the country," the US ambassador to Ankara, John Bass, told me.

"For Turkey, it was the culmination of many years of dealing with the challenge of a secretive organisation that many here believe infiltrated the government and was engaged in its own agenda.

"For many out of the country who don't have that experience, the coup attempt was an isolated event.

"The Turkish government has expressed frustration and Western governments are trying to explain their challenge in understanding it."

There is, of course, a deep alliance between the US and Turkey - and Joe Biden and his Turkish hosts will address shared challenges such as Syria.

Ankara was previously a somewhat reluctant partner in the US-led coalition against so-called Islamic State.

But a wave of IS bombings across the country, the latest presumed to be last weekend's Gaziantep attack, jolted Turkey into tougher action against the jihadists.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Many of the 51 victims of the August attack on a wedding in Gaziantep were children

It is now planning a major offensive on the IS-held province of Jarablus and is hosting about 1,500 Syrian rebel soldiers in preparation.

But as anger and disappointment with the West has grown in the past month, Turkey has reached out to the other side.

Mr Erdogan's warm meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin was followed by a visit here from the Iranian foreign minister.

Could the West be losing Turkey as a vital ally?

"Turkey has a robust security and economic partnership with the US and EU," Mr Bass told me.

"That doesn't change overnight.

"But Turkey is also a neighbour of Iran and Russia.

"It's understandable that they're going to want to get together and talk.

"It's also not unusual for some governments to take advantage of a moment."

The vice-president would hope his visit dispelled wild theories of US complicity in the coup attempt that "frustrate and anger a lot of Americans inside and outside the government", the ambassador said.

The acrimony between Ankara and Washington has run both ways.

It is unlikely hearts here will be won in this visit as in 2009.

But it is a vital fence-mending exercise.

Mr Biden is stepping into the lion's den.

The roar will be loud.

But Turkey and the US know that, fundamentally, they need each other.

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