We are going through very odd days. Turkey is a NATO member state whose geographic location is at the intersection point of a whole host of problematic issues. Yet, no direct contact has been made between the leaders of the two countries even though President Joe Biden was sworn into office nearly three months ago.
Now, April 24 is just ahead of us. What Biden does on this day, commemorated by Armenians to mark the 1915 incident, will have a significant impact on the Ankara-Washington relationship. If Biden keeps the promise that he made during his presidential campaign to use the word ‘genocide’ in his statement, a phone call from the White House will remain elusive for much longer.
THE ISSUE OF THE AFGHANISTAN SUMMIT
But perhaps another high-level phone call from Washington may not be such a positive thing for Ankara considering two phone calls from two key secretaries in Biden’s cabinet have already placed two unnecessary burdens on Turkey’s foreign policy.
Turkey was stuck holding the bag on the issue of a summit between the Afghan government and the Taliban as a result of a phone call from the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to his counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu. Even as contacts for the summit began and the date was set, the Biden administration threw a curve ball and announced that the U.S. will withdraw all military forces in Afghanistan on September 11, the 20th anniversary of the attacks of 9-11.
On the heels of that statement, the UK, which fields the second largest military contingent in Afghanistan, announced its withdrawal. Moreover, the summit is looking more and more like a trap after the Taliban dragged its feet on whether it would attend, to the surprise of Ankara. The $64,000 question is whether such active participation in the troubled peace process at a time when the U.S. and UK are both withdrawing is meant to draw Turkey deeper into the Afghanistan quagmire.
The second high level phone call was held with the U.S. Secretary of Defense and his counterpart, Hulusi Akar. Interestingly, two separate statements released by Ankara and Washington following the call were notably different. While Washington emphasized the discussion about the Ukraine issue between the two defense chiefs, Ukraine wasn’t even mentioned in the statement released by Ankara.
Apparently, the AK Party government doesn’t want to confront Moscow by showing that it ‘sides with the U.S.’ on Ukraine. However, Moscow hasn’t been placated, despite both Akar’s cautiousness and the cautious language used by President Erdogan, who met with Ukrainian President Zelenski. In response, Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov frankly criticized Turkey’s armed UAV sales to Ukraine and Moscow restricted tourist flights between Turkey and Russia, citing a surge in coronavirus infections in Turkey, at a time when the tourism season is just about to begin.
THE HALKBANK TRIAL ISSUE
Those were the problems Turkey experienced after the high-level phone calls from Washington. There is also the Halkbank trial issue, which will no doubt be on the agenda during the phone call expected from Biden, which never seems to come. Ankara’s latest move to get the case dropped was to lodge an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court within the framework of the U.S. ‘Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act’.
The Court conducted a hearing through teleconference on April 12. Halkbank lawyers made the argument that the bank is used for ‘tax collection’ and that this creates a ‘state immunity’ for Halkbank. However, one of judges objected, suggesting that the instrument used in tax collection can’t provide immunity, with the example that tax can be collected with a candy store. In the end, it was emphasized that ‘Halkbank’ is a commercial bank.
The second question addressed by the judges was whether Halkbank should be considered on the same level as the Turkish state.
When the lawyers responded yes, the judges asked if Halkbank employees benefit from diplomatic immunity. We all know the answer to this question because of Hakan Atilla’s trial in the U.S. When Atilla was arrested, the Republic of Turkey never asserted a claim of ‘diplomatic immunity’, although he was the Deputy General Manager of Halkbank.
The judges will announce their decision shortly (they may already have announced it by the time this column is published). But the prognosis is not good. If the Court rejects Halkbank’s request to drop the case, the trial will start on May 3, or possibly a little later due to the pandemic.
There is the possibility Turkish officials who are mentioned directly or implied in the indictment against Halkbank could face their own legal jeopardy. Turkey’s attempt to fight the case at the Supreme Court on grounds of ‘immunity’ is interesting in this respect. Apparently, this ‘immunity’ issue will be re-introduced as the Halkbank trial proceeds. The cabinet hasn’t changed in Ankara, as expected. Is it related to this ‘immunity ’ issue?
We shall see…