WHITE HOUSE - Vice President Joe Biden is President Barack Obama's highest-ranking and closest surrogate, often representing the White House in difficult diplomatic situations. Biden is known for his effusive warmth and for cultivating personal relationships with world leaders. He calls Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan an "old friend."
But the vice president will likely have his work cut out for him as he visits Turkey Wednesday; the visit comes at a tense time in the two countries' relationship.
Many Turks say they are angry about what they see as a lack of solidarity from the West after the traumatic coup, which left at least 240 people dead and included the bombing of the Turkish parliament. Turkish analyst Kemal Kirisci told VOA most people in Turkey feel the West has been too critical and not shown enough sympathy.
"In the Turkish public's mind there is a puzzlement, why is it, .why is it that it has taken such a long time for a very long-standing ally of Turkey to express solidarity and to manifest that solidarity with a visit to Turkey? And that also applies to the EU."
Kirisci pointed out that Erdogan recently had a supportive meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin-a meeting that had already been planned before the coup.
But human rights groups and many in the West are concerned that Ankara has fired or suspended nearly 80,000 government employees and soldiers since the failed coup in a massive crackdown on the military, civil service, police, academia and judiciary.
Biden is expected to publicly reassure Turkish leaders of unwavering U.S. support for its crucial NATO ally, while in private calling on Ankara to respect the rule of law.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest outlined Vice President Biden's mission: "First and foremost the vice president's message will be to indicate our continued, ongoing strong support for our allies in Turkey. That's a country that obviously is going through a lot. This is a country that was subject to a failed coup attempt earlier this summer, that is a coup attempt that was roundly and publicly condemned by the United States government."
The Gulen issue
One of the thorniest issues is likely to be the fate of the U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Turkish President Erdogan blames the 75-year-old Gulen for planning the coup and is demanding that Washington turn him over right away: "We say to America: 'Aren't we strategic partners? Don't we have extradition treaties?' If that's the case, when you ask for terrorists [to be extradited] we didn't ask for documents."
Gulen and Erdogan are former allies who are now enemies. Gulen has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania for 17 years. His mystic Islamic movement runs schools, charities and businesses around the world. At his Pennsylvania compound, Gulen told VOA's Turkish Service he was not involved in the coup and condemned the violence.
His lawyer, Reid Weingarten had this to say: "It would be unprecedented and appalling if the United States took a frail, almost octogenarian, plopped him on a plane to go back into that kind of setting with the hideous things that are being said about him by the entire Turkish government."
Biden is likely to be pressed to release Gulen, and will likely repeat in Ankara what Press Secretary Earnest explained Monday: "There is a treaty, an extradition treaty that's been on the books between United States and Turkey for more than 30 years."
Earnest said some U.S. Justice Department officials will travel to Turkey this week to meet with their Turkish counterparts and review some of the evidence against Gulen they have collected. He said the Justice Department will make the decision based on evidence and the rules on the extradition treaty. He insists that it is not a presidential decision.
At Tuesday's State Department briefing, spokesman Mark Toner confirmed to reporters that formal extradition requests for Gulen have been received from Turkey. Reporters were surprised to hear Toner say that the extradition requests for Gulen are not related to the July, 2016 coup. Toner stressed that the extradition request is not a public process, and that there is an ongoing "sober, deliberate assessment" of tranches of documents that have been sent by Turkey on Gulen.
Biden and Erdogan are also likely to discuss their joint efforts to combat the Islamic State terrorist group. Turkey has the second largest military force in NATO and is also part of the U.S.-led coalition to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In recent months, Turkey has been a frequent target of IS terrorist attacks.
More than 50 people were killed in a suicide bombing attack on a Kurdish wedding in the southeastern city of Gaziantep, believed to have been directed by the Islamic State group. The U.S. has repeatedly called on Turkey to boost its efforts to secure it border with Syria, to prevent terrorist fighters from crossing.
Source: Voice of America