Vice President Joe Biden faces a stiff challenge Wednesday on a one-day visit to Turkey, a key NATO ally that is reeling from terrorist attacks and a failed military coup and where anti-U.S. sentiment is at a boil.
Biden will try to reassure Turks and woo back President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has sought to show he has alternatives to U.S. and European support by making friendly overtures toward longtime adversaries Russia and Iran.
Biden also will press U.S. concerns about the arrests of thousands of soldiers, teachers, judges, journalists and others purportedly linked to the coup.
Erdogan and many Turks were angered by what they saw as the Obama administration's slow condemnation of the attempted armed overthrow on July 15, which left more than 300 people dead.
And they are enraged over the U.S. refusal thus far to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in self-exile in rural Pennsylvania who the Ankara government says orchestrated the military uprising.
Gulen has denied any involvement, and the Justice Department is reviewing Turkey's extradition requests, officials said.
Both notions have fueled fierce anti-U.S. rhetoric in Turkey's government-controlled media as even top officials accuse Washington of aiding and abetting the coup plotters.
"All of that's malarkey," responded a senior Obama administration official, imitating Biden during a briefing for reporters.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of White House rules, said Biden would address the conspiracy theories when he meets with Erdogan at the presidential palace in Ankara. Biden also will meet with Turkey's prime minister and the speaker of the Grand National Assembly.
Biden, who last visited Turkey in January, calls Erdogan a friend, but the relationship between the two countries is at its lowest point in recent memory. His return is seen as a way for the White House to emphasize the importance of U.S. relations with Turkey.
"The rhetoric has been so harsh on the Turkish side," said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey project at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"The most [Biden] can hope for is the optics: reestablishing direct contact, a show of high-level support, the very fact of the contact, that he has come to meet with the Turkish leadership at a time when public opinion is in flames," he said.
Publicly, Biden will offer enthusiastic support for Erdogan in hope of keeping Turkey in the NATO fold and in the fight against Islamic State — and away from Russia and Iran.
Privately, Biden is likely to voice U.S. concern over the mass arrests that Erdogan unleashed after the failed coup.
Both Washington and the European Union have urged Turkey to respect the rule of law as it prosecutes those responsible for the failed putsch.
Turkey has long sought to join the EU, but Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian tendencies and, more recently, his talk of reinstating the death penalty jeopardize that membership.
"We will remind them that we are close strategic allies, we had nothing to do with the coup and we are actively helping to find out who was behind it," the U.S. official said. "We are not at a tipping point or breaking point with Turkey, nor Turkey with NATO."
The tone from Ankara, however, is quite different.
Erdogan recently flew to St. Petersburg, Russia, where he heaped praise on President Vladimir Putin. He now is reportedly planning a trip to Tehran.
Russia and Iran are Syrian President Bashar Assad's strongest military allies, and until now Turkey has joined U.S. calls for Assad to step down and is active in the war against Islamic State.
But that could change, some Turkish officials warn.
"The huge crack between Turkey and the U.S., which is getting deeper and deeper by the day, opens the door for irreversible cooperation between Turkey and Russia and other regional actors," columnist Yahya Bostan wrote in the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper.
Biden will seek to close that divide, or at least to ensure it doesn't get worse.
His most complicated challenge is Turkey's demand for Gulen's extradition. Erdogan accuses the reclusive cleric of running a cult-like "parallel state" with followers who have infiltrated the Turkish military and civil service and who engineered the coup.
Erdogan said over the weekend that what he considered U.S. vacillations over extraditing Gulen were "overshadowing our strategic partnership."
Turkey has submitted numerous requests for Gulen's extradition based on various alleged crimes, but none of the requests has involved crimes related to the coup attempt, the U.S. official said.
One request has been accepted for consideration, the State Department said Tuesday. But any request will take time and involve the Justice Department and courts.
A Justice Department team arrived in Turkey ahead of Biden to review evidence against Gulen, and the Turkish justice and foreign ministers are expected in Washington next week to continue to press the extradition case.
For all the tension, most analysts doubt Erdogan will turn his back definitively against the West, since Turkey depends so heavily on trade with Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance.
"There are more question marks over those relationships, and those questions have gotten more serious, and meanwhile Russia and Iran are benefiting," Aliriza said.
But in the end, he said, "Turkey is not going to give up NATO, the United States, Europe."
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