Head of CIA in Ankara, will Turkey convince on Gulen and Syria?

Mike Pompeo (left) met with PM Binali Yildirim in Ankara on Friday.

The director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Mike Pompeo, is in Turkey for his first official visit in his new role.

Pompeo met with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim who reiterated Turkey’s request for the extradition of US-based cleric Fetullah Gulen, according to state-run Anadolu Agency (AA).

The CIA head also met President Erdogan and Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) on Thursday, a presidency source told AA.

“Pompeo’s visit is bad news for the Syrian Kurds and possibly also for Fetullah Gulen,” veteran Middle East Correspondent Robert Fisk said in a TV discussion on France24, hinting at a possible scenario where the US would swap the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for Turkey as allies in Syria and giving the go-ahead for the extradition of the Pennsylvania-based cleric.

Gulnar Aybet, professor at Bahcesehir University, said in the same TV discussion that the Trump administration might be more open “to working with states rather than proxies,” also hinting at a possible shift in US preference of Turkey over local SDF forces.

Robert Fisk claimed that the US would “let the Turks die for them rather than sending their own men there”. He also questioned Trump’s idea of forming “safe zones” in Syria, drawing parallels with past US-implemented safe zones that proved inefficient in protecting the Shiites and the Kurds of Northern Iraq against Saddam Hussein’s massacres and the muslims in Srebrenica murdered by Serbian troops.

Eran Etzion, former National Security Advisor to Israel, predicted in the same discussion a possible “big deal” between the US and Russia supported by other actors in the region, including Iran and Turkey, that will probably determine the future of Syria.

Pompeo, who recently deleted a tweet he shared last year calling the Erdogan government a ‘totalitarian Islamist dictatorship’, is in Turkey at a time where operations against the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq are entering a critical phase. With Turkey bogged down in al-Bab and the SDF-led operation to take Raqqa from IS closing in on the group’s stronghold, The US’s response to Turkey’s demands could potentially be game-changers.

Turkey has been fluid in its alliances in Syria, with the Turks conducting joint operations with both the US-led coalition, the Russians, factions within the Free Syrian Army; and allegedly even with IS at certain times in the conflict.

US President Trump has asked Pentagon to draw up a new plan of action to combat IS within a month. With the deadline coming up, Turkey will be hoping that the US shifts its allegiances in Syria from the Kurds to its own army.