Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has no plans to meet with Turkish officials during his upcoming visit to Istanbul, in what State Department officials said Friday was not a snub, but a scheduling conflict.
During his high-profile trip, which begins in France and includes stops in Georgia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, Pompeo will meet with the leaders of all but Turkey. His second leg of the trip will take him to Istanbul, but not the Turkish capital, Ankara.
During a call with reporters Friday, State Department officials said Pompeo was unable to fit in a meeting with Turkish officials due to a “scheduling issue.” He will have an opportunity to engage with his counterpart, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, in a few weeks at the NATO meeting of foreign ministers, an official said.
“The schedule is very tight,” a senior State Department official said. “I also understand that Turkish officials, including the president and foreign minister, have their own travel schedule.”
The State Department is billing the Istanbul visit, which includes a meeting with the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, as an opportunity to promote religious freedom. That characterization angered Turkey, whose Foreign Ministry described the statement as "extremely inappropriate."
Why it matters: The two NATO allies have recently butted heads over issues that include Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, its involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a criminal case against a state-owned Turkish bank and operations in Kurdish-held northern Syria.
Pompeo’s planned meeting with the spiritual leader of the world’s Greek Orthodox Christians also comes amid heightened tensions between Greece and Turkey over drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean, and the perception that Washington has taken Athens' side in the dispute.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday belatedly acknowledged President-elect Joe Biden’s win, but Pompeo still has not. Earlier this week, the secretary quipped, “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”
What’s next: Pompeo will also meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visit to the Middle East. The country will host the Group of 20 world leaders summit Nov. 21-22 amid an outcry from rights groups and members of Congress who say Riyadh’s poor human rights record makes it an unfit host.
US officials on Friday would not confirm reports that Pompeo’s Israel trip includes plans to visit the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and a West Bank settlement, in what would be a first for a US secretary of state.