Erdogan's Obama Agenda

Turkey's neighbors and Turkey's trade will get top billing in today's meeting.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is visiting Washington this week and will meet with President Obama today. This is his first visit to the United States since December 2009. But the world and the Middle East have changed dramatically since then. Thus, the agenda for Erdogan’s talks with Obama will be a very crowded one. Four topics in particular are likely to stand out.

1. The Situation in Syria

Erdogan arrives in Washington at a time when there is growing pressure on the Obama administration to change its course on Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry has already taken some steps to increase nonlethal support for the opposition in Syria while putting growing pressure on the moderate opposition to tighten their ranks and distance themselves from radical Islamist groups. These measures are unlikely to satisfy Erdogan. He has long been a vocal critic of the international community, the United Nations Security Council and the United States for idly “watching the tragedy” unfolding in Syria.

He is likely to remind Obama quite loudly that the butchery of civilians by the Assad regime has reached levels that makes it unethical not to respond to and that, as the car bombs that exploded in Turkish border town of Reyhanli last weekend demonstrate, Turkish national security is being directly affected. He will also offer facts and figures to show how the humanitarian situation is fast deteriorating and becoming untenable with an ever expanding flow of refugees and displaced people. He will not miss the opportunity to share with Obama the evidence collected from refugees arriving in Turkish hospitals that the Syrian regime is using chemical weapons. Erdogan may go as far as to push Obama to support the idea of creating a no-fly zone along the Turkish border.

Hopefully, Obama will listen to Erdogan with patience and empathy. But it is difficult to see what concrete policy measures he could offer that go beyond what his secretary of state has already initiated. It is not also very likely that recent U.S. and British efforts to work with Russia to find a negotiated settlement in Syria are going to be received with much enthusiasm by Erdogan. Nevertheless, both sides will recognize—possibly with some discomfort—that they need each other and that the complexity of the situation in Syria compels them to cooperate.

2. The State and Future of Israeli-Turkish Relations

In turn Obama is likely to bring up the importance of normalizing Israeli-Turkish relations after the official apology he so skillfully extracted from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In late March, Netanyahu apologized to Erdogan for “any mistakes that might have led to the loss of life or injury” aboard the Mavi Marmara in 2010. Obama will be keen to find out what is happening with respect to the talks between the two sides as they work out Israeli compensation to the families of those killed and injured. The exchange of ambassadors between the two countries should follow.

These are two important goals if Israel and Turkey are going to be able to cooperate more closely on the security threats that both face from the situation in Syria. As much as Erdogan may well be aware that cooperation with Israel, especially intelligence cooperation, would be critical to enhancing Turkish security, his mind is more likely to be on the Palestinian question and Gaza.

He will press Obama to pressure Israel to seek a peace deal with the Palestinians (including Hamas) and remind him of the urgent need to end the blockade on Gaza. Yet, at the same time, Erdogan will also be cognizant that this visit is only taking place because of Obama’s personal commitment to improving relations between Israel and Turkey. After all, it was only after Erdogan accepted Netanyahu’s apology and the accompanying terms that Obama thanked him and invited him to the White House. This stark reality is likely to open at least some avenues for cooperation away from the limelight of the public.

3. Turkey’s Deteriorating Relations with Baghdad

Growing differences over Iraq are probably the most ironic of the issues addressed here. Traditionally, Turkey has energetically defended Iraq’s territorial unity, focused its diplomatic efforts on the problem and suspected a U.S. agenda to create an independent Kurdish state in the north. This time, the tables have been turned: it is Washington that is concerned with the implications of Turkey’s ever deepening relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for Iraq’s territorial integrity and stability.

The United States is especially worried about the growing cooperation between the KRG and Turkey with respect to the exploitation and transportation of Kurdish oil and natural gas without the consent of the central government in Baghdad. Obama may impart U.S. fears that these developments risk further aggravating the instability in Iraq, push the Maliki government even more into the arms of Iran and exacerbate sectarian conflict in Iraq and the region. In turn, Erdogan will remind Obama that he has embarked on a historic reconciliation exercise with Kurds in Turkey and that expanding relations with the KRG needs to be seen from that perspective.