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.
Erdogan will take the opportunity to point out how Turkey desperately needs to diversify its energy imports, especially at a time when the United States is pushing Turkey so hard on the implementation of sanctions on Iran, and add that the energy resources of the KRG are something that Turkey simply cannot overlook. He might also to note that a number of U.S. energy companies are already operating in the KRG and that it’s unclear why it becomes so problematic when Turkish companies do the same.
Finally, he will point fingers at the Maliki government for the instability in Iraq and argue that Maliki is already deeply compromised in terms of his relations with Iran. Yet both sides, as with other issues, will recognize that they are going to have to find areas of cooperation if a worse situation is to be avoided. Initial steps in this direction were recently taken when trilateral talks between U.S., Iraqi and Turkish officials were held in London. After all, the United States and Turkey have in the past found ways of overcoming some pretty fundamental differences and succeeded in cooperating. They also share common goals on Iraq.
4. Turkey and a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)
Erdogan is likely to bring up the inclusion of Turkey in TTIP. This will not come as a surprise to Obama, as Erdogan is reputed to have written him a letter about it back in March. Erdogan is well aware that Turkey cannot expect to sit at the negotiating table with the United States and the EU. But he will forcefully argue that, because of the nature of Turkey’s customs union with the EU, it will have to open up its own markets to the United States without reciprocation. This, he will reason, will create an unfair situation that risks hitting U.S.-Turkish relations where it hurts the most—the purse.
Hence, he will call for the need to negotiate a parallel bilateral TTIP between the two countries. He will be ready to provide facts and figure to show how this would benefit both sides and also argue that Turkey would be an economic bridge between the United States and Turkey’s neighborhood. As evidence of the importance he attaches to this issue, his delegation includes a large number of business people and he plans to address the U.S. Chamber Commerce.
After addressing other contentious issues, Obama is likely to receive Erdogan’s TTIP pleas with relief and consider it to be in line with his idea of “model partnership”, that he advocated for during his visit to Ankara. The concept of “model partnership” aims to take the focus of U.S.-Turkish relations beyond simple geopolitical and geostrategic issues. He will lend support to the idea of a bilateral TTIP between the two countries while explaining to Erdogan why the United States has to give priority to negotiating the TTIP with the EU and how U.S. and Turkish officials need to prepare before actually launching negotiations. This is the item on their agenda that will make both sides feel that for once they are not too far apart from each other.
Other Possible Agenda Items
Clearly, these four items are not going to be the only issues that will come up during their meeting. Iran is likely to be a difficult issue, although Obama may discover that the distance between the two sides is not as wide as it was back in 2009. There is also going to be recognition and praise for the existing cooperation that is taking place in the Balkans, not to mention in Afghanistan. NATO inevitably will come up and appreciation will be expressed for the deployment of Patriot missiles and the decision to host part of the radar system for a new ballistic-missile-defense system in Turkey. It is possible that the state of EU-Turkish relations may also come up, given efforts on both the European and Turkish side to revive relations. In that context Cyprus may also be raised.