What to expect from Obama-Erdoğan meeting

Among all the possible talking points for US President Barack Obama’s upcoming meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on May 16 in the White House, obviously some have to be dropped for various considerations and sensitivities, not to mention time constraints for the duration of the meeting. How to prioritize the agenda items, which seem unusually long, will differ for each side as bureaucrats and diplomats scramble to harmonize diverging views on issues of mutual concern in a lead up to the meeting. I think the discussion of what will be the most important topic at the meeting that many predict will be Syria, especially after the twin blast that claimed the lives of almost 50 people on Saturday in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, is no longer relevant to US-Turkish relations.

What makes this visit of the utmost importance for both Turkey and the US is that it will provide a chance to restore somewhat lost confidence on both sides amid signs of decoupling on a number of issues. Erdoğan and Obama have been less talkative since 2011, a year when Erdogan’s access to Obama via direct contact rivaled only that of Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain who was the most frequent caller among foreign leaders. This year, Obama spoke to Erdoğan only once on the phone when he successfully mediated between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Erdoğan during his visit to the Jewish state. Given that both sides are fully aware of their respective importance for each other, I believe there will be a successful realignment of common interests by trimming down differences to the extent it is possible, starting with Syria.

On Syria, the disappointment Erdoğan feels on Obama’s lack of enthusiasm in becoming deeply involved in the Syrian crisis for more than two years needs to be addressed. The urgency of hastening the departure of the Bashar al-Assad regime has picked up speed in recent weeks with the introduction of chemical weapons to the conflict by pro-regime elements and the chilling reminder of spillover hazards with respect to the twin blasts in the Turkish border town. Similarly, Erdoğan needs to allay Obama’s concerns on Iranian attempts to bypass the US sanctions regime using Turkey as a conduit and Ankara’s lack of full cooperation on cracking down on illicit and illegal Iranian activities in Turkey. On the divided island of Cyprus, Turkey feels there is now a window of opportunity for the last push for unification based on the prospect of rich natural gas in the waters off of Cyprus and economic woes on the Greek Cypriot side. Ankara requires US support for this initiative, and some groundwork has already been laid down during US Secretary of the State John Kerry’s frequent visits to Turkey.

The EU process is no longer a significantly important issue for Turkish-US talks as Ankara seems to have somewhat lost its confidence in the process amid the eurozone crisis and enlargement fatigue in the 27-nation bloc. It will not ask any more than it has to for the US’ nudging of Europeans to put the frozen process back on track. Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorism will be on the agenda in a different format this time because of the settlement process the government has been pursuing with the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, since last December. Erdoğan will ask the US to support the process to make sure it isn’t derailed by provocations and interventions staged by third parties. US intelligence may come in handy in preventing attempts at sabotaging the process. In the meantime, he will also repeat the pending Turkish request for armed drones from the US to be used for the mop-up operations against the PKK leaders and militants who refuse to lay down arms at the end of the process if and when it is successfully concluded.

The closer cooperation and coordination in the fight against al-Qaeda and other radical groups, especially in the Syrian case, and on cracking down on the leftist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C), which claimed the Feb. 1 suicide bomb attack on the US embassy in Ankara, as well as its splinter groups will be discussed. There has been a high-level interagency counter-terrorism dialogue between Turkey and the US in the last couple of years, but the establishment of a joint counterterrorism task force to share intelligence and to launch joint operations against common targets as proposed by the US has not been put into effect yet.

In the Iraqi case, tables have turned. In contrast to the past, Turkey now has very bad relations with the pro-Iranian Shiite Nouri al-Maliki government in Baghdad while enjoying very cordial ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq. Washington believes Turkey may be undercutting Maliki by engaging with the Kurds independently in the energy trade and at the expense of the federal government, fearing that it may lead to a partition of Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines. On the other hand, Erdoğan has given up on Maliki completely because he believes there is no chance of making a deal with Maliki who has effectively become the dictator of Iraq and disenfranchised Sunnis, Kurds and even some Shiite groups. It will be interesting to see how Obama and Erdoğan can come to a common understanding on Maliki.

Sharp differences still persist on Erdoğan’s announced visit to Gaza and his close personal relations with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, and they may prove to be difficult to reconcile. Erdoğan believes the US should be talking to Hamas, listed as a terrorist organization by Washington, in addition to the Fatah leadership because Hamas is a political reality and can’t be ignored. The US, however, insists on three conditions that Hamas needs to fulfill before it has a place around the negotiating table, i.e. recognizing the right to exist for Israel, respecting past agreements with Israel and giving up armed struggle against the occupation. Though the normalization of Turkish-Israeli ties seem to be set on track, the visit to Gaza without coordinating with Israel, Egypt and the Palestine Authority may agitate some people in the US Congress and will draw the ire of the powerful American Jewish community. Obama, keen to maintain good relations with the Israeli lobby in the US and the Jewish state in the Middle East during his second term, wants to avoid an unnecessary crisis by urging Erdoğan to suspend the visit until the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas takes place.

On the reopening of Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary in İstanbul, nothing has really changed from the last time Obama discussed this issue with Erdoğan with the exception that some properties have been restored to their former non-Muslim owners by a government-run commission. Turkey is waiting for the US and Greek Patriarchate to exert pressure on Athens to improve the conditions of the Muslim Turkish minority in Western Thrace so that they can sell the revisions, which will allow the reopening of the seminary, to deputies in Parliament in particular and to the public in general. The same standoff is valid for the Armenian genocide issue as well. The chance for Turkey to normalize its relations with Armenia before the 2015 centennial seems to be a far-fetched idea against the background of growing Azeri influence in Turkey with investment and trade advocacy, not to mention political capital. In Afghanistan, the US may ask for the further involvement of Turkey in the country’s development and consolidation of its institutions with more military/police training and reconstruction programs as it starts to withdraw forces and equipment from Afghanistan before the 2014 deadline.

Obama will likely press Erdoğan on the need for Turkey to keep pursuing further democratic reforms in order to address its shortcomings in human rights, mainly in areas related to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The US, keen to shift some of its regional liabilities to its partners, wants to see its ability to work with Turkey strengthened, and for that it needs to remove irritants in bilateral relations. The message should be that Turkey must put its house in order to boost its democratic credentials. I’m sure Obama was advised to play a delicate and gentle game with Erdoğan on these issues because Erdoğan can be quite combative when he is pushed too far. Obama is also aware of Turkey’s domestic political outlook as well. He must know that Turkey will be undergoing successive elections starting with the local one in March 2014, followed by presidential elections the same year and parliamentary elections in 2015. As usual, the US influence on Turkey will be restricted during the long campaign period because politicians in Turkey from all spectrums love to bash the US because it is easy, and there is no cost involved.

Erdoğan will probably raise the issue of how US talks with Russia in resetting ties within the framework of comprehensive deal have been progressing on the eve of the drawdown of American forces from Afghanistan by 2014. Turkey, which does not see Russia as a threat but is worried about the possible implications from the comeback of Russian influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, wants to see how a deal between Washington and Moscow would affect Turkish interests. There may be other issues of mutual concern ranging from the Balkans to Africa, from the impact of the EU’s free trade talks with the US on Turkey to re-energizing the Middle East peace process.

The bottom-line is that the visit will be marked as a success to the extent Obama and Erdoğan can find ways to match up to the label of “being a strategic partner” on a number of outstanding issues. In the past, even during difficult and bad times, Turkey and the US had always found a way to keep this crucial alliance above turbulent waters. This time they have more reasons to do the same. If the political commitment is there, the deal on general parameters will be reached one way or another, leaving the operationalizing of these plans to technical/bureaucratic teams.

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