Turkey’s Erdogan Visits the U.S.: 4 Problems That Won’t Be Solved

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

From right: U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan walk to the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington D.C., on May 16, 2013.

As domestic scandals clouded Washington, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived for a U.S. visit enveloped in his own fog. The Turkish Premier has been one of the most outspoken international statesmen on the need for intervention in the brutal Syrian civil war raging on his country’s border. The main agenda of his American sojourn was to seek support from an Obama Administration that has watched the conflict warily. At a joint press conference on May 16 in the White House’s Rose Garden, Erdogan and Obama stood in the rain and reaffirmed their shared wish that Syrian President Bashar Assad be removed from power. But much went unspoken. As Erdogan’s visit concludes, here are four geopolitical conundrums that underlie his country’s relationship with Washington.

1. Syria

Erdogan’s clamor for action on the issue of Syria was given tragic reinforcement last weekend when two car bombs ripped through the Turkish town of Reyhanli, on the Syrian border. Some 50 people died and dozens more were injured in an attack that Turkish authorities blame on agents of the Assad regime. Turkey now houses nearly 400,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the war and has lost 19 of its own nationals in isolated clashes with Syrian forces. Turkey is a member of NATO, whose founding treaty stipulates collective action if a member state comes under attack. Erdogan gestures to both those obligations as well as the heavy burden of the refugee influx when underscoring the need for greater international involvement in Syria. This would include the long-sought arming of the Free Syrian Army by the West.

But Obama made no mention of weapons in his promises of aid. Despite being one of the rebellion’s earliest cheerleaders, Erdogan and his government appear to have only limited sway over the opposition, which has seen an influx of radical jihadist fighters swell its ranks of fighters on the ground. The focus now falls on a planned U.N. conference to be held this June in Geneva, with diplomatic prodding from the U.S. and Russia hopefully bringing both the Syrian opposition and officials from the regime as well as regional stakeholders to the table. Russia’s insistence this week that Iran be present at the talks illustrates the complexity of the Syrian imbroglio, a conflict that no outside power can settle on its own terms.

2. Peace in the Middle East

In Washington, Erdogan reiterated his desire to visit the Palestinian territory of Gaza this summer, which is administered by the Islamist organization Hamas and weathered a devastating Israeli bombing campaign last year. In 2010, a number of Turkish nationals were slain when Israeli security forces confronted an activist flotilla of ships carrying supplies to Gaza. Relations between Turkey and Israel plummeted thereafter, but this March, Netanyahu made the dramatic gesture (almost certainly a result of U.S. insistence) of phoning Erdogan and apologizing for the incident. Israel and Turkey both have a common interest in settling Syria’s chaos and crisis, but the closeness of old looks unlikely to return. So, too, do prospects of a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

3. Iraq’s Oil

In March, Erdogan’s government signed a landmark cease-fire with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a guerrilla group deemed “terrorist” by the U.S. State Department that for three decades was locked in a violent struggle with the Turkish state. Some 40,000 deaths later, the PKK now seems willing to give up its call for an independent Kurdish state and accept existing Turkish borders. As the process for a negotiated peace moves along, Ankara also tightened its links to the autonomous government of Iraqi Kurdistan, most recently announcing this week a deal to develop oil fields in northern Iraq without approval from Iraq’s federal government. The move has been branded “illegal” by Baghdad and criticized by the Obama Administration. It comes at an especially tense moment in Iraq with Sunni-Shi‘ite sectarian enmities blowing up once more and a dangerous chasm opening up between the regional Kurdish government and that of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad.

4. Erdogan’s Loss of Prestige

When Erdogan sat down with TIME editors in New York City in 2011, he was buoyed by the winds of history. Erdogan basked in the events of the Arab Spring and was styled in the foreign media as a neo-Ottoman Sultan, poised to reign supreme in the Arab world. Authoritarian regimes were giving way to democracies that many assumed would emerge in the image of Erdogan’s Turkey: moderately Islamist, prosperous, stable. He was feted as a hero in Tripoli, Cairo and other Arab capitals. No country seemed more regionally relevant in the Middle East than Erdogan’s Turkey.

Two years later and Turkey’s vaunted soft power looks more soft than powerful. The Arab Spring has soured and the Syrian war has turned a region’s optimism into despair; Erdogan, too, cuts a smaller, humbler figure on the world stage. His overwhelming support for the Syrian opposition is not mirrored by the majority of the Turkish public, and his reliance on other foreign powers to push the diplomatic envelope has resulted in something of a loss of face. Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations sums it up:

Here we are, heading to Geneva or some other anodyne place for a peace conference under the auspices of Washington and Moscow. At best, Prime Minister Erdogan and [his political lieutenants] will emerge from this episode with egg on their faces but with enough of their position intact to help implement whatever solution (if one materializes) the big powers coerce out of the players in Syria’s tragedy. At worst, it will reveal once again the hollowness of their aspirations and dependence on great power patrons.

25 comments
PaulNicholson
PaulNicholson

Erdogan is in a big huff, with the E.U. not letting Turkey join up. He's shown his true colours since then with his Islamic tendencies. If he stays in charge the Turks are going to return to the dark ages, pre Attaturk. A military takeover could be on the cards if he doesn't wise up.

RobertSmithe
RobertSmithe

"At worst, it will reveal once again the hollowness of their aspirations and dependence on great power patrons."

I don't look at it that way - perhaps Turkey's upset because there's an entire country in conflict on a huge border, and hundreds of thousands of people have crossed her border seeking refuge - on top of that, some attacks and shelling have crossed her borders and now bombings. Turkey and the world are watching people in Lebanon fighting.  Turkey is a member state of NATO and has every right to request assistance from her allies, to protect her integrity, help keep her safe from attack and stop the conflict from spilling across her borders.  That's not weakness, that's using your brain after having developed relationships with allies for many years and calling upon benefits you'd expect from the defense agreement.  "Hollow aspirations" did not get Turkey the right to call upon this power.

ishaantharoor
ishaantharoor

@BosporusReport thanks for reading. in the grand geopolitical scheme, free trade issue seemed less pressing than the rest, but you're right

BosporusReport
BosporusReport

@ishaantharoor an excellent article very informative and on point Erdogan did not get much of what he came to the US for

azmalhome
azmalhome

Quran 2:107 Do you not know that to Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth and [that] you have not besides Allah any protector or any helper?

Quran 2: 120 never will the Jews and the Christians approve of you until you follow their religion. Say, "Indeed, the guidance of Allah is the [only] guidance." If you were to follow their desires after what has come to you of knowledge, you would have against Allah no protector or helper.”

Mostly Muslim leaders are going to suck legs up the world’s powerful leaders when they meet with political problem. Then media says “they are good Muslim of peach”.

http://azmalhome.wordpress.com/

AbrahamYeshuratnam
AbrahamYeshuratnam

Although there is a change of regime in Cairo, Tripoli and other Arab capitals after the Arab Spring, the new rulers are fostering authoritarian regimes instead of having a frank and free democratic administration. Erdogan's Turkey is also showing the fangs of Islamism. 

Obama is to be blamed for the prolonged crisis in Syria. Cameron and Sarkozy intervened on time in Libya and overthrew the tyrant Gadaffi. But Obama has been dilly dallying right from the days of his first term which has complicated the entire situation in Syria. Taking advantage of the political incompetence of Obama. Putin is now sending missiles to Damascus. America stands nervous and evasive before a strong Putin and a bloodthirsty Assad.

roman.zagros
roman.zagros

Not now.  The PKK changed its call for an independnet state over 13 years ago.  Shortly after the arrest of its leader Ocalan, "It further watered down its demands, calling on Ankara to involve it in the country's political process, allow more cultural rights for the country's estimated 15 million Kurds and release imprisoned PKK members" BBC -- PKK Profile: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7044760.stm

philip.smeeton
philip.smeeton like.author.displayName 1 Like

Turkey is a state run by Islamists. They have only one policy-to strengthen and spread Islam.

idrisim
idrisim like.author.displayName 1 Like

@philip.smeeton i want to ask philip. have you ever been in Turkiye, you have any friend or any relation, while you judge or call islamist, you speak about 70.000.000 turk including muslim, christian etc.. or what you mean with islamist. if i say America is a state run by Christianity what is wrong with that. Nowadays muslims in poor condition as you were in 200 years ago. and no one knows who will take thrown in the future but something obvious china and russia soon kick US.

philip.smeeton
philip.smeeton like.author.displayName 1 Like

@idrisim @philip.smeeton Mohammed commanded his followers to terrorize and kill non-believers, Christ did not. The leaders of Turkey are Islamists and obliged to follow Mohammed's commands. If you deny this and you are a Muslim then you know nothing about Islam. Peace and submission are not the same, Islam means submission- blind faith.

philip.smeeton
philip.smeeton

@PaulNicholson @idrisim @philip.smeetonBeing a Muslim gives you a licence to; beat, rob, rape, murder, mutilate and torture anyone that is not a Muslim or that is considered to be a bad Muslim, (which is the same as being a non-Muslim or apostate). There is no punishment under Islam for the above mentioned activities. What we outside of Islam would call vicious criminals are inside Islam celebrated as heroes. Should they die while carrying out their heroic deeds they become martyrs greatly rewarded in Paradise.

PaulNicholson
PaulNicholson

@idrisim @philip.smeeton If Islam is the "fastest spreading religion" in the USA and the E.U. that's because we in those 2 unions are too sensible to believe in the stupidity of religion: that's for the likes of you.

philip.smeeton
philip.smeeton

@idrisim @philip.smeeton Have you ever read a life of mohammed he was a killer rapist theif and torturer. and that many muslims would kill me for saying so just confirms my opinion of islam.

philip.smeeton
philip.smeeton

@AliVonal Christ is not in the old testament and christians are not jews. I have read the quran and the hadiths they are full of hate and violence, the new testament is not.

AliVonal
AliVonal like.author.displayName 1 Like

Hahahah!! You good sir have no clue. Imagine if I were to randomly take Old Testament verses and judge all Jews with those? You need help.

BryanNomozbaev
BryanNomozbaev like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@philip.smeeton you seem to have an issue with Islam and Muslims. Trust me, it is ignorant and intolerant folks like you who are behind religious conflicts. Go and read some books.

idrisim
idrisim like.author.displayName 1 Like

@philip.smeeton@idrisimok, i dont want discus about religion or leaders of religions. i am not a religion man and i respect people what ever they believe. You can belive what ever you want to believe about Mohammed.For me he is a man as respectful as Jesus and Moses or Joseph. if i began to discus i began crusades, Andalusian empire and many more. if muslims kill non believer where they spread religion. and how it is the fastest spreading religion in US and EU. 

rorywong654
rorywong654

The war spread across the border into Turkey is the only hope for peace in the region

FlowerJasmin
FlowerJasmin

Murderers of Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians- that who Turks are. Nothings that became world players with dirty money from US.

AliVonal
AliVonal like.author.displayName 1 Like

Ha! Your hatred envelops you. Good.

idrisim
idrisim

@FlowerJasmin so you mean when your grandfather killed a man he must be in jail but due to this his grandson must be in jail too. But you forget something Armenian, jewsh and greek etc. many nation lived under ottoman more than 400 years in piece. sometime brother kill each other too. we are all human and it is not connected with nation or religion. and no one never get guilty because of his grandfathers did.

BryanNomozbaev
BryanNomozbaev like.author.displayName 1 Like

@idrisim @FlowerJasmin Whether you like it or not, you can't deny the fact that Ottomans ruled half of the world on 3 continents - Asia, Europe, Africa for 600 years. A few Armenians might have been killed for treason when they sided with Russia while being Ottoman citizens. Love from Uzbekistan.

MarkHolland
MarkHolland

One way to tell when a once-great magazine has decided to abandon journalism: it starts running articles headlined by lists.