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.