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Erdogan and Obama: Best friends no more

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

There was a time when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s number was on Barack Obama’s speed dial, and when their photo-ops in Hagia Sophia and Pittsburgh glowed with political and personal chemistry. Those times appear to be over, overshadowed as they prepare to meet today, with differences on Syria, Iraq and the Peace Process.

“Damn your international policies” yelled a furious Erdogan in response to the al-Bayda killings in neighboring Syria, which Ankara regarded as part of an “ethnic cleansing plan.” They were soon followed by car bombings inside Turkey in the border town of Reyhanli, blamed by the Turkish government on Assad regime loyalists. In contrast, Washington’s response refrained from using the words “ethnic cleansing,” and did not assign blame in the bombings. Those events show the degree of divergence on how the two countries view and respond to the situation in Syria. Erdogan’s increasing impatience with the instability across his border will dominate the 3-hr meeting today at the White House.

Meeting Point on Syria?

While Erdogan has signaled in an interview with NBC last week support for a No fly Zone in Syria, Obama is taking a much more cautious approach to the conflict. He warned earlier this week of a “combustible mix” in Syria of different proxies with competing agendas. A mix that the U.S. administration has been reluctant to get dragged into, and would rather seek international consensus with the help of Russia for any long-term solution.

“Damn your international policies” yelled a furious Erdogan in response to the al-Bayda killings in neighboring Syria

Joyce Karam

The waiting game, however, is a big gamble for Erdogan who was one of the first leaders to call on Assad to step down in November of 2011, and whose country is incurring a big political and economic costs with the refugee crisis (almost half a million) and the security risks seen in the border town bombings last weekend. While the U.S. distance from Syria, gives it the luxury of flexibility, it does not for Erdogan.

A meeting point between these two leaders could be in offering support for the Syrian opposition. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday that the failure of diplomatic efforts in the upcoming conference in Geneva will mean “additional support for the opposition.” Kerry indicated that “if President Assad decides to miscalculate again about that (conference), as he has miscalculated about his own country’s future over the course of the last years, it is clear the opposition will be receiving additional support” adding that “there will be additional efforts made, and unfortunately, the violence will not end.” Washington also appears to be waiting for the EU embargo on sending arms to Syria to expire on June 1st, and the possibility of European countries reexamining lethal support for the opposition. Kerry, himself, has been focussed on communicating with the rebels, calling the head of the Opposition military council Salim Idriss on Tuesday and sending U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford inside Syria to meet with Col. Abdul-Jabbar al- Akidi, head of Aleppo province’s rebel military council.

The White House wants to press Erdogan on helping to organize Syria’s rebels and prevent arm flow through the northern border to extremists. On the political front as well, the U.S. administration has been supportive of expanding Syria’s opposition coalition to give better representation for minorities including Kurds, Alawites and Christians. Turkey, however, has favored the Muslim Brotherhood, and with Qatar, has helped bring Ghassan Hitto as interim Prime Minister. Hitto’s government never took off, however, and is expected to withdraw as Saudi and Jordan step up their role in organizing the opposition.


Differences on Hamas and Iraq

Syria is not the only contentious topic on the table today. Erdogan’s trip to Gaza end of May, is a direct snub to both Washington and Israel. Kerry, in a very unusual political move, publicly requested Erdogan to “delay or not take” the trip, during their meeting in Istanbul last month. Kerry’s words fell on deaf ears, with the Turkish prime minister going ahead with his plans, and once again playing the Israel card to boost his popularity in the Arab world. Erdogan is even bringing with him to Washington the father of a flotilla victim, to remind of the Israeli commandos raid on the Mavi Marmara which killed eight Turkish activists in 2010.

It is unlikely that the U.S. will be able to change Erdogan’s Gaza plans, or his public call to end the blockade. For the time being, and in part for domestic reasons, Obama is choosing to maintain close relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while Erdogan will continue to advocate the Palestinian cause. At the same time, White House will push for more Israeli-Turkish cooperation after Netanyahu’s apology to Erdogan, brokered during Obama’s visit end of March.


On Iraq as well, Erdogan has been ignoring Washington pleas to mend fences with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. Erdogan has largely undermined Maliki’s central government in Baghdad by improving ties with Iraq’s Kurdistan region. The trade between the two sides has reached eight billion dollars last year, and Masood Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan region, is Ankara’s new partner. Erdogan’s historic agreement the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) granting withdrawal of fighters from Turkish territory, will further improve Ankara’s relations with Irbil at the expense of Baghdad.

The Erdogan-Obama summit will help in tempering some of the differences especially on Syria, without however, achieving a breakthrough. Turkey’s ambitious trajectory under Erdogan and Obama’s cautious calculus in the region promise continued disagreements, without losing sight of strategic alliance between the two on larger security and trade issues.


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Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.