Syria to top Erdogan's Washington agenda
May 16th, 2013
09:10 AM ET

Syria to top Erdogan's Washington agenda

By Soner Cagaptay and James F. Jeffrey, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Soner Cagaptay is the Beyer Family fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute. James F. Jeffrey is the Institute's Philip Solondz distinguished visiting fellow and former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq. The views expressed are their own.

This week’s summit between President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reflects the extraordinary development of relations between the United States and Turkey.

Ankara faces a civil war in Syria that is forcing Turkey to contend with a weak and divided state on its borders.  This disintegration brings the dangers of chemical weapons proliferation and al Qaeda infiltration on Turkey’s doorstep. Coping with these challenges will be near impossible without U.S. support, particularly after the May 11 bombings that devastated Reyhanli, a Turkish border town near Syria. Erdogan is therefore sure to make the Syria issue one of his key “asks” during his conversations with Obama on Thursday.

The fact is that Turkey has not faced a threat on the scale of the Syrian crisis since Stalin demanded territory from the Turks in 1945. In 2011, hoping to oust the al-Assad regime, Turkey began to support the Syrian opposition.  But, thus far, this policy has failed, and exposed Turkey to growing risks.

For Washington’s part, accommodating Turkey’s requests provides the president an opportunity to cement U.S.-Turkish ties. It also bestows considerable asking power for the president on a variety of issues, from liberties in Turkey to normalization of Turkish-Israeli ties, to the Iranian nuclear impasse.

Turkey’s blessing over the past decade has been its reputation as a stable country in an otherwise unstable region. For example, Turkey has recently attracted around $50 billion in international investment annually, funding its economic rise and helping propel it to membership of the G-20.

But the war in Syria threatens these gains. For starters, Turkey has a 500,000 strong Alawite community whose Syrian ethnic kin support the al-Assad regime against the largely Sunni Arab Syrian rebels.  The Alawite vs. Sunni conflict in Syria threatens to spill over into Turkey, a danger multiplied by the growing threat from the proliferation of chemical weapons and exposure to al Qaeda. Turkey’s security situation is not immune to the fallout of having a Somalia-style failed state next door.

Turkey grows because it attracts international investment; and Turkey attracts investment because it is deemed stable.  The mess in Syria risks ending the country’s economic miracle, something that would be bad news for the Turks and for Erdogan’s political fate.  The Turkish leader wants to be elected as the country’s next president in the summer of 2014, and an economic downturn could upset his plans.  Erdogan is aware that unless he secures more dynamic U.S. assistance against the al-Assad regime, Turkey could become the big loser in Syria – and Erdogan the loser at the ballot box.

But Erdogan has another reason to move closer to the United States: Iran.  Ankara and Tehran are locked in a proxy war in Syria, with Ankara assisting the rebels and Iran aiding the regime. And in Iraq, the two sides support opposing parties in government.  The White House can build on Turkey's de facto confrontation with Tehran to help roll back Iranian adventurism, maintaining the cooperation embodied by the NATO antimissile radar. This convergence could even secure Ankara's support on the nuclear impasse.

Obama reportedly personally intervened to start Turkish-Israeli political normalization, and he can ask Erdogan to deliver further on this issue.  Turkey and Israel need each other to contain the crisis in Syria, particularly on the matter of preventing chemical weapons proliferation.  Full normalization of ties between the two countries, such as the re-appointment of ambassadors, would bring America’s two allies together. If Erdogan does not want to squander the new rapprochement with Israel and the accompanying warming with Washington, he will have to weigh carefully if, when, and under what conditions he will travel to Gaza.

Finally, the president could also raise the issue of the state of Turkish democracy.

Turkey is currently drafting its first civilian-written constitution. The new charter ought to enshrine liberal democracy, as well as release the pressure points of Turkish society, by providing for constitutionally-mandated gender equality and freedom of expression.  The charter should also mandate freedom of religion and freedom from religion, so that both secular and conservative Turks feel welcome in the new Turkey.

The takeaway of the new Turkish constitution for the White House is simple. Erdogan wants to make Turkey a Middle East leader and he wants Washington to treat his country as such.  Turkey can achieve this goal only if becomes a true liberal democracy. Erdogan’s courageous steps with his Kurdish population demonstrate his flexibility. He needs to be supported on this, as well as urged to apply the same magnanimity more broadly.

In return for asking for Turkish steps, President Obama needs to alleviate the Turkish leader’s worries on Syria and Iraq. Ankara will press Washington hard on Syria, whether it be with regard to safe havens or no-fly zones, or simply stronger U.S. diplomatic effort to resolve the crisis. Even if the president is not ready to move on all of these items, any new commitment to support the rebels would be well received in Ankara.

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Topics: Turkey

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soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. matslats

    When you talk about 'Sunni Arab Syrian Rebels' that sounds like a euphemism for the 'militant Islamic foreign mercenaries' that the US is arming. You know, the ones currently under investigation in the Hague for using chemical weapons and eating the hearts of their enemies. Its the same crew that we helped to turn Libya from a civilised country into fundamentalist train wreck. Are these Syria's best hope of democracy?

    May 16, 2013 at 9:30 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Thank you, matslats. Nothing could be closer to the truth! I wonder just how much Erdogan is gong to get out of this as everyone knows that Turkey is and has for a long time been in cahoots with the U.S.

      May 16, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Reply
      • wjmccartan

        I believe that Israel apologized officially to the Turkish government. Months back. As for you two Matsiats and Joseph McCarthy, they are looking for solutions to problems and all you want to see if you can cause more chaos. By being negative about positive changes in the world. Although Israel still has to work seriously with the Palestinian leadership to find peace. That is something that the Turkish parliament can help with perhaps. As a neutral country. Also with Turkey joining, a realization of an old wound must be settled with the Armenians. This creates all sorts of new paradigms. Interesting.


        May 16, 2013 at 9:27 pm |
  2. Ferhat Balkan

    Turkey was the first Muslim majority country to recognize the State of Israel back in 1949. Turkey was an important tourism destination for Israelis. Istanbul is a 90-minute flight from Tel Aviv. No visas are required for Israelis to visit Turkey. It was the Ottoman Turks who offered refuge to the fleeing Jews during the Spanish inquisition. Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati who was a German born Jew of French descent and a chief rabbi of Edirne, wrote the following in his letter to the European Jewry: "Turkey is a land wherein nothing is lacking" and asking: "Is it not better for you to live under Muslims than under Christians?". It's really sad that the Israelis decided to engage in an act of piracy during the 2010 flotilla raid and killed Turks. This really put a dent in Israeli-Turkish relations.

    May 16, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Indeed the Syrian conflict has developed into a proxy war between Russia and Iran on the one side and the West on the other side. The New York Times has been reporting on Russian anti-ship missiles being delivered to Syria. These weapons will counter any anti-regime effort of imposing a naval embargo, establishing a no-fly zone or carrying out limited airstrikes in Syria. This new situation upsets no doubt the US and its allies.

    May 17, 2013 at 6:54 am | Reply
    • wjmccartan

      It's about time we heard some good news for a change. Let's just hope that these missiles do serve as a deterrent against uncalled for foreign intervention into Syria, especially from the West!

      May 17, 2013 at 8:10 am | Reply
  4. Stantheman85

    The West is on the wrong side again, as has always been in the due course of history. A partnership should be one on the basis of equal strength and respect, not belittling your partner or asking them to bend over and spread their cheeks whenever you ask them to, for right or wrong. I totally support Russia, China and all the other countries who refuse to support the West on this issue here. NO outside country should be allowed to effect regime change in Syria or ANY country for that matter, only the people of Syria should and that too in a conducive environment. Right now, the West is fomenting trouble in Syria through their puppet allies KSA, Qatar and Turkey so that they can dislodge Assad from power under the guise of concern for human rights violations. How about you stop arming the cannibal FSA and Rebels first?? Also, if the West is so concerned about human rights violations, why do they turn a blind eye to the nascent revolutions that were and are still being brutually crushed in their puppet allies Bahrain, Qatar, KSA. Is it because Assad does not fall in line like these other puppets do all the time, so he must go?? This Syrian crisis truly shows Western hypocrisy at its finest.

    I think the priority for now should be that Russia, China and the rest of the non – Western puppet states should get concrete guarantees from Assad that he will, in the near future after the end of the war, hold free and fair elections in which he can also participate and should he lose, he would step out of the way. If Assad guarantees this, then they should allow him to beat out the cannibal rebels / western backed thugs completely.

    LONG LIVE SECULAR ASSAD AND THE SAA – with love from India.

    May 18, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Reply
  5. dave

    As Harry Truman well said: "What we do not know about the future is the history we do not know"!? One must be very simple minded or in other words naïve to believe that the Imperialist, zio nis st, warmonger, number one user & importer of weapons of mass destruction (Atom Hiroshima, occupier, slave master, pretenders of human right & freedom advocate, creators & supporters of the most cruel dictatorships (i.e. Saudi, UAE, Chili, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, etc), and racist regimes which have been created as a result of occupation on the land of others by atrocities and ethnic cleansing (i.e Israel, etc) and with the history of toppling democratically elected regimes (I.e. Dr. Mossadegh 1953 Iran, Guatemala 1971, Chili 1968, Egypt 1953, Saudi 1944, etc), have now had a change of heart to love people in other countries such as Syria to create democracy and freedom for them!? These criminals are scheming to deprive the Syrian people and other regional countries from the same freedom and human right which they use as a pretext to impose war on Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, etc. If a government is to run Syria, is it better to be negotiated by Syrians inside Syria or decided by the Zio ni st warmonger racist salve master governments from outside!? It is up to Syrians to decide their government and elect representative not outsiders. This is true regarding all the countries who want to be free, democratic and not puppet!? Syria has one of the most diversified ethnic population whom have lived peacefully together for thousands of years until the racist warmonger Zio ni st was created next door. Warmonger Zio ni st and their supporters send in their mercenaries to divide and conquer to profit thier Zio Capital Corporation lobbyist!? As the history shows us freedom for the Syrian people, in particular, & for the middle east, in general, has never been the Imperialist zio ni st supporter's goal but only a deception to pave the road to achieve their evil intentions!? Of course, the puppet regimes are used at times to help pave this road!?

    May 20, 2013 at 2:26 am | Reply
  6. dave

    Who will benefit from US getting involved in the Syrian War!? Only occupying evil baby & women killer, arm dealer, slave master, racist, warmonger Zio ni sts!? Definitely not the Syrian people or middle east people as we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, etc. In all the wars that America has initiated or got involved as ignited by the Zio ni sts criminals, the deprived natives and peasants have been the losers and the Zio ni st capitalist Imperialist corporations (Arms manufacturers, oil companies, etc) the winners!? Obama is doing the right thing, not to get involved. We do not need more enemies!? Israel Zio ni st is America's biggest enemy and the world population hate America for its support of its biggest enemy!? Israel. Wise up! Read recent history and find out why.

    May 20, 2013 at 2:28 am | Reply
  7. Matt

    The PKK, PJAK etc they are factions of one organization, one movement, so while the PKK are a very powerful faction of those Iranian, Syrian and Iraq factions. The facts are regardless of what happened in Iraq is occurring in Syria and may occur in Iran. Turkey is a NATO member and there is no support from the west for an independent Kurdistan inside Turkey, it is not going to happen. I told them that and they should not infringe on the other factions due to their own agenda. Second it is like the Golan Heights or half of it at least, that was a big debate some believed that it could easily be retaken, unless Israel was forced to fight on multiple fronts at the same time. In which case you would need the high ground as a launching pad. So half the Golan in exchange for peace and cutting ties with terror.

    The same problem half the Golan is returned what is to stop Assad from continuing to support terror what true assurance can you get, the day after you handed it over. The US will have to decide whatever deal they cut with Putin on Assad that Turkey is protected from retribution. The US will have to decide what value Turkey is as an ally and member of NATO. Now Assad was upset because Erdogan allowed unarmed civilians to cross and he would not close the border and then because he called Assad a butcher and supported intervention and a no fly zone, allowed assistance to the opposition. The car bomb is just a sign of the destabilization that can take place in Turkey.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:21 am | Reply

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