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Turkish PM Heads to US to Discuss Syria, Other Regional Issues

  • Dorian Jones

FILE - Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

FILE - Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on Thursday. The two leaders agree that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go, after two years of violence that has left more than 70,000 people dead. But, Obama and Erdogan have sharp disagreements on their approaches to Syria and other key Middle East issues.

Following Saturday's car bombings in the Turkish town of Reyhanli, Prime Minister Erdogan is expected to press President Obama to take tougher stance against Damascus.

Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul research institute Edam, says the Turkish prime minister has specific demands he will present to President Obama.

"Turkey [will] try to convince the U.S. to have a more interventionist attitude towards Syria, such as establishing a no-fly zone," said Ulgen. "That could change the balance of forces on the ground. I think he will substantiate his argument by telling that unless that is done, there is a real possibility for the Syrian conflict to pull in countries like Turkey."

But with Moscow and Washington working together to organize a conference aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict, some observers say expectations are low in Ankara of any immediate change in U.S. policy.

Still, analyst Ulgen says Ankara will be looking beyond the current diplomatic efforts.

"We should give a chance to this political process that has been set afoot by this latest Russia-U.S. summit, but nonetheless if we don't get any traction on this front, then the U.S. should reconsider shifting its position on Syria. That will be the message of the Turkish leadership in Washington," he said.

Observers close to Turkey's ruling AK party say they expect President Obama to be looking to Prime Minister Erdogan to help facilitate the current diplomatic efforts by persuading the Syrian opposition coalition to join the planned peace conference.

Ankara is among the strongest supporters of the Syrian opposition and opposes talks that would include President Assad or any of his close supporters. Washington may be looking for a softening of that stance.

The Syrian opposition is set to decide at a meeting in Istanbul next week whether to participate in the peace conference.

Another potentially thorny issue is that of Israeli-Turkish relations. The two key U.S. allies are engaged in rapprochement efforts following the killing of nine Turks in fighting with Israeli commandos aboard a Palestinian aid ship that tried to breach Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2010.

Asli Aydintasbas, diplomatic columnist for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, says President Obama will be looking to expedite the current rapprochement.

"[It is] very clear, the Israeli apology brokered by President Obama for the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla incident has impacted Turkish-U.S. relations positively. In many ways, Obama and Erdogan have had a good working relationship. But the tension in Israeli-Turkish ties has always been a strain on Washington, on its ability to work with Turkey," said Aydintasbas.

Iraq is also predicted to be on the agenda of the talks between U.S. president and Turkish prime minister. Rising sectarian violence in Iraq is straining relations between Ankara and Baghdad, with Erdogan's government and that of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accusing each other of inciting the violence.

Semih Idiz is diplomatic correspondent for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet.

"Iraq does remain a delicate issue, of course. There is still a strain between the Maliki government and Ankara, even though America is trying repair that, too. So I think Washington will try to convince Turkey to open up to Maliki and Turkey will try to convince Washington to use its pressure on Maliki to be a little more fairer and gentler on the Sunnis of Iraq," said Idiz.

Erdogan's Washington visit is expected to bolster the deepening relations and cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey. But, observers say, while they may share similar goals in the region, differences remain, and the visit's success may depend on how well those differences are managed.