Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office on May 16. On his first visit to Washington since 2009, Erdogan and Obama have much to discuss. The Syrian crisis with all its ramifications will overshadow all other issues. As can be expected, the president’s public and behind-closed-door comments are likely to be quite different. He will need to assuage a nervous, yet supremely self-confident, leader facing a number of challenges ahead of him.
Here is an exercise in imagining what these might look like:
For the public, Obama will be mostly smiles and praise, recognizing Turkey’s taking in Syria’s refugees; agreeing that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go”; lauding Erdogan’s peace process with Turkey’s Kurds; welcoming the cold peace between Israel and Turkey, and hoping it will get warmer; dealing with Iran and Iraq; the usual platitudes about Turkey being a democratic model; and something about Armenia.
Then the door will close and Obama will really talk about Syria, saying something like:
“Tayyip, we once again want to express our sorrow and condolences over the senseless car bombings in Reyhanli on Saturday.
But listen, the infiltration of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters through Turkish territory is inflaming the sectarian nature of the struggle in Syria. I know you do not want a sectarian bloodbath in Syria, but your joint policy with Qatar has helped get us here. The UN Security Council may now label them a terrorist group, and rightly so. This is a headache for me. Vladimir has a point here; these guys are trouble, and they are growing.
“Look, Tayyip, I understand you are frustrated and that Assad is holding on to dear life. You and I both got ahead of ourselves on this one. But we need to think ahead. The Qataris are being reckless; they seem to think that they are immune to the potential blowback. But Turkey is not immune either, and neither is the United States.
“This also reminds me that we disagree on what to do now. The situation is getting out of control and the rebels, I fear, are losing ground. Still, in the long run I believe that this will result in either a stalemate or that Assad will make a mad dash to his Alawite heartland on the coast. But nothing is assured, and it might get worse before it gets better.
“You floated an idea on the eve of your arrival here, that you would support an American effort to establish a safe zone. Let me reiterate what I have said in the past few weeks: There will be no American boots on the ground in Syria. We are considering some options to help the rebels through other parties, maybe something more, in northern or southeastern Syria designed to create safe havens with our air assets and electronic capabilities, provided the regional powers like you actively support this effort with your troops; but that is no guarantee things will get better either.
“But let’s not kid ourselves that whatever we do militarily will end Assad’s government next week or maybe even this year. We need some diplomacy here. I need you to support the Geneva II process and this conference John Kerry is trying to put together. You need to do your best to get your friends in the Syrian opposition to sit down with someone from the Syrian government at that conference, if it happens. Otherwise, it blows up, and the war goes on.
“For now, I need Russia and probably Iran to make this work. What we also need to do on Syria is to look down the road and try to estimate how the situation will unfold in the next two years and then come up with a strategy to be implemented now and designed to prevent a worst-case scenario. I think we could put our best planners together with yours and other allies to help us think this through and, most important, be on the same page.
“This war is no longer about Assad. We know that. You, Jordan, Iraq, Israel are all paying a price, and the costs are going up.
“I also need to say something here about Iraq. I know that it looks incongruent to you that after years of urging Turkey to get closer to the Kurdistan Regional Government, that now we are cautioning you against deepening ties, especially oil and gas ones. Our concern stems from the fact that Prime Minister Maliki is increasingly interpreting developments in Syria and northern Iraq as an attempt to unseat him at best and divide Iraq at worst. You believe that he has inflamed sectarian tensions in Iraq and mistreated the Sunnis. You certainly do have a point, I cannot argue with that. However, what we want you to do is to downplay these activities only to reassure Maliki that the region is not against him; otherwise we face a self-fulfilling prophecy, and he will act on his fears and make matters worse. In the end, we both agree that borders in the region ought not to change. Here too, I believe we can work together to craft a smarter and subtler policy.
“Regarding your Kurdish opening, let me reiterate our admiration for the courage it took. We have been very circumspect on this issue as my advisors tell me that you have too many conspiracy theorists claiming that all this is an American plot. I wish we were so powerful! Still, while we are careful in public discourse, let me also say that we are very willing to help you down the road when the process gathers greater momentum. I will leave this up to you; we are your allies and we very much care about this problem getting resolved.”
As the conversation above suggests, the administration will not have much to offer the Turks. But then, neither will the Turks come to the table with new initiatives.
Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.