Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will sit down today with the US administration. The main files on the table: Syria and Iran.
The marathon round of talks Davutoglu will have with the White House, Hilary Clinton and the Pentagon will be anything but routine. They will be on the near-term fate of Middle East and the Arab Spring.
That is why we should not be surprised that Davutoglu’s meetings at the State Department will exceed ten hours, and Hilary Clinton has reserved seven hours of her time.
There are surprising features to this visit. As a journalist who has spent years observing Turkish-American relations, I am more used to seeing the Americans come up with a list of demands from Turkey, and Ankara gloomily trying to find a way of responding to those demands.
“We Can’t Just Watch the Attacks”
This time around Davutoglu has a clear demand from the US: “Don’t let Syria become another Bosnia. We don’t want a second Sarajevo on our border. We can’t just sit back and watch a civil war and attacks on civilians.”
Why this warning? Why is Turkey putting pressure on Washington over Syria? Because, despite the media statements and stern-sounding warnings issued time to time, the US administration does not appear intent on taking real steps on [the Syrian crisis].
This hard fact - which I had a hard time comprehending before coming to Washington - became clear after spending 48 hours here. American officials I spoke to explained at length why the buffer zone Ankara wants in Syria cannot be established; why a humanitarian corridor to funnel relief to besieged cities like Homs and Hama is not feasible; why the UN won’t agree, and why a military option is off the table.
No Good Options
A senior US official said, “Unfortunately there are no easy options in Syria,” [but nevertheless] expressed hope that the Assad regime would collapse [as a result of] the internal uprising. Others said Syria is heading towards a civil war and assistance to the Free Syrian Army based in Turkey would be fatal. Americans do not recognize the opposition, which has not been charismatic; [thus,] there is nothing left to do beyond diplomatic pressure.
It sounded as if the Obama administration would like to tell Turkey, “This is all we can do. Why don’t you guys topple Bashar al-Assad?”
A senior American official who spoke to The Washington Post over the weekend said, “Sadly there is no magical option, there is no good option.” Another one said there is no option but to exert economic pressure on the Assad regime.
The Free Syrian Army
In short, Americans do not seem intent on doing anything beyond angry statements and soft diplomacy. This is no longer acceptable to Ankara while 30-40 people are being killed each day. Turkey believes that the outside world, led by the US, should not stand idly by, but instead become actively involved [in the crisis].
In his [meetings with the] White House and other contacts today, Davutoglu will come up with a list of alternatives led by a “coalition of the willing” as was the case in Libya.
Ankara, diverging from Washington, thinks the Free Syrian Army - comprised of soldiers who defected from the regular Syrian army - has become a credible force. In his [meetings] with Congress on Thursday, Davutoglu said that the Free Syrian Army has reached a strength of 40,000. He also emphasized that humanitarian assistance to Syrian towns is feasible.
Turkey is not opposed to a buffer zone at Idlib near Antakya in Turkey or on the Jordanian border. But Ankara does wants to do this [in collaboration with] Arab countries and with US support - not on its own.
Turkey’s Pressure on USA
Concerning Iran, Davutoglu will insist on the resumption of diplomatic traffic. After persuading Tehran two years ago on a nuclear exchange proposal which was eventually rejected by Washington, Ankara has refrained from further involvement. But the possibility of an Israeli air strike on Iran has motivated Ankara to become active again. Ankara aims at bringing the Iranian Foreign Minister to the negotiation table with Western nations to resume negotiations [on Iran’s nuclear program].
As I said, this is not the kind of visit I am used to [seeing]. I have been coming to Washington for many years, and writing on Turkish-American relations for a long time; but this is the first time I have seen Ankara putting pressure on Washington.
Fight at Congress Last Year, Praise This Year
As I said, even for a veteran journalist covering Turkish-American relations this is a visit full of surprises.
Before coming to Washington, I knew Ankara’s popularity in Washington had risen because of the missile shield and the Arab Spring. Some of the good chemistry in relations stems from personal good relations between Obama and Erdogan. This close relationship, which Obama calls “”friendship”, actually has a “honeymoon” ambiance to an extent that has left me dumbfounded.
Let’s look at Congress, which for years gave Turkey a rough time because of Cyprus, accusations concerning an Armenian genocide, and human rights violations.
Davutoglu met with big guns like John McCain, Joe Lieberman and John Kerry; important committees, majority and minority leaders; the Foreign Relations Committee. We are talking about a day full of smiles and laughter.
This year it was all about Syria and the Arab Spring at the Foreign Relations Committee where last year Davutoglu had a very rough time over the flotilla affair. An American official concluded his highly complimentary talk by saying, "Mr. Minister, you say you are not a model for the Arab World but we see you as a model.”
All the major players who saw Davutoglu only last week at Munich insisted on spending time with him and gave him a guided tour of the Senate. I recall a disastrous meeting last year over the flotilla affair, where the representatives had truly thrashed Turkey - so much so that in response to warnings about Israel from a representative from California, Davutoglu had responded by saying: “You cannot speak that way to the Foreign Minister of the Turkish Republic,” and stormed out of the room.
This time there was no criticism. Cyprus, freedom of expression in Turkey and relations with Israel were not even on the agenda.
Chairwoman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who had earlier criticized Turkey about Israel, this time hugged Davutoglu at the end of the meeting. As I said, I have been coming to Washington for years and I have never seen such warmth.
A senior Turkish foreign ministry official said: “We are also surprised. But this ambiance could be contingent, a result of the Arab Spring and the missile shield. It could turn around.”
But until then, the friendship Ankara could not find in Brussels is now available in Washington.