Erdogan and Obama May Differ on Syria

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan prepares to meet US President Barack Obama, although Obama may not be interested to hear Erdogan's message on Syria, writes Asli Aydintasbas.

I have been in Washington for a few days. The capital is preparing for Obama’s second term as the rumor mill churns out speculations on who is staying and who is leaving. While I’m here, I am trying to get a sense of the mood among officials and think tanks. This is what I saw:

No intention of getting involved in Syria

Prime Minister Erdogan has been waiting for an appointment with Obama since the day he was reelected as president. Americans are not in a hurry, saying the government is just being set up. The real reason for their slow speed, however, is knowing that when Erdogan comes to Washington, he will say,”Syria can’t go on like this. You have to do something.” A civil war with 60,000 deaths, daily massacres and refugees piled up at its border is a major headache for Turkey, but there is no incentive for the Obama administration to do anything in Syria. They are content to watch from a distance. The mood in this city is, “That’s all very sad, but we are not going to get involved in that bloody civil war.” Until today, the Americans have not taken any steps to change the course of events in Syria, apart from some humanitarian assistance and a few meetings with expatriate opposition members.  Can Erdogan persuade Obama to be more active? I am not sure.

Given up on CHP

Until recently there was hope for Turkey’s new main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), whose  chairman, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, had been promising.  But I sensed that the Washingtonians have totally given up on the CHP. Nowadays, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) is attracting more interest. The credit line opened to CHP with the arrival of new names such as Faruk Lologlu, Riza Turmen, Safak Pavey and Binnaz Toprak, but has been replaced by the feeling of “nothing can done with the CHP.’’ As far as I understand, increasing nationalism and anti-Americanism have sealed the fate of CHP in Washington. In this town, CHP is not taken seriously because of its incessant bickering and Israeli conspiracy theories that  it voices with regard to the Patriot missiles that Turkey requested for its own defense.

Smile when Erdogan is mentioned, but ...

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still the Obama administration’s closest ally in the Middle East. He is their only Turkish interlocutor. But everyone here agrees there are signs of authoritarianism from Erdogan. Previous romanticism for the AKP and Erdogan has disappeared. The prime minister’s comments on issues from the Magnificent Century TV series to the Shanghai Five prompt cynical smiles. But, at the end of the day, the Obama administration sees Erdogan as the strongest leader of the most stable and Western country in the region. He is their natural partner.

Will not give up on Maliki

For Ankara, there are differences of views with Washington, not only on Syria but also on Iraq. In the past, Erdogan, in his telephone conversations with Obama, and Foreign Minister Davutoglu in his bilateral contacts, have complained about Maliki’s “one man rule style”  as creating instability and chaos in Iraq. But Americans are not concerned, saying, “What to do? There is no alternative.’’ They do not want Iraq to hit the headlines again and crumble. Unless there is an exceptional situation such as a civil war, I don’t expect Obama to easily give up on Maliki.

Obama has no human rights agenda

Just as in Europe, in this city, too, Turkey is seen as a “democracy minus” country, especially because of problems with freedom of expression and journalists in jails. It is a foregone conclusion here that the democratic opposition field is narrowing in Turkey and that there is a tendency toward authoritarianism. But for the Obama administration this is at the bottom of the list of priorities. Although occasionally they complain just to be seen to do so, there is no inclination to press Turkey on human rights.

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