President Obama meets with Prime Minister Erdogan
December 7, 2009
On December 7, President Barack Obama will host Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey at the White House. It will be the first formal meeting between the two leaders since April, when Obama visited Turkey early in his administration.
Afghanistan and Iran are expected to be the main issues on their agenda. However, there are other important issues that could come up.
Q1: How will Erdogan respond to Obama’s request for more troops for Afghanistan?
A1: Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan announced on December 1 included not only the dispatch of 30,000 additional U.S. soldiers but also a specific request for a greater contribution by NATO allies. The Obama administration is understandably keen on obtaining additional troops from Turkey, which has the second-largest army in NATO.
On November 1, parallel to the resumption of its ISAF command in Kabul, Turkey increased the number of Turkish non-combat troops there by nearly a thousand, bringing its total contribution to 1,750. U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey and National Security Advisor James Jones made it clear after Obama’s speech that the administration would welcome additional soldiers, preferably with “fewer caveats” relating to their mission. However, Turkish civilian and military leaders have consistently opposed the idea of Turkish troops assuming a direct combat role. This was reaffirmed by Erdogan immediately before his departure for Washington.
Obama’s insistence on Turkish troops would cause strains in the relationship similar to those in 2002–2003 when the Bush administration pressured Turkey without success to support the United States in attacking Iraq. While he is unlikely to reverse his stance at the meeting, Erdogan would also find it difficult to reject outright a specific demand by Obama.
Q2: How will the two leaders reconcile differences over Iran?
A2: Turkey and the United States have not been on the same wavelength on Iran. Obama has recently been hardening his language on Iran and is likely to seek a new United Nations Security Council resolution imposing harsher sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear program. In contrast, Erdogan has been cultivating better relations and closer economic ties with Iran. At the same time, he has been engaging in a hitherto fruitless attempt to persuade Teheran to accept a compromise on its nuclear program. In fact, Erdogan initially planned to come to Washington at the end of October immediately after visiting Iran in the hope of encouraging a compromise solution.
For effective new sanctions against Iran, Obama needs the support of not only European allies, Russia, and China but also Turkey. With nearly $10 billion in bilateral trade and a projected additional investment of $3.5 to $4 billion in the South Pars gas field, Turkey is a major trade partner of Iran and an important outlet for Iranian gas exports and its adherence to an embargo is essential for their sanctions’success. It is also worth noting that Turkey is a non-permanent member of the Security Council, which has to approve new sanctions.
Q3: Is Obama likely to pressure Turkey on opening the border with Armenia?
A3: Obama is expected to encourage Erdogan to proceed to opening of the border in accordance with the protocols signed in Zurich in October with the direct encouragement of the United States without waiting for Armenian withdrawal from occupied Azeri territories in and around the province of Nagorno-Karabakh. Erdogan, however, has made it clear that this is not possible and hopes that the United States will put pressure on Armenia to break the logjam
Unlike his two predecessors, Obama had justified a reversal of his stated position and his avoidance of the word genocide in describing the events of 1915 by talking about the need to look to the future and to focus on the Turkish-Armenian normalization process. If the border is still closed next April, Obama will come under enormous pressure from the Armenian diaspora to use the word. This would seriously undermine U.S.-Turkish relations.
Q4: What are the other items that could be discussed?
Erdogan wants greater support from Obama in eliminating the separatist Kurdish terrorist threat to Turkey emanating from camps in northern Iraq. In 2007, the Bush administration belatedly agreed to provide “timely intelligence,” which facilitated Turkish military action against the camps. Turkey believes that the United States, as it prepares to withdraw from Iraq, needs to go further by persuading the Iraqi Kurds to close the camps. As the Obama administration is looking to Turkey to help maintain stability in Iraq, Erdogan may have growing leverage on this issue.
Erdogan has stated that he will bring up the Cyprus problem with a view to getting Obama’s support for a settlement. Parallel to the ongoing negotiations on the island, Ankara wants an intensification of international support for the effort to achieve a solution. Erdogan may also stress the importance of resuming Israeli/Palestinian peace negotiations in reducing tensions in the Middle East. For his part, Obama could inquire about recent strains in relations between Turkey and Israel.