US President Meeting with Turkish Counterpart Questioned

US President Meeting with Turkish Counterpart Questioned

The fourth Nuclear Security Summit will be held in Washington, D.C. on March 31-April 1, 2016. Actually there is little hope for any breakthroughs. The last summit held in The Hague failed to produce any results. But normally, the forum provides a chance to hold important high level talks.

Just a few days before the event it became known that US President Obama had taken a decision to reject the request of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a one-on-one meeting. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported about it on March 27, citing US officials.

«Mr Obama has turned down Mr Erdogan’s request to join him for the inauguration of a Turkish-funded mosque in Maryland, and the US president has no plans for a formal one-on-one meeting with his Turkish counterpart, who is a vital ally in the fight against Islamic State», according to the WSJ.

The newspaper added that Erdogan might have a personal meeting with US Vice President Joe Biden instead of Obama.

The well-informed Middle East Eye, an online news portal covering events in the Middle East and which has been cited by major media publications, wrote on March 28 (updated on March 29) that «President Barack Obama does not plan on having talks with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he visits Washington later this week for a nuclear security summit, amid deep divisions between the two NATO nations».

At that Reuters reported that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on March 29 he would meet President Barack Obama at the summit amid differences over Syria and Turkey's domestic policy direction.

It leaves one guessing which report is right.

The Turkish leader was greeted warmly in 2013 (the US President and his family hosted Mr Erdogan, then Turkey’s Prime Minister, for dinner in Washington), but it’s going to be quite different this time. Having refused to meet Erdogan, Obama will demonstratively hold tête-à-tête talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It should be noted that Turkish officials have been trying for months to lay the groundwork for a meeting in Washington with Mr Obama. It seems, they have failed.

Three years ago (actually right after Erdogan’s visit to the US) Turkish police launched a violent crackdown against protesters trying to prevent construction of a mall in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, sparking criticism from the White House. Then Turkey embarked on a campaign to stifle dissent to complicate its relations with the US and the West, in general.

Indeed, in recent years, the Turkish authorities have made extraordinary efforts to silence critics and dissent.

Dozens of writers, journalists and academics have been arrested and detained. In the last two years, half of all cases related to freedom of expression brought before the European court of human rights concerned Turkey.

Current legislation and surveillance practices threaten fundamental rights and freedoms of tens of millions of individuals. Critical voices in the media have been shut down in recent weeks as newspapers and media organizations’ offices are raided by riot police using water cannon and tear gas. On 4 March 2016, court-appointed trustees took over the management of Feza Media Group, which includes the opposition Zaman and Today’s Zaman daily papers as well as the Cihan news agency. The country is more polarized than ever and civil society is under attack. At the same time, Russia and the West have accused Erdogan of ignoring the Islamic State (IS) threat and allowing foreign fighters to enter Syria more easily than they should have been.

King Abdullah of Jordan accused Turkey of supporting «radical Islam» in the region and exporting militants to Europe during a meeting with US congressmen in January.

His Majesty said the refugee crisis facing Europe was not an accident, and neither was the presence of militants in their midst. «The fact that terrorists are going to Europe is part of Turkish policy and Turkey keeps on getting a slap on the hand, but they are let off the hook», he told US lawmakers.

When asked by a congressman whether Daesh was exporting oil to Turkey, Abdullah replied: «Absolutely». The king went on to say that he believed Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought a «radical Islamic solution to the region», adding that Turkey presented a strategic challenge in the war in Syria.

Congress members were greatly impressed by the words of the man who is very much respected in the West.

When Mr Biden traveled to Istanbul in January, his demonstrative meeting with journalists critical of Mr Erdogan upset the Turkish President and his allies.

US officials have expressed private concerns to Turkish leaders about the crackdown on Kurdish separatists, which resumed last summer.

While the Obama administration supports Turkey’s fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, US officials have been worried about the use of tanks and troops against Kurdish militants. The Turkish President has repeatedly called on the US to stop working with Syrian Kurdish militants aligned with the PKK, a group both countries classify as a terrorist organization. The US refusal to sever its ties with the fighters has added new strains.

The Syrian Kurdish fighters are the most important US ally in Syria. With the bulk of the Syrian opposition focused on fighting Assad, the US has turned to the People's Protection Units (YPG) as a capable combat force with thousands of fighters to effectively fight the Islamic State on the ground.

Due to Turkey’s objections, Syrian Kurds have not been invited to the recent round of Geneva talks on Syria, despite the fact that the US administration believed their presence was important.

The tensions with Turkey come as the US is increasing its cooperation with Syrian Kurds by sending dozens of elite military advisers into northern Syria to work with YPG fighters and their Arab allies. Brett McGurk, President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the global coalition to counter IS, secretly went to northern Syria to meet with the Kurds, reflecting the type of relationship the US and the PYD enjoy. The US airdropped weapons and munitions during the siege of Kobani by the Kurds in the summer of 2015. State Department spokesman John Kirby outlined the US stance on the issue. «We don’t, as you know, recognize the PYD as a terrorist organization», Kirby said. «We recognize that the Turks do, and I understand that».

He also noted that «Even the best of friends aren’t going to agree on everything. Kurdish fighters have been some of the most successful in going after Daesh (Islamic State) inside Syria. We have provided a measure of support, mostly through the air, and that support will continue».

Turkey continues to push for creation of a safe zone in northern Syria that could be home to some of the 2.6 million Syrian refugees now living in Turkey, and serve as a protected base for Syrian rebels. Mr Obama has repeatedly rejected the idea as impractical and risky.

The US has been pressing Turkey to help close a 60-mile stretch of its border with Syria that Islamic State uses as a key lifeline. A series of battlefield setbacks have undermined the effort, and now some US officials want Turkey to allow the use of Syrian Kurdish fighters to help close off the border. Turkish officials say that isn’t acceptable.

According to the another WSJ article, Turkey has become one of the biggest impediments to securing a political resolution to the five-year-old conflict in Syria – and to mounting the most effective military campaign against Islamic State.

It happens at the time when President Obama needs a diplomatic success in the Middle East to boost the chances of Democrats at the coming elections.

Despite the long history of close collaboration, US-Turkish relations have deteriorated markedly over the last three years. It’s not Syria only – there are also differences regarding Cyprus, Iran, Israel, and Hamas, as well as a rising tide of anti-Americanism in Turkey. President Obama’s decision to skip a meeting with Mr Erdogan is a serious sign of worsening relationship. Turkey’s unmeasured global ambitions and poor human rights record have damaged its relations with a close ally.

Tags: ISIS   Turkey  US  Erdogan  Obama