SPEAKING FREELY Erdogan drags heavy bag to Washington
By Egemen B Bezci
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be greeted by Barack Obama at the White House today after waiting more than six months for an appointment since the US president was elected for a second term in November. Weighty issues accompany Erdogan into the meeting between the two heads of state.
Erdogan's visit to Washington follows frequent visits to Turkey by US Secretary of State John Kerry since took the post in February. Since then, rapid developments in the Middle East have brought new opportunities and threats. The most recent one was last weekend's car bomb attack in the Turkish town of Reyhanli near the Syrian border that claimed the lives of more than 50 Turkish
citizens. The incident created more stress on a Turkish government that is already searching for a solution to the already complicated Syria problem.
In the light of all these developments, three important issues mark Erdogan's agenda during his time in the White House; namely, the Syrian issue, relations with Israel and, significantly, energy politics. It is remarkable to note that for the first time in contemporary Turkish politics, a prime minister will not have to push the Kurdish issue. Erdogan's recent democratic initiative has resulted in a ceasefire with Kurdish militants.
The ceasefire secured on March 21 between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and Ankara is one of the key factors for understanding the puzzle of energy politics in the Middle East. The three-decade-long struggle between the PKK, a Kurdish armed secessionist organization that long-operated across Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria as it pursued the establishment of an independent Kurdish state, had claimed more than 30,000 lives and has been a source of instability along the trajectory of Turkey's border with Iraq, Iran and Syria.
The recent discovery of extensive oil resources near Kirkuk, a city under the administration of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, makes it necessary to politically stabilize the region, both for the safe transportation of the fuel to global markets and for the creation of a suitable environment for energy-related investments in the area. Both the KRG and the US would not wish to see the PKK destabilize northern Iraq by using the region as a safe haven to execute attacks on Turkish soil.
Moreover, Kerry's statement during one of his visits to Turkey, in which he applauded Ankara's efforts to disarm the PKK, demonstrates a parallel vision on this matter. However, the Obama administration and the Nuri al-Maliki government in Iraq are urging KRG President Massoud Barzani to cancel direct energy deals with Turkey just as Ankara is looking to use them to deepen economic and political ties with the KRG.
Erdogan's long-term rationale for strengthened ties with the KRG is to economically integrate northern Iraq into the hinterland of Turkey's southeast region. US concerns increase if the KRG exports oil via Turkey independent of the government in Baghdad, as tension between Baghdad and officials in the Kurdistan capital Erbil would escalate. Therefore, the energy deal between KRG and Turkey gathers importance as a topic of discussion between Erdogan and Obama.
Then attention may turn to US hopes for the renewal of relations between Israel and Turkey. Just at the middle of Turkey's endeavors to work a deal to establish a permanent ceasefire with the PKK, and seemingly under the gaze of Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to apologize for the Mavi Marmara incident, the May 2010 raid by Israel of the Gaza-bound ship. Moreover, Netanyahu stated that Israel accepted Turkey's pre-conditions for the reconciliation of relations between their countries.
The apology fitted in with the US's Middle East vision in three ways. Firstly, the apology paved the way for possible cooperation between Turkey and Israel on the Syrian conflict. It is no secret that Turkey and Israel have different visions on the Middle East. However, both countries have a crucial common point in their threat perceptions.
Both countries, as well as the US, are deeply concerned about the future of chemical weapon arsenals in Syria. The main concern of these actors regarding chemical weapons in Syria is the possibility that non-state actors such as Hezbollah, the PKK and other radical groups acquire these weapons. Therefore, though the recent apology created an atmosphere of collaboration between Israel and Turkey, both countries could work to stop non-state actors getting their hands on Syrian chemical weapons. Such collaboration is highly desired by the Obama administration. Accordingly, improvement in Israeli-Turkish relations is an important matter for the White House talks.
The most important topic in the Erdogan-Obama meeting, however, is the Syrian conflict. Erdogan is seeking more direct US involvement in Syria. As long as Bashar al-Assad stays in power, Erdogan's reputation and prestige suffer at home. The increasing humanitarian and financial burden of Syrian refugees in Turkey is slowly exceeding Turkey's capacity.
Moreover, the recent devastating car-bomb in Turkey has put Erdogan's foreign policy under heavy criticism. In order to get more US involvement in Syria, Erdogan is likely to demonstrate in the White House that Turkey is not supporting the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nousra Front in Syria. Moreover, Turkey created new opportunities for a more secular Syrian opposition, namely the PKK's branch, the Syrian Kurdish Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat.
About 400,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey. Beside the humanitarian dimension of the conflict, extremists groups which allegedly have connections with the global al-Qaeda network, such as al-Nousra Front, are gaining stronger footholds in Syria. This situation particularly worries the US and Israel, thus, in this context, the Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat, as a secular organization, emerges as a leading and quasi-trustable opposition group for the US.
Armed PKK militants inside Turkish soil have started to leave Turkey to settle in Syria and Iraq. Considering that PKK has about 6,000-7,000 armed militants, relocation of the PKK's armed wing from Turkey to Syria would likely shift the balance of power in Syria.
The Erdogan-Obama meeting is likely to consider Western concerns on the Syrian opposition. Erdogan's desired support from the US depends on how he portrays Turkey's connections with Syrian opposition groups and eases US concerns on the presence of extremist groups within the opposition.
The political power game in the Middle East is getting more complex. Erdogan realizes that without more direct US involvement in the Syrian conflict, the Syrian opposition will not be able to overthrow the Assad regime soon. The consequences of that reach well within Turkey's borders.
As long as Assad stays in office, Erdogan loses power in Turkish politics and risks losing at elections in 2014. Therefore, the decisions taken at the meeting in the White House have a deep bearing on the coming years in Middle Eastern politics.
Egemen B Bezci is a research fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, Sakarya University, Turkey.