US might step in for a Cyprus solution to appease Turks

US might step in for a Cyprus solution to appease Turks

President Barack Obama gave two messages to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan by hosting him in Blair House, a gesture that was last made in 1999.

First, in view of the fact that Erdoğan’s Washington visit was only possible after a normalization process started between Turkey and Israel, Obama reiterated one more time that having good relations with Israel means having good relations with the U.S.

Second, in view of the fact that the U.S. would be unable to deliver on most of Turkey’s demands, Obama still wanted to give the message that, while the two capitals might not be on the same page on several critical issues, Turkey remained an important ally to Washington.

Obviously, Obama’s team was also aware that such protocol would be well received by the Turkish public, which would then serve to conceal the possible disappointments over the outcome of the talks.

Needless to say, Erdoğan was not only able to convince Obama to upgrade its support to the Syrian opposition, he was the one pushed to accept to work more for a diplomatic solution. Most probably Obama asked Erdoğan to encourage opposition groups to take a more conciliatory stance for the Geneva conference that the U.S. and Russia agreed to hold in June.

It should not be hard to guess that Obama handed to Erdoğan during the dinner attended by the head of Turkish intelligence a dossier about evidence on how armaments going through Turkish borders end up in the hands of extremist groups.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Erdoğan’s call on Washington to use its leverage on Israel was probably met by Obama’s insistence that a healthy negotiation process required Palestinian unity and that it would be unwise for Turkey to look as if it sided with one side if Erdoğan chose to go to Gaza only. Obama probably told Erdoğan that Israel should be given guarantees that the court cases in Turkey about the Mavi Marmara incident will not have any legal consequences and that otherwise the whole reconciliation process will be jeopardized.

On the most important third topic, Iraq, it should not be hard to guess that Obama asked Erdoğan to try to live with Nouri al-Maliki until 2014, when he will probably be forced to leave the Prime Ministry. Erdoğan was probably told that it was a mistake not to talk to the central government about the retreat of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants to northern Iraq. And as to Turkey’s wish to cooperate with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to explore the north’s natural resources, Obama most probably did not react to Erdoğan’s statement that the Turkish state oil company had joined hands with the American ExxonMobil for exploration but he most probably asked the Turkish government rather to go slowly on that path, until disagreements between the KRG and Bagdad are overcome.

Now all these things are not really music to Erdoğan’s ears. And most probably the divergence of views on Syria, Iraq and Israel will continue in the short term, which will increase Turkey’s frustrations.

But Obama is well aware that in the give-and-take world of diplomacy, he has to come at least with one area where he could try to deliver and tell the Turks what they want to hear.

My take is that that one area was Turkey’s call to the U.S. to assume a more active role for the solution of the Cyprus problem. (The decision to form a commission to discuss trade issues is significant, but less important since we don’t know whether it will produce the outcome Turkey wants.)

The divided island is not a burning topic for U.S. diplomacy, which already has a lot on its plate. But a renewed effort to solve it will not come with a big cost. In addition the gas discoveries in the East Mediterranean give an extra incentive to the U.S., which might secure cooperation between Turkey, Cyprus and Israel for the transfer of that gas to international markets.

The fact that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry invited a Greek Cypriot minister to Washington last week suggests that he might indeed be getting ready for mediation in Cyprus.