What could Obama grant Erdoğan on the Syria matter?
Syria was already set to be the most significant agenda topic during Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House. However, the atrocious attack that took place last weekend in Reyhanlı, which resulted in the death of over 40 citizens, has increased the significance of the Syria topic even more. Within this scope, the most outstanding question about Erdoğan’s White House visit is whether Erdoğan will be able to obtain concrete progress on the Syria matter.
Though there is a full consensus between Turkey and the United States in favor of the fall of Bashar al-Assad, there are serious differences in the opinions of the two countries with regard to how to reach that goal.
To understand this, let’s try to give an insight into Obama’s foreign policy doctrine and perspective in the Middle East. Contrary to former President George Bush, he does not favor the U.S. taking interfering roles in the world scene. His priorities are internal matters. While he is taking steps to decline the military presence of the U.S. all over the world, he is also shifting his strategic priority from the Middle East to Asia, which will be the new power center in the global economy.
Having withdrawn most of the American soldiers in Iraq as promised, and gradually withdrawing from Afghanistan, Obama does not wish to involve the U.S. in new crises and conflicts in the Middle East during his presidency. In a period in which he is trying to retreat from the region, he does not want to take the risk of getting involved in a civil war that is extending and spreading in Syria.
Erdoğan, on the other hand, has been insistently trying to persuade Obama to take a more active role in Syria for about two years. But every time he tried, he faced a very reluctant and cautious president.
This does not mean that the U.S. does not support the Syrian opposition and is not clandestinely helping the Free Syrian Army. However, Washington’s support has never reached the critical level to shift the balance between the opposition units and al-Assad’s army in favor of the opposition. As the civil war extends, it mostly favors al-Assad.
Lately, one more significant motivation triggering the reluctance of the U.S. has emerged. Washington has serious concerns about the possibility of pro-al-Qaeda, radical Islamist groups coming to the forefront in the Syria opposition. Within this scope, American sources openly speak of their expectation that jihadist warriors passing to Syria through Turkey are strictly controlled. It would not be a surprise if Obama expresses his concerns on this matter during his meeting with Erdoğan.
There is one more factor. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel uttered once more that the U.S. wants a political solution in Syria, not a military one. This requires Ankara to settle into more realistic grounds, as Ankara has made all its calculations according to the goal of al-Assad’s ousting by the opposition, and is providing vital logistical support and convenient passages to the Free Syrian Army to this end. During U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Moscow last week, an agreement was made between the United States and Russia to assemble an international conference for a political solution to the Syria crisis, which is another progress reinforcing the search for a political resolution.
This conference, at which the participation of both the al-Assad regime and the opposition is expected, will try to make the conflicting parties agree on a transitional rule. This means that the representatives of the al-Assad regime, about which many bets are being placed as to the date of its fall, will be invited by international actors to negotiate. In this situation, the possibility of the U.N. Security Council issuing a decision to establish no-fly zones and buffer zones on the border has diminished. Let’s admit that this would probably not upset Obama, who does not want to intervene in Syria at all.
If a political resolution comes to prominence, it would lead Turkey, which has close relations with the Syrian opposition, especially with the Muslim Brothers, to play a critical role in the long and complicated negotiations that would start in the subsequent period. In any case, it can be foreseen that the possible results of this visit might include achieving a close dialogue between Ankara and the U.S., which is searching for a political solution in Syria and has been forming consulting mechanisms of late.