U.S. President Barack Obama hosted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for official talks and an atypical dinner at the White House. The dinner itself – which in effect is a protocol requirement for visiting heads of state, not for premiers – underscores the importance Obama attaches to his Turkish guest.
Despite ups and downs in Turkish-American relations over the past 50 years or so, Washington has been a very important ally of Turkey, which has aspired to be the big brother or at least the game-setter in its neighborhood, while Ankara is also a key partner of the global superpower United States. Leaders of the two countries, naturally, have a busy agenda whenever they come together. For this latest rendezvous – which was fixed after months of intense efforts of Turkish diplomacy – the agenda included a vast variety of important items, from the American-EU trade agreement to the Syrian quagmire; from the problems of the non-Muslim minorities of Turkey (including the Halki seminary issue) to the thorny Cyprus issue. Obviously, the Kurdish opening and the democratization issues of Turkey will also be taken up during the visit at some level – though not because Washington has been their architect, as the opposition parties often claim.
We may find it difficult to accept, but – as one says in Turkish – going to bed with a bear is no joke. We are allies of the U.S., a superpower which has vast interests in Turkey’s region. Thus, even if it is arguable who needs whom more, there is an interdependency issue dictated by interests. The trade volume between the U.S. and the European Union is almost more than one-third of global trade. Turkey has a customs union deal with the EU and whatever trade deal the EU signs has a binding effect on Turkey even if Turkey – as has been the case since now – has been scorned in the negotiations in such deals. Well, as the sole country with a customs union deal without actual EU membership, Turkey deserved such treatment. Can Erdoğan convince Obama to agree to accept Turkey in EU-U.S. trade talks? Can the U.S. accept something on behalf of the EU? No way! In Turkey, we say a hungry chicken sees itself in a corn silo. Let Turkey’s great premier and his most brilliant team dream.
Syria is of course a very pressing issue to be discussed between Turkish and American leaders. Would a last-minute explosion that killed 52 help convince Obama walk the military road against Bashar al-Assad? Most likely, Obama would prefer to stay out of the quicksand of Syria despite Erdoğan’s futile efforts to enlist U.S. support for his coalition of Sunni fundamentalists in Syria.
The democratization of Turkey and a resolution to the Kurdish problem would help Turkey shine as the regional hegemon Erdoğan aspires to establish. Yet, the Syria complications, on one hand, coupled with the growing hallucinations of the separatists on the other hand, have started to derail the process. Can a renewed U.S. pledge of support help put the process on the right track? Hopefully. But to salvage the process trying to get the support of the imam of Pennsylvania might be a better idea rather than the support of Obama.
Ankara’s hopes of a Cyprus deal before the end of the year have hit the economic crisis iceberg in southern Cyprus. Through unilateral help to rescue Greek Cypriots by Turkey might produce a revival of the talks, Greek Cypriots’ phobia that they might be bought up by Turkey in this time of crisis pose a very serious challenge. Can the U.S. help?