While the two leaders agree that Syria’s President Assad must be ousted to end the slaughter, the meeting was by far not all Erdogan may had hoped for: Obama continues to reject Syrian opposition armourment.
Just a week ago it looked as if Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would be able to face US President Barack Obama in Washington in a position of strength; it seemed as if he wanted to push the hesitating US president further in regards to Syria. The Turkish leader told US television network NBC that Syria had crossed Obama’s “red line” – the use of chemical weapons – a long time ago. “It is clear the regime has used chemical weapons and missiles,” Erdogan said, demanding a no-fly zone over the country.
But then two car bombs exploded in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli on Saturday (11.05.2013), killing 51 people. Now, Erdogan’s policy on Syria is met with protests. Opposition politicians have accused Erdogan of willfully pushing Turkey into a bloody conflict with Syria.
With mounting pressure at home, Erdogan’s wish to have the US take a stronger stance on Syria was met with caution from the side of the US: Obama said that Washington has a moral and national security incentive to stop the killing, but: Reports that Syrian forces had used chemical weapons needed to be backed up by more evidence. Meanwhile, it appears US hopes are pinned on an upcoming peace conference, jointly organized by Russia.
Meanwhile, German Security expert Horst Teltschik interprets Erdogan’s take on Syria as a result of a well-calculated turn on its neighbor with whom Turkey used to have good political and economic relations for years.
There are different reasons for this turn, said the former security advisor to former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and former head to the Munich Security conference in an interview with DW.
Alevi minority and the Kurds
In addition to the growing influx of refugees – more than 400,000 Syrian refugees are in Turkey at this point – Teltschik mentions another aspect: “Turkey fears an Alevi minority in the border regions to Syria that has now been accused of having collaborated with Syrian intelligence on the recent attacks.”
Another internal political hot spot is the Kurdish conflict that seemed to have cooled off after the informal agreement with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. But the path to peace could be easily interrupted, Teltschik warned. “Erdogan’s concern is that the Kurdish conflict might be fueled again should Syria fall apart. If Kurds in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran were to start a new initiative for an independent Kurdistan – that would be a nightmare for him.”
Obama’s most important strategic partner
But despite the fact that Erdogan has to face growing pressure at home, it doesn’t diminish his strategic importance as a partner to the US. Turkey’s geographical position on NATO’s Southeast with a long shared border to Syria speaks for itself. The US strongly depends on a reliable partner in the region, itself having to deal with enough political hot spots as it is – the Palestinian conflict, an instable Iraq and an unresolved conflict with Iran.
And it certainly wasn’t by pure accident that Obama had helped ease tensions between Israel and Turkey, two of the US’s most important allies. During Obama’s recent trip to Israel, its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered an apology to Erdogan for the 2010 Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, killing nine Turkish activists. This incident led to a break-through in Turkish-Israeli relations.
According to Ivan Vejvoda of the US think tank German Marshall Fund in Washington, Turkey is far more important on military grounds: “The Turkish army is without doubt the strongest and most modern one in the region by far. Together with the Israeli army, it maintains important security and military cooperations.” Turkey works as a block preventing the Syrian conflict from spilling over into other areas of the region. And Turkey could be part of an intervention in Syria after a UN resolution has been passed – or if a “coalition of the willing” starts to act.
“And let’s not forget that the US has rockets in Turkey to protect the country from possible Syrian attacks,” Vejvoad told DW. “That’s also a sign for a close security alliance.”
Weapons for Syria’s opposition
Teltschik asserts that Erdogan’s demand for weapons to be delivered to Syrian opposition forces could be met somewhat responsibly: “US and European intelligence should be able to differentiate after two years which groups should be supported and which ones shouldn’t. That means I wouldn’t completely rule out armament.” It’s a demand that President Obama today, too, has not given in to.
Another option is that Turkey, too, could get involved, carrying out small operations, copying the Israeli approach: “Israel has hit Syria with its air force three times already without eliciting a response.” If Turkey were to use its air force for some, “well-targeted attacks, possible targets could be the military headquarters or the presidential palace.”
But that’s not a very realistic scenario in the run up to the international conference on Syria that US Foreign Minister John Kerry had agreed to in Moscow. For that, however, it’s less the demands of the Turkish prime minister that are responsible for the conference’s success – it’s up to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. And he has already warned of further “destabilization of the situation.”
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