Ahead of President Erdogan’s Visit to the United States

Taking a look at how the U.S.-Turkey situation has changed since President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s last visit to the United States in 2013.

The United States will host the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit from March 31 to April 1, 2016. These nuclear summits, previously held in Washington (2010), Seoul (2012), and The Hague (2014) have been the most visible international effort to minimize the risk of nuclear terrorism. With over fifty world leaders in attendance, this summit will also mark the first visit to the United States by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey since 2013.

President’s Washington Program

Erdogan’s visit to the United States at the end of March could be an opportunity for the United States and Turkey to foster new cooperative efforts beyond nuclear terrorism threats. Although two leaders have been communicating over the phone regarding domestic and regional developments, the G20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey (November, 2015) was the last time President Obama and Erdogan got together. President will have a busy schedule in Washington. In addition to the Nuclear Security Summit, he will be having various meetings and speaking at the Brookings Institution. On Saturday, after the Nuclear Security Summit, President Erdogan will be opening the Diyanet Center of America in Maryland. This Islamic-Ottoman social complex, funded primarily by the Turkish government, will be the largest mosque in the western hemisphere. This event will be a strong showing of Turkish presence amongst U.S. constituents.

Erdogan will be meeting one-on-one with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Biden’s meeting will be as important as ever to preserve the U.S.-Turkey relationship. The Summit is centered on discussions where world leaders, especially Turkey and the U.S. have vested interest. Turkey remains the most important state ally in fighting Da’esh, and it could use this meeting to resolve some of the deteriorating relations that have occurred between the two since 2013.

Much has changed in the relationship between the United States and Turkey since Erdogan’s last visit to Washington. Not only have international crises emerged, issues worsen, but also new infrastructure has taken shape.  For instance, Erdogan was Prime Minister of Turkey, but now he has taken on the role as a President. Like today, in 2013 the most prominent common threat to respective national security was the deteriorating situation in Syria. However, today, the situation in Syria is much worse. Turkey’s influx of refugees due to the crisis has skyrocketed, and most notably, the deadliest terrorist attacks in Turkish history have occurred within the past five months, meaning the conflict in Syria is severely affecting the national security of Turkey; terror within Turkey is extremely diverse.

The Refugee Crisis

The refugee crisis has drastically changed since 2013. The refugee crisis has greatly expanded, and this issue is one that the states could coordinate on with little controversy. In 2013, Turkey housed 400,000 Syrian refuges. In 2016, that number has risen to over 3 million. Since the beginning of this humanitarian crisis, the United States has been the world leader in foreign aid, donating a total near $5 billion to various institutions dealing with migrants, and the United States announced on March 28th that it would contribute another $20 million. However, Turkey’s national government has spent nearly $8 billion since 2011. The United States needs to continue monetary support as well as exert influence within NATO to play a stronger role in stemming the refugee crisis. The United States must also continue to pressure Russia to end bombing campaigns of civilian cities like Aleppo, which has caused the most recent surge of refugees to Turkey; in this sense, the United States must not only work to maintain the cease-fire but end bombings by Russia in the region completely.

Coordination in Syria

Turkey’s main priority in Syria has long been the Assad regime, while the United States has primarily focused its efforts on Da’esh.  These diverging goals have caused little animosity between the two until now. Although United States played a key role in establishing a coalition to carry out air strikes, in the absence of an internationally backed ground forces, YPG, the military component of the Syrian-Kuridish political organization the PYD, became the de-facto fighting force against Da’esh. Meanwhile, Turkey has proposed the international community support Syrian opposition forces connected to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The U.S. support for this organization is quickly approaching a critical point as the YPG has a strong connection to the PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party that has been recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States and other members of the international community. Scholars from prominent think-tanks have written extensively on the YPG – PKK connection, highlighting the fact that YPG soldiers have also been soldiers for the PKK and vice versa therefore there is an intrinsic link between the two organizations. In addition, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other organizations reported that the PYD have conducted a consistent campaign killing many anti-Assad and pro-Peshmerga Kurds since 2011, amounting to war crimes. The PYD has even banned Rudaw, one of the largest Kurdish media networks in the world, from reporting in its areas.   

As the Syrian conflict enters its sixth year, countries that are directly affected by it, primarily Turkey and the European Union, are looking for greater engagement and leadership from the United States. Whether it will be under the current administration or the next, the United States needs to decide how to proceed in Syria. If the United States continues to support the YPG, diplomatic relations with its NATO ally will most likely be jeopardized. Considering Russia and Iran’s influence in Syria, this has the potential to lead to a greater strategic foreign policy mistake.

Common Values and Strategic Interests

Despite current disagreements on these critical issues, the two sides really need each other to address the Syrian crisis. Recent terrorist attacks in Ankara, Istanbul, Brussels and Baghdad underscores the fact that unless stability is restored in the region, no country will be safe. As a NATO ally, Turkey is and always will be an important partner with the United States in this effort. By working closer with the European Union and NATO, Turkey has taken the first step to try to stem the tide of migrants.

In conclusion, the Nuclear Security Summit has the potential to be a great opportunity to re-calibrate and recognize the long-standing partnership and friendship, rooted in common values and strategic interests between the United States and Turkey. At a time when millions of Syrian refugees are desperate for any positive development, both sides could give them the hope they need by preparing the next step towards increased safety and stability.

Allison Feikes
Turkish Heritage Organization