Decoding Erdoğan’s Visit to Washington

BRUSSELS—The visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the United States has been animated by the deepening crisis in Syria and its mounting costs for Turkey and the region. The nature of the security challenge facing Turkey was dramatically underscored by the recent terrorist bombings in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, which claimed dozens of lives. The mounting cross-border instability, with no end in sight, will be difficult to suppress, or even contain, without close U.S.-Turkish cooperation. Syria may be the most pressing item on the bilateral agenda, but it is accompanied by a series of longer-term questions surrounding the future of U.S.-Turkish relations.

First, Syria is not a short-term crisis management problem, but rather a long-term problem of containment, with the very real possibility that the country will remain a zone of chaos for a decade or more. Erdoğan and U.S. President Barack Obama may agree on the fundamental point that the regime of Bashar al-Assad must go, but there appears to be little consensus on next steps. Ankara presses for a more assertive approach in support of the Syrian opposition, the imposition of a no-fly zone, and other military steps short of intervention on the ground. Washington remains wary of going beyond non-military measures.

Yet pressure is building to arm the Syrian opposition with more sophisticated weapons, and to hedge against the more extensive use of missiles and chemical weapons by the regime — a threat to which Turkey is exposed. To the extent that Damascus opts for an even more aggressive use of violent proxies affecting Turkish — as well as Israeli, Lebanese, and Jordanian — security, the pressure to do more may be irresistible. So far, Syrian-Turkish tensions have not produced a clear-cut Article 5 contingency for NATO, invoking collective self-defense. But that line could easily be crossed, and could prove a trigger for international intervention.

The Obama-Erdoğan dialogue on Syria illustrates a traditional characteristic of U.S.-Turkish relations — shared geopolitical stakes, and a tendency to see the bilateral partnership as “strategic,” but little agreement on specific policy questions. This has been true with respect to Iraq since 1990. The current debate over Syria has all the hallmarks of this persistent problem, but with a notable twist. This time, Ankara presses for more direct intervention, with Washington wary of the consequences.

Second, Erdoğan’s visit neatly illustrates the difficulty of diversifying U.S.-Turkish relations. Geography and the sheer concentration of unstable and crisis-prone societies on Turkey’s borders, against a backdrop of geopolitical competition in which Russia remains an important player, inevitably give bilateral relations a security-heavy character when seen from Washington and elsewhere. The political, economic, and even cultural dimensions of the relationship remain underdeveloped. This reality is increasingly at odds with Turkey’s evident economic dynamism and the growing reach of Turkish power, both soft and hard. Past decades have seen the establishment of numerous high-level committees — another was announced during the Erdoğan visit — aimed at building bilateral economic ties. Even at roughly $20 billion per year, the current level of trade remains unimpressive.

Will anything change on this front? Possibly, yes. A wider range of Turkish businesses are now active on the U.S. scene. The real driver may be the ongoing negotiations over a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. A U.S.-EU trade deal could have major consequences for Turkey, and could change the dynamics in U.S.-Turkish economic relations in ways that Ankara, in particular, will be keen to understand. The transatlantic trade and investment question is also likely to drive an even sharper Turkish debate about the country’s troubled relations with the EU, in which Washington will also have a stake.

Finally, consideration of Syria and a range of other issues will be shaped by an even larger “meta” question concerning the growing Middle Eastern content in U.S.-Turkish relations, a trend that started gathering pace 20 years ago and continues to accelerate. Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Israel top the agenda, alongside the dilemmas for Turkish and U.S. strategy in a region increasingly dominated by Islamic politics. One consequence is that after years of wariness about U.S. action in the region, Turkey is now a leading advocate for continued U.S. engagement, just as U.S. strategy pivots to address demands in Asia and elsewhere. The Erdoğan visit reminds us of the stakes for both sides.

Ian Lesser is executive director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Transatlantic Center in Brussels, and Senior Director for Foreign and Security Policy at GMF.