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Erdogan speaks next to Obama in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington

In what the Turkish press is building up to be a “historic” trip, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be visiting Washington next week.  Much has changed since he was last here in December 2009.  In particular, Turkey’s position in the region has, despite its strong economic performance and rising diplomatic stature, deteriorated markedly:  Iraq is teetering on the brink of another round of civil war; Iran’s nuclear program has proceeded apace; Turkey’s ally in Libya, Muammar Kadhafi is dead; and Bashar al-Assad, in whom the prime minister invested so much time, has killed somewhere between 70 and 80 thousand of his own people and has made millions of others refugees.  The only recent geo-political bright spot has been Israel’s apology for the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident.  That is not saying much given that bilateral ties between Turkey and Israel are likely to remain strained.

In a region that is in turmoil and where some of Washington’s partners are gone or under political pressure, Erdogan stands tall as an important partner.  That is at least what the two governments would like everyone to believe, but even as American and Turkish interests align, there are significant differences about how best to achieve them.  Nowhere is this more the case than in Syria and Iraq.

In the spring of 2011, Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, sought to convince Assad to negotiate with his opponents and undertake significant political reforms.  They failed, miscalculating their own ability to influence Assad’s decision-making and underestimating how much, despite their best efforts, the Syrian leader relied on Iran.  Since they were rebuffed and Syrian refugees began pouring over the Turkish border in increasing numbers, Turkish policy has moved 180 degrees.  Giving Assad time to reform morphed into “Assad must go” and, in the process, Ankara has tried to enlist a deeply reluctant Washington to play a role in helping to topple the Assad regime through stepped up support for the rebellion, the establishment of safe zones within Syria’s territory to relieve pressure on Turkey, and a no-fly zone.

“Turkish policymakers are confounded that Washington does not see Syria as a place to deal Tehran a blow.” – Steven A. Cook, Council on Foreign Relations

For Turkey, the Syrian civil war has all kinds of effects on its national security ranging from the challenges of playing host to anywhere between 325 and 450 thousand refugees and the complications the conflict has on the nascent peace process with the PKK and Ankara’s relations with Erbil.  There is a broader issue at play as well.  Ankara now finds itself in a proxy war with Iran in Syria and would like Washington’s help rolling back Iranian influence.  Turkish policymakers are confounded that Washington does not see Syria as a place to deal Tehran a blow.   Although it seems that some change in U.S. policy is in the offing, Washington is clearly wary of a Syrian quagmire and does not believe that the end of Assad means the end of Iran’s role in Syria.  Under these circumstances, whatever the Obama administration has to offer Erdogan, it is likely to fall short of what Ankara believes it needs.

A Syrian boy sits on top of his family's belongings after crossing to Turkey at the Cilvegozu border near Reyhanli May 1, 2013. (Reuters)

If the Syrian civil war had never happened, Iraq would likely top the U.S.-Turkey agenda.  From the perspective of the Turks, Washington’s Iraq policy is, well, nuts. To Ankara, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is an authoritarian pursuing a sectarian policy in Iraq and has become increasingly aligned with Iran.  They point to the pressure on Iraqi Sunni politicians and leaders, notably the case of Tariq al Hashimi, Iraq’s Sunni vice president who is enjoying safe haven in Turkey after being charged with terrorism and sentenced to death.  More generally, Maliki is clearly favoring the Shi’a, which has only stoked frustration among the Sunnis.  This is giving al-Qaida of Iraq material with which to work, threatening to undermine a lot of the hard work – political and military – that the United States put into keeping the country together during and after the surge.  Yet from Ankara’s perspective, it cannot understand why Washington has done precious little to pressure Maliki or arrest the decline in Iraqi security.

Ankara also is not quite sure of what to make of Washington’s policy regarding Turkey’s relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government.  Everyone applauded as Turkey went from being the “most likely to invade” northern Iraq to a diplomatic and economic partner of the Kurds in the service of a unified, federal Iraq.  Yet Ankara is dismayed at the growing tension between Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad and lack of U.S. attention to the problem.  Of course, Ankara contributed to these strains when, over Iraqi and American objections, they signed a gas deal with Erbil.  Still, the deal itself was indicative of the fact that neither the Turks nor the Kurds had much faith in Maliki’s faith in a unified Iraq.

Add to this mix Turkey’s charge that Iraq is complicit with Iran in Tehran’s efforts to arm the Assad regime.  Ankara was stunned in early April that there were no consequences for Maliki when he rebuffed U.S. requests that Iraq inspect Iranian aircraft destined for Syria traversing its airspace and Syrian aircraft on their way back from Iran.  More recently, the Iraqis have conducted the inspections, but have generally allowed the planes to continue to their destinations, claiming that no weapons were found.

The Turks have a point: Maliki is no democrat, he is pursuing sectarian policies, and he has aligned Baghdad with Tehran on important issues.  Of course, Iraq is far more complicated than Turkish complaints suggest, but that does not mean that Ankara is wrong.  It is time for Washington to rethink its approach to Iraq.  That said, for the moment Washington is stuck with Maliki and seems to have very little in the way of leverage to influence the direction of Iraq’s politics.  Consequently, Obama is unlikely to have much to offer Erdogan on Iraq other than platitudes about American commitments and engagement.

One area where Washington can deliver is on trade.  As the United States and Europe undertake free trade agreement negotiations, the Obama administration should make sure that Turkey can benefit from the massive new free trade zone of almost a billion consumers that will result.  Beyond that, the Erdogan visit will be important, but heavier on symbolism and positive rhetoric than it will be on substance.

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Steven A. Cook

Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. On Twitter, he can be followed at @StevenACook.

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