Harry Parkhouse contributed to this post.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu arrived in Washington last Sunday for a series of meetings with White House officials, including his counterpart Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The ongoing crisis in Syria received special attention, but talks touched on the wide range of issues of interest to both parties: from Turkey’s relations with its neighbors to its missile defense deal with China; negotiations for the U.S.-European Union Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP); and domestic developments in Turkey.
Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s visit is part of a bigger shift in Turkey’s foreign policy, away from the sectarian approach that it has embraced for the last two years and which has left it isolated in its region. Instead, Turkey appears to be returning to an approach first devised and practiced by Davutoğlu at the beginning of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) tenure, called “zero problems with neighbors.” In keeping with this theme, the foreign minister’s visit was marked, on both sides, by the rhetoric of commonality—stressing interests shared by the United States and Turkey—and only occasional remonstrances. Yet, it remains to be seen whether the trip yields anything more than rhetoric from either Ankara or Washington.
Relations with Neighbors
In an address at the Brookings Institution, Davutoğlu expressed frustration with the United Nations’ handling of the Syrian crisis. Particularly egregious, in Davutoğlu’s view, was the UN’s inability to issue a single resolution on the humanitarian crisis in Syria – let alone reach any kind of consensus on political issues. He therefore used his visit to implore the United States and other countries of the Security Council to take greater action. In a joint press conference with Secretary Kerry on November 19, he stated strongly that, “it is a responsibility of the international community and responsibility of all of us, to end these crimes against humanity.”
On the issue of refugees, Secretary Kerry praised Turkey’s humanitarian efforts in assisting Syrian refugees who have fled over the border and pledged further assistance, saying “the United States is proud to have provided an additional $96 million in assistance to refugees to Turkey. That’s part of our now $1.3 billion that the American people have graciously and generously provided in order to relieve this humanitarian crisis, and America is proudly the number one donor in order to deal with this crisis.”
Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu also addressed two areas of the Syrian conflict that have divided Turkey and the United States: the rise of extremists within the Syrian opposition and the possibility of a negotiated settlement. Despite widespread reports that Turkey has provided support to extremist elements of the Syrian opposition, Davutoğlu expressed Turkey’s commitment to combating the rise of extremism in Syria. In an op-ed in Foreign Policy ahead of his visit, Davutoğlu laid the blame for radicalization in Syria on the West, saying “despite our many and early warnings about the radicalization of the Syrian opposition, the international community has so far failed to deliver a just and decisive settlement,” disregarding Turkey’s own support for those radical elements. While Turkey has always denied its support for al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, this rhetoric has recently been backed up by concrete actions, as Syrian-Kurdish groups have reported that Turkey has stopped arming extremists against the Kurds and has taken steps to reverse its open-border policy that allowed jihadists to enter Syria through Turkey.
Long a vocal advocate for military intervention, Ankara also appears to be shifting toward greater support for the Geneva II diplomatic process. Davutoğlu stated Turkey’s goal to “organize this conference as early as possible, because even in one day, one hour a day in this process, causes many…loss of lives,” and to ensure that the process will lead “to a political transition with full executive power by a transitioning governing body.”
Foreign Minister Davutoğlu also spoke with Secretary Kerry on two issues that have divided the allies in the past: Iraq and Iran. Turkey was once close to Iran, much to the chagrin of the United States. Turkey defended Iran’s nuclear ambitions on the world stage, remained silent on Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent reelection and suppression of the Green Movement, and helped Iran bypass sanctions through transactions in gold with Iran’s Central Bank. The conflict in Syria, however, drove a wedge between Turkey and Iran. In their meetings, Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu discussed Iran sanctions and Davutoğlu expressed his support for ongoing efforts by the P5+1 to reach a deal over Iran’s nuclear program – while carefully noting that Turkey supports peaceful access to nuclear technology.
Whereas previously Turkey’s combative rhetoric towards the central government in Baghdad and growing ties to the KRG caused Washington to fear that Turkey was undermining the unity of Iraq, Turkey has since moved to mend fences with Baghdad through renewed dialogue and high-level meetings between Turkish and Iraqi officials. Secretary Kerry commended these efforts, and Davutoğlu asserted that his visit to Iraq served to both restore Turkey-Iraq relations and send “a clear message to the people of Iraq and to the people of the region that Turkey will be doing everything possible to prevent sectarian tension in the region.”
Central to Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy, as well as its desires for E.U. accession is the resolution of the conflict in Cyprus. Davutoğlu was therefore also keen to discuss this issue with his U.S. counterparts, and publically acknowledge how Turkey is actively working with U.S., Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot negotiators. Secretary Kerry expressed support for renewed dialogue between relevant parties to ensure that the window of opportunity is not lost for Greece, Turkey and Cyprus.
Other Areas of Interest
In addition to their shared foreign policy goals, Foreign Minister Davutoğlu and White House officials discussed other areas of concern to either side. Davutoğlu expressed to Secretary Kerry that Turkey’s controversial choice of a Chinese company for a missile defense system is not final, and Turkey will consider a new American bid if it meets Turkey’s needs in co-production, technology transfer, and price.
Secretary Kerry, in turn, acknowledged Turkish concerns about being left out of TTIP negotiations between the United States and European Union. He emphasized the U.S. commitment to monitoring “any impacts on Turkey and closely continue to find ways to strengthen our economic ties, which are growing every year, and continue to work with Turkey on this process as we go forward,” using the high-level committee headed by the U.S. Trade Representative and the Turkish Minister of the Economy as a venue. He stopped short, however, of taking any steps to include Turkey in the TTIP process or to establish a parallel U.S.-Turkey Free Trade Agreement.
Whether or not officials discussed Turkey’s domestic politics – including the Gezi protests and continued social tensions – behind closed doors remains to be seen. However, in their joint press conference, Secretary Kerry expressed support for Turkey’s ongoing efforts towards reconciliation with its domestic Kurdish population and recent reform package, saying “these changes will spur greater openness and greater freedom in Turkish society, which the former – the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister completely embrace, and which we encourage them and commit to working with them in order to try to promote going forward.”
While some of Turkey’s recent shifts in policy – repairing relations with Iraq and shifting away from support for extremists in Syria – should be welcomed, the United States, for the most part, continues to lavish Turkey with praise without being frank or critical about Turkish policies that are counter to U.S. interests. Similarly, Washington could do more to support its ally in the areas that are of chief concern to Turkey: the continuing crisis in Syria and huge influx of refugees that are exacerbating social tensions in Turkey and spilling violence across the border as well as Turkey’s role in TTIP.
The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Turkey Task Force, headed by Former Ambassadors to Turkey Morton Abramowitz and Eric Edelman, in its recent report: From Rhetoric to Reality: Reframing U.S. Turkey Policy recommends that, in order for the U.S.-Turkey relationship to live up to its full potential, both sides must, beyond cooperating in areas where there are policy convergences, engage in an honest and open dialogue on areas of disagreement. If both sides move beyond outsized rhetoric in praise of the U.S.-Turkey relationship, and if Washington is more responsive to Turkey’s needs and concerns, the relationship can better serve U.S. and Turkish interests and function to meet regional challenges and promote stability in the Middle East.