Obama, Erdogan To Discuss Syrian Conflict Moving Into Turkey

May 16, 2013
Originally published on May 16, 2013 12:57 pm
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President Obama will be meeting with Turkey's prime minister today, and likely topping the agenda will the crisis in Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is calling for U.S. intervention as the conflict spills over the border. Refugees are flooding into Turkey. Last weekend, two car bombs killed 50 people in a Turkish town, an attack Erdogan blames on Turkish citizens connected to the Syrian regime. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Syria was always going to be high on the agenda for Prime Minister Erdogan's visit here in Washington. Last weekend's twin car bombings will ensure that, says Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

SONER CAGAPTAY: This is a crisis that's been unfolding across Turkey's longest land border. It's a 540-mile long border, and Turkey's exposed to many threats coming from Syria, as well as the prospects of a Somalia-style failed state next door. But the attacks that devastated a Turkish town have compounded Erdogan's sense of urgency.

KELEMEN: Cagaptay says Erdogan is facing political pressures at home over Syria, and needs the U.S. more than ever. He says the Turkish leader comes with a long list of requests. It begins with the diplomatic push the U.S. is already making with the Russians to persuade Bashar al-Assad to agree on a transitional government.

CAGAPTAY: Convince the Russians, arm the rebels, provide safe haven, a no-fly zone and establish a buffer zone. And if he gets a couple of these from his visit here, he's going to go back very happy.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has begun to directly aid the rebels, but so far not with weapons. The White House says President Obama is constantly evaluating his options. But at the moment, the administration seems far more focused on diplomacy and on Secretary of State John Kerry's hopes for an international conference in early June.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: We believe the only way to settle Syria is through - the best way to settle Syria is through a negotiated settlement.

KELEMEN: Analysts say Turkey remains skeptical that this diplomatic push will work, so Bulent Aliriza of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says it might be an uneasy conversation between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan at the White House.

BULENT ALIRIZA: Obama's clearly reluctant to increase his involvement in this crisis, and Erdogan wants the opposite.

KELEMEN: Aliriza says the Turkish prime minister will be making a hard sell.

ALIRIZA: He will also bring some evidence, I understand, that chemical weapons have indeed been used, and that the red line that President Obama himself referred to has been crossed, and remind Obama that they agreed on the end goal of a Syria without Assad, and that it's incumbent upon the U.S. to help bring that about.

KELEMEN: Bulent Aliriza says there's another issue that might be a point of contention in today's White House talks - that is, Erdogan's plans to visit Gaza, the Palestinian territory run by Hamas. The U.S. fears that would bolster the Palestinian militant group at a time when the U.S. is trying to promote peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

ALIRIZA: Secretary Kerry has already warned the Turks that they should not proceed with a planned visit by Mr. Erdogan to Gaza, and Erdogan responded promptly that he would make that visit soon after he returns from Washington.

KELEMEN: And if President Obama can't persuade Erdogan to call off the visit, experts predict the U.S. will likely encourage the Turkish leader to add other stops: Ramallah and Israel. President Obama has been encouraging a rapprochement between Turkey and Israel, and that's still in the early stages. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.