Brussels / AFP
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan heads to the United States for only the second visit of his presidency at a time when relations between the two key NATO allies are severely tested by widening differences over the Syria conflict and human rights.
Erdogan, who became president in August 2014 after over a decade as premier, has yet to hold talks with President Barack Obama at the White House as head of state, and no such encounter is planned for this trip in a glaring symbol of the current troubles in relations.
Turkish officials insist the main point of Erdogan’s trip is to attend the March 31-April 1 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington and also open a vast Ottoman-style mosque in Maryland, a new statement of Turkey’s desire to spread its cultural and religious influence abroad.
The White House said on Monday there were no plans for bilateral talks between Obama and Erdogan, who last visited the United States for the UN General Assembly in September 2014.
Leaving for Washington on Tuesday from Istanbul airport, Erdogan said he would meet Obama on the sidelines of the nuclear summit but indicated it was still open what form the encounter should take.
A Turkish presidential statement did not even mention Obama but did say Erdogan would hold talks on the anti-terror fight following the Brussels attacks and those that rocked Istanbul and Ankara this month.
According to the Hurriyet daily, Erdogan had wanted to open the new mosque in Maryland—touted by Turkey as the only one in the United States with two minarets—alongside Obama but the US leader had turned down the idea.
Turkey—which joined NATO in 1952 as a US ally after staying neutral for almost all of World War II—has long been seen as the key Muslim partner of the United States in the Middle East.
But tensions have grown over the conflict in Syria, with Washington urging Turkey to do more to fight IS extremists and Ankara growing ever more frustrated over US backing for Kurdish fighters. Whereas defeating IS is the main priority for the US in Syria, Turkey’s number one aim is the overthrow of President Bashar Al Assad, a prospect which has become less likely with the Russian intervention in his support.
Meanwhile, Washington has been backing Kurdish Syrian fighters of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as the best force in the fight against IS. But Turkey categorises the PYD as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has fought a decades-long insurrection against the Turkish state.
“The relationship between the US and Turkey is strained generally because of the differing priorities of the two allies in Syria and more specifically due to their perceptions of the PYD,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara Office Director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
He said that Turkey and the United States were “stepping on each other’s toes” in Syria.
“Until either or both of the sides revise their approach to PYD, the US-Turkey relationship will continue to be poisoned by this issue,” he said.
Adding to the strains are US concerns over freedom of expression in Turkey under Erdogan, with tweets by the US embassy supporting prosecuted academics and journalists making ambassador John Bass a hate figure for hardliners.
“We don’t always agree on everything—media freedom is one of them,” said US State Department spokesman John Kirby.
Meanwhile, the surprise arrest in the US last week of Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab who was implicated in a 2013 corruption scandal that also ensnared Erdogan’s close circle, has been hailed by the president’s foes.
In a lacerating attack on US policy on Turkey, the editor-in-chief of the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper wrote Tuesday the Obama administration was putting the entire bilateral relationship at risk.
Obama risks “being recorded in history as a failed president who oversaw the collapse of ties with Turkey,” wrote Serdar Karagoz.
As well as opening the mosque and hosting a dinner for business leaders, Erdogan will also meet with leaders of the US Jewish community, as Turkey seeks to repair its damaged ties with Israel.