When US President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan meet in Washington DC in early December, the two leaders will have no shortage of issues to discuss. Continued challenges in the broader Middle East and South Asia will most likely consume the majority of the leaders' time together.
In the past few years, Turkey has initiated an assertive and proactive diplomatic approach throughout the Middle East, seeking "zero problems" with neighbors and aiming to achieve strategic depth by expanding the zone of Turkish political and economic influence. Before and throughout the Iraq war, Turkey led an effort that brought Iraq's neighbors together to address issues of common interest. Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu has initiated intensive bilateral diplomacy with many countries in the region, resulting in extensive bilateral agreements with two neighbors, Iraq and Syria, in October of this year.
The Obama administration has staked out an ambitious policy agenda for the Middle East and South Asia, with the center of gravity of US efforts shifting eastward towards the challenges of Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as Iran. The Obama administration will seek to remain engaged on the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iraq, but more resources and diplomatic attention are shifting towards South Asia and Iran. So far Obama's agenda remains a work in progress and has exhibited more continuity than change from the Bush administration's policies. In order to make meaningful progress, the US will require help from Turkey. Turkey and the US should work to coordinate their efforts towards common goals on the four main fronts of South Asia, Iraq, Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
South Asia and Iraq are two areas where significant coordination seems quite likely. With the United States dedicating more resources on Afghanistan and Pakistan, it should look to Turkey to play a leadership role in helping stabilize those two countries. This past fall, Turkey pledged to increase the number of troops it has operating as part of NATO's International Security Assistance Force. In addition to its military role, Turkey has demonstrated a willingness to use diplomacy and development assistance to help achieve progress in South Asia - Turkey has organized several high-level trilateral summits between Turkey, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to discuss cooperation on broad security issues, and Turkey has made important investments in education reform in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In Iraq, the United States and Turkey support a common goal - a secure and united Iraq that does not serve as a haven for terrorists. As the Obama administration continues its phased redeployment of troops, constructive actions on the part of Turkey can help mitigate the risks of the U.S. troop drawdown. In the past two years, Turkish-Iraqi coordination on a wide range of issues, including addressing the instability caused by the Kurdish rebel group the PKK, has increased, and Turkey has even improved its relations with the leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil. The Turkey-Iraq Strategic Cooperation Council has forged dozens of bilateral agreements to enhance ties on security, energy, the economy, and water sharing. This increased cooperation between Turkey and Iraq can help facilitate Iraq's reintegration with the rest of the world after years of isolation under Saddam Hussein's regime.
On Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict, Turkey and the United States may find more difficulty coordinating their actions. Turkey and the United States share the same long-term strategic goals on both fronts - they want to ensure that Iran's nuclear program is monitored and verified as being for civilian energy purposes, and both countries support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a means to advance a comprehensive settlement. But Turkey's geographic location and its economic and energy ties with Iran has led Turkey to take a different approach to its bilateral relations with Iran, one that is closer and friendlier than the United States might prefer. One question is whether Turkey can serve as a useful interlocutor with Iran - and time will tell if Turkish engagement changes Iran's strategic calculations.
On the Arab-Israeli conflict, the increased tensions between Turkey and Israel, including the recent cancellation of joint military exercises, is deeply concerning to the United States. Recent statements by Turkish leaders on Israel have damaged Turkey's credibility with many Israeli leaders, so much so that the days of Turkish mediation on issues such as the Israeli-Syrian track are probably over for good. It also remains to be seen whether Turkey's engagement with Hamas will serve any useful purpose for advancing progress on the Middle East peace process.
In summary, Turkey and United States are likely to be closer in coordinating on South Asia and Iraq than they will be on Iran and Arab-Israeli issues. But all of these matters require extensive discussion and diplomacy between the two NATO allies. President Obama signaled Turkey's importance to US foreign policy by including the country in his first overseas trip as president and endorsing Turkey's efforts to become a member of the European Union. President Obama has made improving bilateral ties between the United States and Turkey a top priority, and one key way to improve bilateral ties is to work towards common goals in the broader Middle East and South Asia.
Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at American Progress, where his work focuses on US national security policy in the Middle East and South Asia. He has also lived and worked in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Egypt for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.
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- Ghassan Dahhan: Europe: Prevent Turkey Turning East