When Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with President Barack Obama in March, he described him as "my dear friend Barack," and stated that he was "very pleased to see that our views in general very much overlap on" Syria. A lot has changed since March, and Turkey's leaders are now far from pleased with Obama's perceived inaction on the escalating crisis in Syria.
What has changed? First, Turkey's refugee problem has mushroomed dramatically. At the time of the Erdogan-Obama meeting in March, there were 17,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey.
In August, Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that Turkey could not accept more than 100,000 refugees. Three days ago, Davutoglu revealed that there are now 145,000 refugees in Turkey.
Second, the violence and carnage in Syria has escalated. The regime of Bashar al Assad has been shelling cities, in addition to employing helicopters and aircraft for indiscriminate strikes in civilian areas. According to Davutoglu, 32,000 have died so far in Syria's 20-month-long civil war.
Third, Syrian forces have attacked Turkey on multiple occasions, killing Turkish military personnel and civilians. In June, Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance plane and both pilots were lost. On October 3, Syrian shelling into Turkish territory killed five Turkish civilians, including a woman and her three children. In spite of counterattacks by Turkish artillery, Assad's forces continue to shell areas on Turkey's side of the border.
Another major change is that diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Syria have failed miserably. The United Nation's Six-Point Plan was rejected and the U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan resigned in August. There is no evidence that the efforts of current U.N. and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi are faring any better.
Turkey's leaders have publicly, bluntly, and repeatedly warned that the current Syria policy is not working and needs to change. Davutoglu directly told the press that "this burden now needs to be shared by the whole international community, not just by Syria's neighbors." Davutoglu's admonition was echoed recently by Turkey's President Abdullah Gul. "The worst-case scenarios are taking place right now in Syria ... it is a must for the international community to take effective action before Syria turns into a bigger wreck and further blood is shed, that is our main wish."
In a speech for the Atlantic Council, Turkey's ambassador to the United States, Namik Tan, was even more explicit: "The international community has failed the Syrian people. . . Hundreds of thousands of lives, the future of a whole nation and a volatile region is on the line. . . .We must act, act now and act decisively."
Davutoglu did not name the United States in particular, but he did disclose the changes in Obama's policy on Syria that Turkey is seeking. "We expect the leading powers of the international community to be more firm, more decisive, and clear in their policy regarding oppression in Syria."
Prime Minister Erdogan voiced Turkey's disappointment with Obama's Syria policy more directly. "Right now, there are certain things being expected from the United States. The United States had not yet catered to those expectations." Erdogan even shared his theory on what is holding back Obama from responding more decisively to the worsening situation in Syria. "Maybe it's because of the elections—maybe it's because of the pre-election situation in the States. Might be the root cause of the lacking of initiative."
Obama initially reached out to Erdogan because of Turkey's growing geo-strategic importance. The crisis in Syria has highlighted the value of Turkey as a Muslim democracy and key ally in a region plagued with instability and extremism. Obama needs to demonstrate to Turkey that his Syria policy is keeping up with the increasing spillover of security threats from the conflict in Syria to Turkey and other countries in the region.
Turkey can play a major role in resolving both the immediate Syrian crisis and the long term stability of a post-Assad Syria. Addressing the widening disconnect with Turkey requires top level attention. Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton need to meet with Erdogan or Davutoglu to reforge a united vision for restoring peace in Syria and the region.
- Read Scheherezade Rehman: What the European Union Must Do Post-Nobel Prize.
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