Ilan Berman is Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.
This week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives in Washington for a much publicized state visit. The Turkish leader won't simply be making a courtesy call, however. His U.S. mission is largely aimed at achieving one purpose: goading the Obama administration into taking greater action on Syria.
That's something of a tall order. Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in March of 2011, the United States has steadfastly avoided joining the fray – or even crafting a coherent strategy toward the conflict taking place between Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his own people. This inaction has made the White House the object of withering criticism at home and abroad, but to little avail (at least so far).
Even recent reports that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against rebel forces have not generated much movement in Washington; the Obama administration has simply redrawn its own red lines about intervention, now predicating its involvement in the conflict on the systematic use of such weapons of mass destruction.
Despite its demerits, there's a certain logic to Washington's passivity. It is at least partly grounded in a savvy reading of American public opinion. A recent Rasmussen poll, for example, found that nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of respondents believe the United States should steer clear of the Syria conflict. Furthermore, some 61 percent of those polled backed Israel's recent decision to carry out military strikes against Syria's strategic arsenal. The writing is on the wall; after more than a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans as a whole are fatigued of the Middle East and are comfortable with someone else handling this newest problem for them.
Turkey isn't detached, however. Over the past two years, the country has borne much of the brunt of the grinding civil war taking place on the territory of its southern neighbor. It has absorbed an estimated 400,000 refugees from the conflict so far, significantly taxing the national economy and social welfare net in the process. And it has engaged in sporadic cross-border skirmishes in response to provocations by Syrian forces along the common border between the two countries. Bilateral relations have become so strained that Erdogan has threatened to go to war with the Assad regime, and his country has become a hub for various elements of Syria's opposition forces.
But Turkey understands that it cannot go it alone, which is why its government desperately want the U.S. to step up and play a more active role in resolving the Syrian conflict – or, at the very least, in helping to keep the disorder from spreading. To that end, Turkey's premier has already signaled his willingness to support a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone in Syria if one is created. This step, and a host of others (including the thorny issue of arming Syria's rebels), is bound to be high on the agenda during Erdogan's sit-down with President Obama on Thursday.
The stakes are exceedingly high. For many in the United States, the conflict taking place in Syria is both distant and ill-defined. But in Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East, U.S. policy toward Syria has become something of a barometer for American seriousness toward the region writ large.
That, as much as anything else, is the subtext behind Erdogan's visit. How Obama responds to his call for action is likely to determine a great many things about America's standing in the Middle East, not least the health of our relationship with Turkey itself.