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Turkey’s Erdogan to press Obama to do more for Syrian rebels

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a meeting Thursday at the White House, is expected to urge President Obama to arm the Syrian opposition and enforce a "no-fly" zone in an effort to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

But Mr. Erdogan is likely to leave disappointed. The U.S. and Turkey share the objective of ousting the Assad regime, but they differ on how to achieve that goal.

"It is highly unlikely that the Obama administration would lead the U.S. to engaging Syria militarily through a 'no-fly' zone, given the domestic challenges at home and competing priorities on foreign policy," said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. office in Ankara, Turkey. "While providing advanced weapons to the opposition would be less costly, the U.S. is also reluctant to do this due to the increasing weight of radical groups within the opposition. Therefore, it is not likely that Erdogan will get what he wants from Obama regarding Syria on this trip."

Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusrah, which the Obama administration designated as a terrorist group in December, is acknowledged by some Syrian rebels as the most effective fighting force against the Assad regime. The Islamist fighters joined the rebels in a battle Wednesday against Mr. Assad's troops near the town of Otaybah east of Damascus.

Anthony Cordesman, a senior defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Obama administration "has had to listen a great deal more carefully as it examines its options [in Syria]."

"A shift in U.S. policy will have to wait on either the failure of talks with Syria, that the U.S. and Russia are attempting to organize, or on the fact that it becomes clear that those talks can't occur," Mr. Cordesman said.

Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who now is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, said he sees "very little hope for a concrete understanding to emerge between Turkey and the U.S. on some of the critical items on the agenda."

Syria's 2-year-old war has become a serious security threat to its neighbors. Turkey bore the deadliest spillover of violence Saturday when car bombings killed 46 people in its border town of Reyhanli. Turkish officials blamed the blasts on the Assad regime. Damascus denied the accusations.

"Erdogan will press Obama on the 'no-fly' zones and to arm the opposition, not because he believes the U.S. will be able to deliver, but to assuage the rising anger of the Turkish public opinion on the bomb attacks," Mr. Ulgen said from Istanbul.

While Syria is expected to dominate Mr. Erdogan's meetings in Washington, the Turkish leader will face questions about his country's deepening energy ties with Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey's relationship with Israel, and the threat posed by Iran.

"While the U.S. expects Turkey not to engage [the Kurdish Regional Government] in a way that could undermine Iraq's unity, Turkey sees Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as the main problem and expects the U.S. to withdraw its support from him," said Mr. Unluhisarcikli.

The Obama administration is also concerned that Mr. Erdogan's plans to visit the Hamas-led Gaza Strip this month could disrupt plans to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Secretary of State John F. Kerry last month called on Mr. Erdogan to postpone the trip.

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