Might there be a chill in U.S.-Turkey relations? Expected in the United States from March 29 through April 2, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has no planned meeting with his American counterpart, Barack Obama. “Our president is not going for a state visit, but for a multilateral summit,” İbrahim Kalin, the president’s spokesman, was forced to remind us at a press conference in Ankara on Monday, March 28.
President Erdoğan’s visit will have two important moments. On Thursday, March 31 and Friday, April 1, he will take part, alongside around 50 other heads of state, in the fourth Nuclear Industry Summit in Washington. It’s not surprising that he won’t see Obama; the latter has scheduled his sole face-to-face meeting with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. Vice President Joe Biden is the representative allocated to Mr. Erdoğan.
The key moment in the trip will undoubtedly be the inauguration ceremony of a Turkish-funded mosque and cultural center in Lanham, Maryland, which Mr. Erdoğan will attend immediately after arriving on American soil. Obama’s presence was ardently requested, but the White House declined the invitation.
This is far from the warm welcome granted to Erdoğan and his family when they visited the American capital in 2013. At that time, Obama lauded Turkey, NATO’s second biggest army, as the United States’ best ally in the Middle East. He also praised peace negotiations with separatists from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, undertaken at the initiative of the Turkish leader.
Sources of Friction
Since then, the Kurdish issue has polluted relations. Washington and Ankara agree on the PKK. It’s the issue of the Democratic Union Party or PYD, which is affiliated with the PKK, on which their views differ. In the eyes of the Americans, the PYD and its armed militias, the YPG, who are at the forefront of the fight against Islamic State jihadists, deserve support. Recently, the fact that the Turkish army began using artillery to attack locations occupied by Syrian-Kurdish fighters supported and armed by Washington has only served to widen the differences of opinion.
Ankara groups the PKK and the PYD together. The two parties are considered “terrorist” organizations, just like the Islamic State group. Turkey views the possibility of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria as a threat, fearing that the separatism will spread to its own Kurds, who are far greater in number (15 million) than their Syrian cousins (about 1.5 million). Erdoğan recently stated that the U.S. had to choose between Turkey and the Syrian-Kurdish forces.
The attacks on freedom of expression in Turkey are another source of friction. The arrests of journalists, the heavy-handed seizures of several newspapers (Zaman, Bugün and Millet) and television channels (Kanaltürk, Bugün TV, Samanyolu TV and others), and the takeover of Bank Asya are a great embarrassment to the U.S., and are pushing the United States to distance itself from its Turkish ally.