In Washington, Turkey's president is angling for a close-up

President Erdoğan is leaving his troubles behind for a few days to attend a security summit in Washington. Being seen with Obama tops his to-do list.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accompanied by his wife Emine walk down the stairs upon his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Tuesday, March 29, 2016. Erdogan is in Washington to attend the Nuclear Security Summit.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's visit to Washington this week comes at a low point in US-Turkish relations and amid another round of bad security-related news back home.

On Tuesday, the United States ordered the families of diplomats and military personnel in southeastern Turkey to come home, citing “increased threats from terrorist groups.”

Two weeks ago 37 people were killed in Ankara in the latest major bombing. On top of the scores of Turks who have died in multiple attacks since last summer, suicide bombers killed 12 German tourists in Istanbul in January and three Israelis and an Iranian this month. Foreign tourists are taking note: arrivals fell 10 percent year-on-year in February.

All this in addition to the NATO member’s strategic challenges, particularly the conflict in Syria – where the US and Turkey are at odds over the best way to battle the so-called Islamic State – and Turkey’s renewed war against its own Kurdish separatists.

Domestically, Mr. Erdoğan’s situation seems not much better. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won last November's election, but critics accuse him of increasingly authoritarian rule and repressing opposition voices.

Erdoğan is in Washington for a two-day nuclear security summit that is being attended by some 50 world leaders. He wants to meet with President Barack Obama, but their relationship is testy, and has grown worse amid US complaints about a lack of press freedom in Turkey. No formal meeting is planned; US officials say, at most, the two leaders are likely to have an informal chat on the sidelines.

Against this grim backdrop, what are three of the top agenda items for Erdoğan while in Washington?

Barack Obama

“The number one priority is the optics of being seen with Obama,” says Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

“If he gets a pull-aside, you will see that the Turkish press – his [pro-Erdoğan] press – will make a mountain out of this molehill. They will say, ‘very important,’ ” says Mr. Barkey. Erdoğan “wants to show that he is being listened to at the highest levels of the US government.”

Erdoğan will be meeting Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry. But both Mr. Biden and Mr. Obama turned down invitations to attend the opening of a large mosque built by Turkey in Maryland, where Erdoğan is to take part in midday prayers on Saturday.

US opinion writers have been scathing, however, and some analysts suggest that the visit could harm Erdoğan at home, if it appears he is being snubbed.

Conflict in Syria

Nowhere do US and Turkish interests coincide more closely than in thwarting attacks by Islamic State militants and preventing the group’s spread beyond Syria and Iraq. Yet nowhere are US-Turkish viewpoints more discordant.

Turkey is a member of the US-led anti-IS coalition, albeit a reluctant and late-to-join participant. Today, however, it considers the Syrian Kurds – in particular the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) militia – to be “terrorists” on a par with IS, while the US supports them as one of the most effective on-the-ground forces fighting the jihadists.

“The Americans are looking to use anything to pressure the Turks to get them to be more willing to accept some sort of YPG presence in that area that IS still controls,” says Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Turkey is concerned that military and political gains by the YPG and its political allies will heighten anti-Turkey unity among Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Senior US officials have sought repeatedly to convince Turkey in private meetings to prioritize the fight against IS over its fear of Kurdish gains, but neither side seems ready to budge.

Fethullah Gülen

Also on Erdoğan's agenda will be an exiled Muslim cleric now living in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gülen, whose network helped Erdoğan and the AKP rise to power in 2002 and backed them for years, but who has since become a fierce critic.

Erdoğan, top Turkish officials, and prosecutors have accused the Gülenist movement of being a terrorist organization determined to topple Erdoğan. In late 2013, Gülen supporters released audio recordings of tapped phone conversations that appeared to show corruption at the highest levels of the Turkish leadership.

One of the men at the center of those corruption allegations, Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, was arrested by US officials in Miami on March 19 on charges of helping Iran evade sanctions.

“They would like Gülen extradited; they would like Gülen’s operations shut down in [the US], and Zarrab is connected to that because they think Zarrab is going to sink and is going to spill the beans,” says Barkey of the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Stein notes that Turkish officials have been threatening to seek an Interpol arrest warrant for Gülen for about a year, but so far they haven't done so. 

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