At a joint press conference at the White House on Thursday, President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told us what we already knew: They agree that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad “needs to go.”
The problem, however, lies in the actual playing out of teamwork. Since the start of the civil war in Syria in March 2011, Obama has firmly stood on the sidelines, refusing to enter the fray, and denying aid that would provide actual on-the-ground assistance. All the while, Erdogan has been pleading for help from the man who once called him his “personal friend.”
It seems Erdogan is fighting a losing battle where the president is concerned. Even recent reports that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against rebel forces weren’t enough to drive the president into action.
“Syria has become not just a gruesome civil war, but also a proxy war with significant global implications,” Lawrence Haas wrote for the International Business Times, “with the United States, Israel, and like-minded Arab states who seek Assad’s ouster on one side, and Russia, Iran, and terrorist groups like Hezbollah who seek his survival on the other. If so, Assad’s survival in defiance of widespread expectations and U.S. desires will position Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah as regional ‘strong horses.’ And it will nourish a growing sense in the region and elsewhere that the U.S. has become a decidedly ‘weak horse,’ unable to shape events and, worse, unlikely to spend much energy trying.”
Obama’s reluctance can — if you stretch your mind — be understood, given how his predecessor fared when “intervening” in a Middle Eastern country. A new Rasmussen poll found that nearly 73 percent of respondents want the United States to “stay out” of the Syrian conflict. And, of course, there is the cleaning up of Obama’s own backyard following the series of scandals this week.
This leaves Turkey shouldering the bulk of the burden. Roughly 400,000 refugees have trickled into Turkey so far. There is also the fear for security – along the southern border Turkey and Syria share has seen altercations with taunting Syrian forces.
Erdogan’s mission in Washington was to coax Obama into more assistance — at very least, by providing the Syrian opposition with weapons, or enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria.
But Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat now a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, 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.”
If Obama wants to see the United States’ relationship with Turkey strengthened, he’s going to have to answer the prime minister’s call to help.
“We’re going to keep increasing the pressure on the Assad regime, and working with the Syrian opposition,” Obama said Thursday. “The prime minister has been on the forefront of the international effort to push for a transition to a democratic Syria without Bashar Assad. And Turkey is going to play an important role as we bring the representatives of the regime and the opposition together in the coming weeks.”
Yes, Turkey is going to play an important role — it already has been. But if the president thinks increased pressure is going to eradicate the Middle East of its little dictator, he is sorely mistaken, as Assad has already proved.