Erdogan, the strongest Turkish leader in generations, and President Obama agree on broad goals in Syria, Iraq and Iran, which all share borders with Turkey. They both say Assad must go, after two years of violence that has left more than 70,000 people dead.
But the two leaders, who will meet Thursday at the White House, have sharp disagreements on their approaches to Syria and other key Middle East issues, creating divisions between Obama and a man he has praised as a “bridge” between Washington and Muslim nations.
Erdogan has pressed Washington to provide military assistance to rebels trying to oust Assad, but Obama has resisted. Erdogan is expected to raise reports that Assad has used chemical weapons against the rebels to urge Obama to take a more aggressive stance.
Erdogan also wants to be more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at a time when Washington prefers that he stay quiet. And U.S. officials have complained that Erdogan’s cool, even antagonistic, relations with Iraq have done little to help quell rising sectarian violence there and curb Baghdad’s ever-closer relations with Tehran.
Obama met with Erdogan in Ankara in 2009 on his first trip to the region as president, and Secretary of State John F. Kerry has made three trips to Turkey since he took office in January. That attention illustrates the importance Obama places on Erdogan, a democratically elected Muslim leader at ease in the West and the Middle East. After Saturday’s bombing, Kerry issued a statement calling Turkey a “vital interlocutor” for the United States.
Erdogan, 59, a square-shouldered scrapper who was raised in a tough neighborhood of Istanbul, has been notably vocal in his criticism of the United States and other Western allies for not sharing his tough line on Assad.
After Assad’s forces were accused this month of killing scores of people near the Syrian city of Baniyas, Erdogan exploded with fury. “If God permits, we will see this criminal, this murderer, receive his judgment in this world, and we will be grateful,” he said in widely reported remarks.
Reacting to photos of children killed in the massacre, he also criticized the international community, and implicitly the United States, for what he sees as its failure to act. “I wonder how long you will turn a blind eye to this massacre,” he said, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency. “Damn your international policies!”