[email protected]

February 17, 2013, Sunday

Three challenges for Obama

Interesting days are ahead regarding Turkish-American relations. This may sound like a cliché, but given the stakes for President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, we are left with an open-ended process.

I spent the past week in the US, taking part in conferences and meeting keen observers of Turkey and the Middle East from diplomacy, media and academia. Let me share some of my thoughts.

The two leaders, who enjoy a considerable amount of popular support and self-confidence, will continue to be on good terms with each other despite their “differences.”

They are both in parallel worlds, in the sense that their oppositions seem determined to filibuster them as much as they can into political weakness and perhaps even paralysis.

They may have many things in common when they whine to each about their own opposition. But, beyond that, they will continue to face many more disagreements.

President Obama now has more direct influence to shape foreign policy with John Kerry, the fresh secretary of state, whose drive will be more in sync with Obama than during the time with Hillary Clinton. So we face a new period in relations, where every issue will be defined, framed and handled directly by them.

It may therefore make things either much easier or harder.

One issue is already agreed upon. Obama in a recent interview made it clear that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government's reset on the “solution process” is truly commendable and must be pursued to a clear resolution, because, as he argued, it will be good for Turks, Kurds and the neighboring region. It is a relief that this issue is out of the way.

Another issue of “less tension” is Iran. Both leaders will continue to act on common ground in dealing with Teheran, since both Ankara and Washington, D.C., are dismayed by Iran's military nuclear ambitions.

But other issues remain badly loaded; they are to do with Iraq, Syria and Israel. All are linked, and they demand a tough approach by the two leaders because, although Obama does not think so, the future of a stable region is bleaker than ever.

Regarding Iraq, there is a growing tension. It is not at all limited to a personal level, which has displayed Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, as a regional stumbling block. Out of the fear fed to him that he will be the next target when Bashar al-Assad's fate is clear, he shows signs that may further threaten the fragile stability of his country. Where his loyalties are, nobody knows.

He has alienated the Iraqi Kurds, and the absence of Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq, is a bad factor. Iraq's power vacuum is worse than it looks. To begin with, Obama and Erdoğan should work hard to find a formula that prevents the spillover of the Syrian nightmare.

Obama must also understand that Turkey's efforts to create interdependence with the Iraqi Kurds are a fine option for a benevolent progress for the entire region. Kurds must be won over to the West's side. They will be vulnerable before Iran, if their fate is only left to an uncertain Maliki and his way of dealing with internal politics.

Syria needs clarity and coordination. The refugee crisis will be worse. The Syrian nightmare poisons Turkey's domestic scene and jeopardizes a beneficial outcome of the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Obama and Kerry will have to reawaken the old Cold War modalities to engage the Russians more, and to involve Turkey and Syria at a later stage. Those are the four powers that will define the future of that specific region with a proper agreement.

This leaves us, as I have also clearly observed in my conversations in the US, with the most urgent issue: the Turkish-Israeli rift. It is a precondition for an all-out win-win situation that relations between the two countries, unsustainable at present, do normalize. Two mature democracies in the region should stop bullying each other like college kids, and create conditions that will serve their security and be inclusive of Egypt. Obama's challenge, when he visits the region, is therefore decisive: He must deliver a breakthrough in Israeli-Turkish relations, if he truly believes that a game-changer is needed.

Previous articles of the columnist