Ky. Voices: Plenty to talk about: Turkey, a longtime ally, feeling neglected

Robert Olson of Lexington is a Middle East analyst and author of various books on the region.
Robert Olson of Lexington is a Middle East analyst and author of various books on the region.

Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to the United States this month and his discussions with President Barack Obama fell far short of meeting the challenges Turkey is confronting.

The visit also confirms that Turkey and other Middle East countries, including those that have strong relations with the U.S., are increasingly compelled to pursue their national security challenges with like-minded regional states.

For 65 years Turkey has been a strong ally of the U.S.; it is a member of NATO and applicant for membership in the EU. Despite these strong pro-West policies, Ankara thinks strongly that it has gotten insufficient support from the U.S. and Europe with regard to Ankara's policies toward Syria, Israel, the Palestinians, Iraq as well as its policies toward the challenges of Kurdish nationalist movements within Turkey as well as in Iraq and Syria.

The most important current problem for Ankara is its inability to persuade the Obama administration that Turkey's regional geopolitical stability depends on removing Syrian President Bashar al-Asad from office. Turkey now has some 350,000 refugees strung out in camps along its 910 kilometer boundary with Syria. It faces substantial unrest in Hatay province abutting Syria, where about 40 percent of the 1.2 million population are Arab-origin Alawites, many of whom support the al-Asad government. In addition, Turkey has an estimated 18 million to 20 million Alevis who, like the Alawites, are dissenting non-Sunnis, and have empathy for the al-Asad regime, because of their own discrimination by the dominant Sunnis in Turkey.

Ankara thinks it is getting little help from the U.S. or the EU to cope with refugees. Some 52 people were killed and 100 wounded in Reyhanli, a Turkish town on the border with Syria, just two days before Erdogan departed for the U.S., which has further inflamed the ethnic and religious tensions and ethnic cleansings.

In spite of the tensions in Syria and in Turkey, Obama made it clear that Washington preferred international negotiations, including Russia and perhaps Iran, that could well entail retaining al-Asad and some Ba'thists until the end of 2013.

A second problem confronting Turkey is its ongoing war against the militant Kurdistan Workers Party, popularly called the PKK. Even non-militant Kurds in Turkey are demanding that the Turkish state stop its war against the PKK and grant Kurds political, cultural and linguistic rights.

In spite of its war against the PKK in Turkey, Ankara has been compelled to foster strong relations with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq in order to gain access to an estimated 45 billion barrels of oil and extensive gas fields. Turkey has the second fastest growing economy, now ranking 15th in the world. It hopes to use the energy sources of the KRG (and potentially Arab Iraq) to reduce its energy dependency on Russia and Iran.

In spite of Ankara's cold relations with Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'a dominant government in Baghdad, Washington continues to support the al-Maliki government efforts to pursue potential reconciliation among the Kurds, Sunnis and Shi'a; Turkey thinks the possibility of reconciliation between Sunni and Shi'a Arabs is dim and between Shi'a Arabs and Kurds dimmer.

Another major difference between the U.S. and Turkey concerns Israel. The Erdogan government bases some of its legitimacy on strong pro-Palestinian and pro-Hamas policies. Notably, in his remarks in the White House Rose Garden with Obama at his side, the Turkish Prime Minister declared that he would visit the West Bank and Gaza in June. This is despite the fact that Gaza is on the White House list of government sponsoring terrorism.

But the main issue between Washington and Ankara with regard to Israel is that Ankara is challenging the hegemony of Israel in the eastern Mediterranean. The destruction of Iraq and of Syria, the further destabilization of Lebanon, potential unraveling of Jordan, and political and economic stalemate in Egypt means that Turkey and Israel will dominate the eastern Mediterranean in the foreseeable future. Israel has discovered and is now marketing gas from its huge Tamar field with reserves estimated at 250 billion cubic meters. Another field, Leviathan, has estimated reserves of 425 billion cubic meters; enough to meet Israel's energy needs for 50 years. Turkey on the other hand has few known oil and gas fields.

The intractability of the above issues, not to mention other pressing matters, undoubtedly gave Obama and Erdogan much to talk about.