President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will meet with US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Wales between Sept. 4-5, marking the first important meeting between the two since their last meeting in Washington in May 2013.
The bilateral meeting between Erdoğan and Obama is scheduled to take place on Friday. The most recent contact between the two was when Obama called Erdoğan on Aug. 12, two days after Erdoğan’s presidential election win. It was the first phone call in the last six months.
Following the abduction of 49 Turks by the terrorist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from Turkey’s Consulate General in Mosul on June 11, Erdoğan called Obama to discuss the issue but the call was forwarded to Vice President Joe Biden. Erdoğan’s “inflammatory” remarks, often targeting Israel, the “misinterpretation” of a recent phone conversation with Obama and the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) tighter control on the judiciary and limitations on freedom of expression and press freedoms have resulted in a cool relationship with the White House.
Shortly before being elected as president, Erdoğan admitted in a recent interview that he no longer spoke to Obama directly. Erdoğan claimed that he had stopped the calls due to his disapproval of US policies in Syria, Egypt and Palestine.
Erdoğan said he asked then-President Abdullah Gül to call Obama on the hostage issue but he does not know if Gül called Obama or not. Later, Turkish media reported that Gül did not make the call.
The previous phone conversation between the two, before Obama’s congratulatory phone call to Erdoğan, was on Feb. 19 of this year. In a carefully worded message, Obama stressed the importance of sound policies rooted in the rule of law to reassure financial markets and nurture a predictable environment for investment.
After this conversation, Erdoğan claimed that during the call he had asked for Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen to be extradited from the US as he poses a threat to Turkey’s national security. Gülen inspired the Hizmet movement that Erdoğan alleges is attempting to topple his government. Erdoğan claimed that Obama viewed this request “positively” and replied by saying, “I got the message.”
Immediately after Erdoğan’s remarks, a denial was issued by the White House. The direct denial of a Turkish leader’s version of events marked a first in Turkish-American relations.
Obama and Erdoğan spoke on the phone 18 times during the Arab Spring in 2011, with Obama reportedly saying at the time that Erdoğan was one of the five world leaders he spoke to most often. The US president often received criticism at home due to this close relationship with Erdoğan.
Erdoğan’s “inflammatory” and “offensive” remarks in recent months, mostly with anti-Semitic or anti-American tones, have contributed to the tension between Turkey and the US. US officials have regularly criticized Erdoğan’s remarks targeting Israel, suggesting that such remarks only damage Turkey’s international standing and reduce its ability to influence the region positively.
After Erdoğan was elected president, the White House made a statement saying that Obama will send a delegation to the new Turkish president’s inauguration ceremony on Aug. 28. It turned out that “the delegation” consisted of only one person — the highest ranking official at the US Embassy in Ankara at the moment — outgoing Chargé d’Affaires Jess Bailey. According to political circles in Washington and Ankara, this was a clear message to Erdoğan of Washington’s disapproval of some of the policies of Erdoğan’s ruling AK Party.
One of the most important issue to be discussed between the two during the NATO summit in Wales is expected to be the swift advance of ISIL in the region. Ankara categorically denies allegations of turning a blind eye to ISIL’s activities on the Syrian border, while the Western press tirelessly reports on Turkey’s alleged support of ISIL.
Nicholas Burns, a former US ambassador to NATO, said on Sunday that the United States will need to convince Erdoğan to close Turkey’s borders to the export of oil from wells under the control of ISIL.
“Obama will need to convince a prickly Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, to close his border to the export of Isis-controlled oil,” Burns said in an opinion piece in the Financial Times, where he listed the ISIL issue as one of the critical issues that NATO leaders will confront during the NATO summit.
After the NATO summit, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is expected to pay a visit to Turkey as part of the US administration’s intensifying efforts to build an international campaign against ISIL in Syria and Iraq. Building a regional coalition against ISIL is also expected to be discussed in the meeting between Obama and Erdoğan.
Hagel was originally scheduled to pay a visit to Turkey back in January, but at the last minute, the visit was canceled, reportedly after the White House asked Hagel not to visit, despite the fact that his meetings with Turkish officials had already been arranged. Hagel also skipped Turkey in his visit to the region in May.
Another important issue likely to be discussed between Obama and Erdoğan will be the recent eavesdropping scandal. German magazine Der Spiegel published a lengthy report claiming that not only Germany but other Western countries such as the US and the UK have also spied on Turkey. Erdoğan on Monday downplayed the allegations, suggesting that such eavesdropping is relatively normal and that Turkish officials will discuss the issue with the leaders of those countries. He added that all the strong intelligence organizations eavesdrop on other countries.
German, US and UK officials have opted to neither deny nor confirm these reports of eavesdropping on Turkey for decades.
Outgoing Chargé d’Affaires Bailey was summoned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry on Monday to discuss the allegations of eavesdropping on Turkey. The Foreign Ministry also said in a statement on Monday that such activities are unacceptable between friends and allies.