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Turkey leader to press Obama for greater U.S. role on Syria

President Obama is wary of intervening in Syria's war. But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he has evidence of Syrian use of chemical arms.

May 15, 2013|By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times
  • Turkish students protesting the bombing attacks in Reyhanli clash with riot police in Ankara, the capital. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces strong domestic pressure after the attacks, which are seen as a backlash for Turkey's support for Syrian rebels.
Turkish students protesting the bombing attacks in Reyhanli clash with… (Associated Press )

WASHINGTON — President Obama faces a fresh test Thursday of his determination to steer clear of the civil war in Syria when he considers a desperate plea from a longtime U.S. ally.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to urge Obama in a White House meeting to move more aggressively to end a conflict that has sent more than 1 million refugees fleeing across Syria's borders and threatens to destabilize the region.

"Syria will be our main topic.... We will draw a road map," Erdogan told reporters before leaving Ankara, Turkey's capital. He said he is bringing evidence of Syrian chemical weapons use to help strengthen his case.

Obama, who has cultivated Erdogan as America's special ally in the Muslim Mideast, appears unlikely to offer more than humanitarian relief. The White House is wary of using the U.S. military to stop Syrian aircraft near the Turkish border by imposing a no-fly zone or taking other direct military action.

The administration also has decided not to arm the Syrian rebels for now, officials said, although the policy remains under review.

With 400,000 Syrian refugees on Turkish soil and protests against Erdogan's support for the Syrian insurgents, the prime minister is under strong domestic pressure to get Obama's help during his one-day visit to Washington. The two leaders will hold a news conference after their meeting.

Several of Syria's other neighbors also are urging the White House to assume a greater role in pushing President Bashar Assad's government out of power.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia want Washington to arm and protect the rebels, while Jordan and Lebanon are seeking relief for the 500,000 refugees that each is hosting within its borders. Israel wants the Pentagon to help safeguard the vast chemical weapons infrastructure and arsenal in Syria.

"I think the administration is buying time so far," said Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister who is now in Washington at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank. "But pressure will increase with time."

Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Ankara and Washington both seek to force Assad out. He said Erdogan is frustrated that "while Turkey has been accelerating toward that goal, the U.S. has been hitting the brakes."

Turkish officials say they aren't pushing Obama to take a particular military action, but to do whatever is necessary to persuade Assad to negotiate a transition to a new government. Erdogan has been outspoken in denouncing world powers for doing too little on Syria, but he is not likely to turn against Obama.

"I don't think you'll hear him denouncing the U.S. if he doesn't get all he wants," said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the nonprofit Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "He realizes the U.S. is Turkey's lifeline in Syria."

Obama and Erdogan are expected to wrestle with other issues that divide them.

The White House wants Ankara to cooperate more with the Shiite Muslim-dominated government in Iraq, which Erdogan treats warily as an Iranian outpost. Washington also seeks Erdogan's help to ease the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Erdogan plans to visit the Gaza Strip in the next few weeks. U.S. officials fear that the visit could disrupt the Israeli-Turkish rapprochement Obama has sought to engineer, and alienate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas by appearing to lend public support to the Islamic militant group Hamas, which runs Gaza.

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