President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed on almost all the large geopolitical issues they discussed Thursday at a meeting at the White House, but it is the one small thing on which they disagree that may come back to haunt the U.S. leader.
Speaking at a joint press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House, the two men vowed to increase international pressure on the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, currently engaged in a deadly campaign to end a popular insurrection that has killed about 80,000 people.
They agreed that “Assad needs to go,” said Mr. Obama, and that they will do everything possible to assist the opposition on the ground in Syria.
In this there is nothing new, although Mr. Obama did say that when it comes to averting the use of chemical weapons believed to be in the hands of the Assad regime, there are a number of actions Washington could take.
“There are a whole range of options that the United States is already engaged in,” the President said. “And I preserve the options of taking additional steps, both diplomatic and military, because those chemical weapons inside of Syria also threaten our security over the long term as well as our allies and friends and neighbours.”
However, on one matter – Mr. Erdogan’s intention to visit the Gaza Strip next month – the two men disagreed. The controversial trip would include meeting with the Hamas government in Gaza, which has been designated by the United States and Israel as a terrorist organization and which does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Mr. Erdogan said he believed his visit would contribute to the resolution of the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, the Israeli killing of nine Turkish citizens who were on board a vessel carrying humanitarian supplies intended for Gaza.
That is not how Israel and the United States view things. The Gaza visit has been denounced by Israel and strongly discouraged by the Obama administration as giving unwarranted recognition to Hamas.
Mr. Erdogan tried to soften the blow by adding that he also would be visiting the West Bank, governed by the Palestinian Authority of president Mahmoud Abbas, whose administration does recognize Israel and seeks to negotiate with it the recognition of an independent Palestinian state. The Turkish leader has yet to say whether he would visit Israel.
Israel and Turkey have been at odds since the 2008-09 Israeli attack on Hamas in Gaza in response to a hail of rockets fired on Israel from Gaza. Soon after the fighting, relations between the two countries were downgraded. The Mavi Marmara flotilla, financed by a Turkish Islamic organization, was a deliberate attempt to break the naval blockade Israel maintained on Gaza as a means of barring weapons from reaching Hamas.
Last month, after a visit to Israel by Mr. Obama, the Turkish and Israeli prime ministers agreed to try to patch up their differences. Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu apologized for the unintended killing of the Turks, and Mr. Erdogan agreed to help negotiate a settlement for the victims.