U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is visiting Turkey as the Obama administration looks to the secular, majority-Muslim NATO ally to keep pressure on Syria and Iran and boost economies and democratic institutions in governments emerging from the Arab Spring’s civil uprisings.
Biden met with Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul and Speaker of Parliament Cemil Cicek today in Ankara after arriving in the capital from Iraq late yesterday. He will travel to Istanbul today for a two-day visit, before flying to Greece for the first meeting between a top administration official and the new prime minister, Lucas Papademos, on Dec. 5.
U.S. assistance to Turkey to combat the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which the U.S. regards as a terrorist organization, and preventing that fight from destabilizing the border area between Turkey and Iraq are among the top items on the agenda.
“Turkey has always looked to the east and the west, given its position in the world both geographically and geopolitically,” Biden’s national security adviser, Antony Blinken, said at a briefing before the vice president left the U.S. Turkey has “a unique role to play as a bridge between these different worlds, an ability to talk to different countries in ways that are extremely helpful.”
The vice president’s arrival follows the Turkish government’s imposition on Nov. 30 of sanctions on Syria in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on dissent.
The sanctions include freezing Syrian government assets in Turkey, banning Assad’s leadership team from entry and suspending arms sales and Syrian bank transactions, said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
U.S. President Barack Obama has “coordinated closely” with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Syria, White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in Washington.
Biden’s visit comes as the U.S. is asking allies to impose stronger sanctions on Iran to halt its nuclear program. The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency said in a Nov. 8 report that Iran has continued work on developing nuclear weapons capability. The U.S. on Nov. 21 announced sanctions for Iran’s banking system and oil industry.
The European Union yesterday toughened sanctions against Syria and Iran.
Turkey’s announcement this year that it will host a North Atlantic Treaty Organization early warning radar system has prompted criticism and threats from Iranian officials who see it as a means to protect Israel from Iran.
Biden had been scheduled to meet with Erdogan, who is recovering in Istanbul after surgery on his digestive tract. The state-run Anatolia news-agency reported yesterday that Erdogan isn’t likely to leave his residence.
The U.S. has agreed to sell Turkey three Super Cobra military helicopters to combat the PKK. The U.S. also transferred four Predator drones from Iraq to Turkey’s airbase in Incirlik, and the U.S. stands “strongly” with Turkey to combat the PKK, Blinken said. The U.S. is working to strengthen cooperation between Turkey and Iraq in confronting the threat from the PKK, he said.
Clashes have increased in southeastern Turkey since Oct. 19, when PKK attacks killed 24 soldiers. Turkey has sent troops into Iraq to strike at PKK bases there.
Before arriving in Turkey, Biden stopped in Iraq to meet with U.S. troops and Iraqi political leaders as the U.S. prepares to pull its remaining combat forces out the country by year’s end.
In Istanbul, Biden will attend a Global Entrepreneurship Summit. Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, who leads the government’s economic team, is a keynote speaker along with the vice president at the meeting, according to the schedule.
Blinken said the entrepreneurship summit is the “primary reason” for Biden’s trip. In the Middle East and North Africa over the past year, he said, civilian uprisings have been driven by the desire for more economic opportunity as well as political freedoms.
“Entrepreneurs are a driving force in the United States for job creation,” Blinken said in the Nov. 28 briefing. “They can do the same thing in the Middle East and North Africa, and so this could not be more timely.”
Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a policy center in Washington, said Syria, Iran and discussion about the future of the Arab uprisings were key themes of the visit.
Cook said the U.S. supports Turkish investment in Egypt and other Arab countries to help develop those economies.
“In general, there’s a very strong sense, in Turkey, that Turkey can play a constructive, influential role in helping countries in the region develop more democratic, open, vibrant societies with functioning economies,” he said. “The question is, can Turkey actually fulfill that role? Do Arabs want them to fulfill that role?”
Biden was asked what the U.S. message to Turkey is on Syria during his meeting with Gul.
“I don’t come with messages, I come to discuss with friends,” Biden responded, according to a video posted on the Turkish president’s website. “There are a group of issues that are of mutual interest to us.”
Biden’s upcoming visit to Greece follows approval on Nov. 30 by euro-area finance ministers of a 5.8 billion-euro ($7.8 billion) loan to Greece as part of its bailout.
White House Deputy National Security Advisor for Economic Affairs Mike Froman said that the U.S. “very much recognizes the sacrifices being made by the Greek people as they pursue this reform process” and “we’ll continue to support Greece through this very challenging period.”