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 civil uprisings.
Biden arrived last night in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, and will be in Istanbul tomorrow, before flying to Greece for the first meeting between a top Obama 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 eight-month 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. A Nov. 8 report by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency said 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 for 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.
In Ankara, Biden is scheduled to meet this morning with Cemil Cicek, speaker of Turkey’s Parliament, and Turkish President Abdullah Gul. Biden had been scheduled to meet with Erdogan, who is recovering in Istanbul after surgery on his digestive system. The state-run Anatolia news-agency reported yesterday that that Erdogan isn’t likely to leave his residence.
The U.S. has agreed to sell Turkey three SuperCobra military helicopters to combat the PKK. The U.S. also transferred four Predator drones from Iraq to Turkey’s air base 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 neighboring 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.
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’s visit to Greece, on Dec. 5, follows approval on Nov. 30 by Euro-area finance ministers of a 5.8 billion-euro ($7.7 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.”