A statement from Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) said the prime minister canceled his trip because of an upcoming party congress, slated for Sept. 30, and his heavy work schedule. He was scheduled to visit the United States on Sept. 22-25. Observers point out that the AK Party congress is expected to draw a large number of high-level international guests — probably including Egypt’s new President Mohammed Morsi and Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani — and therefore Erdoğan may have wanted to stay in Ankara to spend more time on preparations for the congress.
Pundits also say a recent spike in attacks by the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is also a factor in Erdoğan’s decision to stay home. The prime minister is probably reluctant to go on a trans-Atlantic trip at a time when dozens of Turkish soldiers and policemen are being killed in PKK attacks, observers say.
“Under the current circumstances, not going to the United States is a better decision than going there,” said retired diplomat Onur Öymen, a former deputy chairman of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). “There might be other reasons that we do not know about but, to be honest, I think it would be a bad decision if he had not canceled his visit at a time when the PKK has stepped up its attacks and the crisis in Syria is escalating,” he told Today’s Zaman.
Erdoğan’s decision to stay out of the annual UN meeting means Turkey will be represented at ministerial level at the world event. President Abdullah Gül had been scheduled to attend the gathering but he canceled because of a recurring ear infection that has forced him to cancel other foreign trips in the past as well. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, currently on a visit to Canada, will attend the UN General Assembly meeting.
The decision to cancel the US visit came as a surprise and thus sparked a flurry of speculation, including a claim that the change in travel plans was due to US President Barack Obama’s refusal to meet Erdoğan on the sidelines of the UN event.
Another theory is that it reflects Ankara’s frustration with the stalemate at the UN over Syria that has blocked international action to stop bloodshed in the conflict-hit country. Erdoğan was expected to highlight once again the grim situation in Syria and call for international action to stop the bloodshed.
Turkey, which has so far received more than 80,000 Syrian refugees, has called for safe zones within Syria to help those fleeing from the clashes inside the country, stressing that it cannot handle a refugee influx if the number exceeds 100,000. But the US and other Western countries have proven to be reluctant, saying such a step would lead to military confrontation with Syrian forces.
Turkey has also been critical of Russia and China, the two UN Security Council members that have blocked resolutions seeking to impose harsher sanctions on the Syrian regime. Turkish ties with Iran have also been strained over Syria, due to Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to address the UN General Assembly, which is also expected to discuss his country’s nuclear program and a Palestinian bid for UN recognition.
Erdoğan was asked whether Turkey, “which has a strong army,” would take unilateral action in Syria, particularly regarding imposing a no-fly zone over Syria. The prime minister said “no.” “If there is an attack on our country, then we would do what is required. But this situation has an international dimension and a dimension that concerns the Islamic world. So the UN and also the Arab League should be involved with respect to Syria,” he said. He underlined that “the decision of the UN Security Council would be important in that case.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Aug. 11 that Washington and Turkey were looking at all measures to help the insurgents, including a no-fly zone, although no member of the UN Security Council has formally proposed such a move and the option has gained little traction so far.
A no-fly zone and a NATO bombing campaign helped Libyan rebels overthrow Muammar Gaddafi last year. But the West has shown little appetite for repeating any Libya-style action in Syria, and Russia and China strongly oppose any such intervention.
When asked whether he sees any hope that China and Russia will change their position and stop supporting the regime, Erdoğan said he believes that they, too, believe that Assad will go. “The question they ask is: What happens after Assad? My answer to them is that if we believe in a democratic parliamentary system, then the will of the people will be what will come to pass. We do not wish to see any external intervention in trying to form a regime in Syria. What we envision is a transitional government basing its actions on a fair constitution, a system where people are free to elect candidates and establish political parties.”
Asked about whether the US is hindering Turkey from allowing anti-aircraft weapons to cross the border into Syria and how the Syrian opposition could possibly win the war without anti-aircraft weapons, Erdoğan said that the US’s active role in the region was so far verbal, as it has contributed to the settlement of the Syrian crisis only through making statements.