ANKARA: US warily eyes Turkish political turmoil


Today’s Zaman
July 12 2008

The United States is anxiously watching political turmoil in Turkey
amid concern that instability could affect Ankara’s role on issues
of mutual concern from Iraq to Israeli-Syrian talks, analysts say.

Turkey’s Constitutional Court is expected to rule in the next month
whether to ban the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party)
and bar close US ally Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan from office
for allegedly seeking to turn the country into an Islamist state,
which the party denies.

Unlike many European nations that have had tough words for what some
say is a "judicial coup," the Bush administration has been more muted,
preferring to stress support for "democratic processes" while making
clear that whatever happens, Washington wants good ties with its NATO
ally. "I do believe that Turkish-American relations are in a good
place," said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after a meeting
last month with Turkey’s foreign minister.

A senior US official conceded if Erdogan’s government and party were
ousted it would "not be the optimal outcome," but he said "Washington
was determined to keep strong ties." "Our relationship is much stronger
than it has been in a decade and we have been building on it in a
meticulous way. Even if the current government were out, we would
continue on the same track," said the official, who declined to be
named because the issue is sensitive. "I am not arguing that this is
a positive development but it is hard to say what the impact is going
to be. I think the Turks will find a way to wiggle out of this crisis."

Relations were rocky between the two nations at the time of the US
invasion of Iraq in 2003, and even though ties are better now, the
United States is unpopular in Turkey. The latest Pew Global Attitudes
poll found only 12 percent of Turks had a favorable view of the
United States. The two countries share a list of strategic interests,
from Turkey’s neighbors Iraq and Iran to Ankara’s recent mediation
efforts between Israel and Syria. Ankara is a key US military ally
in the Middle East region and Washington needs Turkey’s cooperation
in trying to stabilize Iraq, particularly in the Kurdish north.

"If a weak government replaces the current one it will be harder
to tackle many of these issues and Turkey will undergo a period of
navel-gazing," said Turkey analyst and author Gareth Jenkins.

Turkey’s role in mediating between Israel and Syria could also be
affected as Turkey, a predominantly Muslim but officially secular
country, is consumed by domestic strife. "The inevitable outcome
is that it (instability) will take a toll on the [Israeli-Syria]
talks. I don’t think you could have seen Turkey playing this role
under any other government," said Sam Brannen, a fellow at the Center
for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

"Turkey is generally going to draw in and not look to be engaged. It
may even look towards countries such as Russia rather than turning
West," he added. Tensions were exacerbated last week by the arrests
of two senior retired generals and others — all critical of the
Islamist-rooted ruling party — on suspicion of seeking to overthrow
the government. Several analysts cautioned Washington against using
harsh rhetoric when the court makes its decision as this could be
interpreted as interfering in Turkish affairs and siding with Erdogan.

"The EU will pretty much do the bad cop stuff for the US as it has more
legitimacy to interfere," said Zeyno Baran from the Hudson Institute,
referring to Turkey’s accession bid to the European Union.

Former State Department official Henri Barkey said Washington should
take a tougher stand as the potential damage to US interests was
too great. "But the State Department is so afraid of its own shadow
when it comes to Turkey," said Barkey, now at Lehigh University
in Pennsylvania.

One wildcard is how the US Congress might respond, particularly
after the uproar last year when a congressional committee branded
as genocide the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. The Armenia
resolution, which was ultimately dropped, caused a diplomatic storm and
harmed relations. "From a Turkish perspective they don’t distinguish
much between the administration and Congress," Baran, of the Hudson
Institute, said of Turkish views towards Congress. "The administration
will want to keep them (lawmakers) quiet but it is election time,"
Baran added, referring to the US presidential election in November.