April 10 2009
Now the Obama party is over, Turkey needs to deliver
Fri Apr 10, 2009 11:58am
by Paul de Bendern
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama’s call on Turkey to
help resolve conflicts from the Middle East to Afghanistan is an
endorsement the secular democracy has long sought, but meeting those
expectations will be far harder.
Obama chose Turkey as the first Muslim country to visit since becoming
president, highlighting the importance he places on ties with a
prickly NATO ally spanning two continents and wielding increasing
influence in a volatile region.
"I came here out of my respect to Turkey’s democracy and culture and
my belief that Turkey plays a critically important role in the region
and in the world," Obama said during his two-day visit this week to
Ankara and Istanbul.
Turkey’s AK Party government has sought recognition for its role in
helping fix problems in and with neighboring countries, which it sees
as ultimately benefiting Turkey’s own security.
The Islamist-rooted AK Party has mediated between Israel and Syria,
brought warring Palestinian factions together, and tried to patch up
differences between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has been criticized by Israel and the
former U.S. administration for seeking to bring the Palestinian
militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, out of isolation and
for his criticism of Israel’s war on Gaza.
"The Obama visit opens up a series of windows of opportunities for
Turkey … but the burden is now on Turkey’s shoulders and how it can
make good on this," Faruk Logoglu, a former Turkish ambassador to
Washington, told Reuters.
"If we choose to continue to play, like Iran, a role of a regional
power with a voice of our own, then we will not be very effective. But
if we do it in a solemn and quiet manner it will be much more
Erdogan’s public spat over Gaza with Israeli President Shimon Peres in
Davos in January won praise from Arab countries but raised question
marks in European diplomatic circles about Turkey’s ability to be a
neutral negotiator. Turkey’s tough stance on the appointment of NATO’s
next chief put it at odds with the alliance’s members, forcing Obama
Obama praised Turkey for its strong European roots, democracy and
ability to reach out to the Muslim world. He said Turkey could help
bridge the divide between America and the Islamic world.
Obama is trying to repair the damage left by his predecessor, George
W. Bush, and has made clear he wants a more conciliatory approach to
solving global problems from Iran’s nuclear program to the stalled
Middle East peace process.
"Turkey has a long history of being an ally and a friend of both
Israel and its neighbors. And so it can occupy a unique position in
trying to resolve some of these differences," he said.
Ties between Turkey and the United States are now on the mend after
years of tensions, mainly due to the Iraqi war.
Critics of Erdogan say his foreign policy, spearheaded by adviser
Ahmet Davutoglu, is driven by a desire to boost Turkey’s role in the
Muslim world and reconnect with its Ottoman roots. They criticize
Erdogan for distancing Turkey from the West.
Analyst say quiet diplomacy will help Turkey in its quest to help
resolve the Middle East peace process.
"Turkey’s usefulness is first improving quality and dialogue between
Arabs and Israelis and factions within the Palestinians, and secondly
preparing the groundwork, not the ultimate agreement," said Logoglu,
adding he was skeptical that the government would pursue quiet
ARMENIA, NORTHERN IRAQ
Turkey’s European Union membership bid will also be affected by how it
tries to solve conflicts with its neighbors.
Turkey has finally begun normalizing ties with Armenia. The two
countries are at odds over Yerevan’s dispute with Azerbaijan over
Nagorno-Karabakh and whether the massacres of Armenians by Ottoman
Turks during World War One amounted to genocide.
Turkey will now be under pressure to deliver on Armenia. Diplomats
believe Ankara’s efforts with Yerevan have given Obama some time to
hold off on a U.S. Congress resolution that seeks to label the 1915
killings as genocide, a move that would hurt U.S.-Turkish ties.
"Turkey has come a long way in mending fences with neighbors," said
Hugh Pope, author of books on Turkey and an analyst with the
International Crisis Group.
"Twenty years ago, all countries around itself had daggers drawn at
Turkey. Now we are at the point of normalizing relations with
Armenia. Northern Iraq was a weight around Turkey’s neck and Turkey is
working on fixing it."
Ties between Turkey and Iraq have been strained over the presence of
Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq from where they attack Turkish
territory. The United States wants better ties as they draw down their
troop levels in Iraq.