March 18, 2009

Summary: Despite the dramatic walkout by Turkey’s prime minister from the World Economic Forum at Davos, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently made the announcement that President Barack Obama will visit the country next month. With the recent election of Obama, the United States seems to be favoring dialogue over confrontation, allowing for more cooperation on a variety of issues that includes rapprochment between the United States and Iran to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions, reducing Western dependency on Russian gas, and stabilizing Iraq following U.S. withdrawal of troops. As Turkey's international profile rises as it embraces its role as a regional peacemaker, are TurkishAmerican relations entering a "golden era"?

Turkey and Obama: A Golden Age in Turkish U.S. Ties?
by Amberin Zaman1
ANKARA — When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that President Barack Obama would visit Turkey next month during her recent trip to Ankara, even the most seasoned pundits were caught off guard. It was widely assumed that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s vitriolic attacks against Israel capped by his famous walkout from the World Economic Forum last month at Davos had dented Turkey’s chances of ever becoming the first predominantly Muslim nation to host the new U.S. president.2 Set against rising anti-U.S. feelings and its cozy ties with Iran, Russia, and Sudan, the Davos affair prompted a flurry of editorials fretting over whether Turkey was turning its back on the West. Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül told me en route to an economic summit in Tehran on March 10 that such concerns were utterly unfounded and that Obama’s visit was no surprise at all. Relaxed and confident, Gül asserted that the U.S.-Turkish relationship had entered a new phase that went well beyond bilateral ties. “Our interests coincide over a wide spectrum of issues in a broad region…our will to cooperate is stronger than ever,” said Gül. During the same trip, Ahmet Davutoglu,

top foreign policy advisor to Erdoğan, went further to say that "TurkishAmerican relations are entering a golden era." The United States now has a president who, like Ankara, favors dialogue over confrontation-and who, like Ankara, believed the Iraq invasion was a poor idea. This will allow cooperation on a host of areas: rapprochement between the United States and Iran to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, reducing Western dependency on Russian gas by opening pipelines through the Caucasus and Turkey, and stabilizing Iraq as American troops pull out. All this may sound fanciful, but in recent years, Turkey’s international profile has been on the rise. It has embraced the role of regional peacemaker seeking to mend fences between Israel and Syria, between Hamas and Fatah, and between Syria and Saudi Arabia. Its close ties with the West, crowned by the start of membership talks with the European Union in 2005, and its outreach to the Muslim world during Erdoğan’s seven years in power has placed it in the pole position. Strategically wedged between the oil rich former Soviet states in Central Asia and Azerbaijan on the one hand and the Middle East on the other, Turkey is touting itself as an alternative corri-

OffiCes Washington, DC • Berlin • Bratislava • Paris Brussels • Belgrade • Ankara • Bucharest

Amberin Zaman is the Turkey correspondent for The Economist and writes a weekly column for the Turkish daily Taraf. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). 2 See "Turkey after Davos: Risks, Opportunities, and an Unpredictable Prime Minister" by Amberin Zaman, On Turkey series,

dor for Western bound energy supplies. Meanwhile, Turkish goods are flooding supermarkets from Iran to Northern Iraq. And Turkish has become a kind of lingua franca thanks to the growing popularity of Turkish soap operas that keep viewers across the region glued to their screens. Starting with its overtures to Iran, the Obama administration has decided to cash in. In exchange, it must use its influence with Europe and especially with France to push for Turkey’s EU membership. This means helping to break the deadlock over Cyprus. In Tehran, Turkey’s clout was in evidence when Gül became the first NATO member leader to be received by Iran’s spiritual Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the number one power in the Islamic Republic. Wary of upsetting Iran’s prickly leaders, Turkey rejected the label of mediator. Indeed, it is unrealistic to assume that Turkey alone can persuade Iran to freeze its nuclear weapons program. But as Gül pointed out, Khamenei listened “very carefully” to what he had to say as did Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmedinajad during separate hour-long meetings. Members of Gül’s entourage said the Iranians abstained from their usual anti-American rants, which is equally encouraging. Turkey’s overriding message to Iran was to accept the olive branch being extended by the Obama administration, warning of the dangers any rejection might entail. After 30 years of clerical rule, Iran remains woefully backward. (An operator at a five-star hotel in Tehran, who barely spoke English, was clueless when I asked him how to make an international call.) An early test of Gül’s pitch will be whether Iran accepts a U.S. invitation to a meeting of Afghanistan’s neighbors and countries contributing to the NATO-led stabilization mission there that will be held in The Hague later this month. In the public sphere, Iran shows little signs of softening. A breakthrough between the United States and Iran is unlikely until after Iran’s presidential elections in June. Yet, in the meantime messages between the two are likely to be passed back and forth by Turkey in an effort to lay the groundwork for eventual rapprochement. Turkey may not be a mediator, but it is a credible go-between. Turkey’s efforts to help melt the ice between the ayatollahs and the United States may well be founded on Iran’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons, but in Iraq the opportunities for Turkish-American partnership are huge. Turkey is the main transit hub for the flow of logistical supplies to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its intervention helped persuade the Sunni Arabs to take part in the Iraqi elections. Pentagon planners hope to rotate troops out through Turkey when the withdrawal from Iraq starts. Yet, in order to be a long-term player in a post-U.S. Iraq, Turkey needs to overcome its fears about perceived Kurdish dreams of independence and fix its relations with Iraq’s Kurdish leaders. The impending U.S. withdrawal has left the Iraqi Kurds feeling vulnerable. Turkey is the Kurds’ sole outlet to the West. Not surprisingly, they have become more pliant. Over the past year, Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish officials have been quietly discussing a deal for disarming rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) who has led a 25-year separatist campaign against Turkey. The PKKs targets have included innocent civilians prompting the United States and the European Union to label it a terrorist organization. The presence of some 3,000 to 5,000 PKK fighters in Northern Iraq remains the main point of contention between Ankara and the Kurdistan regional government. Senior Turkish officials say the Iraqi Kurds have been doing a lot more in recent months to restrict the PKK’s movements and its access to food and weapons. There is now talk of extraditing PKK leaders to European countries willing to give them asylum, for some 1,500 PKK fighters who are not Turkish nationals to lay down their weapons and melt into Iraqi Kurdistan, and for the remaining forces to return to Turkey. Ankara is also pressing the Iraqi Kurds to drop their claims to the oil rich province of Kirkuk. Turkey fears that its inclusion in the Kurdish run region would enable the Kurds to declare independence and reinforce separatist passions among its own 14 million strong Kurdish population. The bigger threat to the Kurds comes from Iraq’s Shia and Sunni Arabs, who contest their claims over Kirkuk. The potential for conflict is huge. Turkey and the United States must work together to broker a formula for the province that can satisfy all sides. A U.S.Iranian thaw would encourage Iran to leverage its influence over the Shia to cement a deal. Yet, there is one issue that could bust this virtuous cycle. During his election campaign, Obama pledged that once in office he would recognize the “Armenian genocide” on the April 24 anniversary of the mass killings of the Ottoman Armenians. He is under immense pressure from Armenian Americans to honor his pledge. They are lobbying the U.S. Congress to adopt a draft resolution sponsored by Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff that labels the 1915 events as genocide. Turkey is threatening to retaliate should the resolution be passed. Options on the table might include restricting U.S. access to the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey, which remains critical to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sole formula to avert another potential train wreck in U.S.-Turkish relations would be for Turkey to establish dip-


lomatic ties and re-open its border with Armenia, preferably before April 24. For the past year, helped by Swiss mediators, Turkish and Armenian diplomats have been sorting out the details of an agreement that among other things calls for a joint commission of historians to examine the events of 1915. After much hesitation Turkey finally agreed to fold the genocide question into a broader set of issues to be taken up by the two sides. Turkish officials insist that the “the technical aspects” of the agreement are complete. Turkey appears to have also persuaded Azerbaijan that friendship with Armenia will arm Ankara with further leverage with which resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and curb Russian meddling in the Southern Caucasus. Should Yerevan sign-off on the deal it could be announced when Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ali Babacan goes to Yerevan on April 16 for a Black Sea economic meeting. Davutoglu’s vision of a “Golden Age” of U.S.-Turkish collaboration could just come true.

Amberin Zaman, Correspondent, The Economist
Amberin Zaman is the Turkey correspondent for The Economist and writes a weekly column for the Turkish daily Taraf.

About the German Marshall Fund of the United States
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.

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