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Paul De Bendern
10 Apr 2009 13:21
US 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 neighbouring 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 criticised by Israel and the former US 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,” said Faruk Logoglu, a former Turkish ambassador to Washington.
“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 effective.”
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.
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 Bush, and has made clear he wants a more conciliatory approach to solving global problems from Iran’s nuclear programme to the stalled Middle East peace process.
“Turkey has a long history of being an ally and a friend of both Israel and its neighbours. 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 criticise 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 sceptical that the government would pursue quiet diplomacy.
Armenia, Northern Iraq
Turkey’s European Union membership bid will also be affected by how it tries to solve conflicts with its neighbours.
Turkey has finally begun normalising 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 I 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 US Congress resolution that seeks to label the 1915 killings as genocide, a move that would hurt US-Turkish ties.
“Turkey has come a long way in mending fences with neighbours,” 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 normalising 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. - Reuters
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