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Ankara builds a role as regional peacemaker 9 juin 2009

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie, USA / Etats-Unis.
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Financial Times (UK), 09/06/2009, Surveys Turkey, p. 2

Daniel Dombey

Hopes are rising of a close partnership with the US, writes Daniel Dombey. Ahmet Davutoglu paints a picture of the world with Turkey at its centre.

Recently appointed foreign minister – he was previously a close adviser to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister – Mr Davutoglu lists several of the planet’s most important disputes and proceeds to explain why his country is key to solving them.

In the Middle East, Turkey maintains good relationships with a range of countries – including Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia – and last year Mr Davutoglu spearheaded efforts to foster a Syrian-Israeli peace deal.

Turkish soldiers serve in Afghanistan and the country has hosted trilateral meetings with both Afghanistan and Pakistan. If President Barack Obama is to withdraw US forces in Iraq, as he has promised, his military will use its base in Incirlik, Turkey, to do so. And when the discussion turns to the financial crisis, Turkey is at the table, as a member of the G20.

« North Korea was the one thing with which we were not involved, » Mr Davutoglu told journalists in Washington. « But now as the United Nations Security Council president [for the month of June] we have to deal with that as well. »

That global role makes Turkey all the more important a partner of the US, he adds, and he is quick to argue that the new US president has reached the same conclusion.

He stresses Mr Obama visited Ankara and Istanbul little more than two months into his presidency – « it shows how the new US administration perceives Turkey’s significance » – and remarks that some Turks were so taken with Mr Obama’s election last November that they sacrificed sheep in celebration.

But most of all, Mr Davutoglu dwells on Mr Obama’s suggestion, in a press conference with Abdullah Gul, Turkey’s president, that the two countries could form a « model partnership ».

Mr Obama spoke of how Turkey, a predominantly Muslim nation, and the US, a predominantly Christian nation, both of which have secular constitutional frameworks, « can create a modern international community that is… respectful of rule of law, respectful of freedom, upholding these values and being willing to stand up for them in the international stage. »

Many of Mr Obama’s advisers, including Richard Holbrooke, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Jones, national security adviser, and George Mitchell, Middle East envoy, have also identified Turkey as an important country in achieving their respective goals.

But none of that means that Turkish-US relations, much less Turkish relations with the rest of the world, are untroubled or have always flowed smoothly. The presidency of George W, Bush and in particular the Iraq war and the failed attempt by the US to use Turkey to send troops into that country, have left their mark. According to Pew Research, the proportion of Turks with a favourable image of the US fell from 52 per cent in 1999-2000 to 9 per cent in 2007, before a slight uptick to 12 per cent in 2008.

Nor was the success of Mr Obama’s own visit to Turkey a sure thing. Before his arrival there were jitters in Ankara about whether he would follow a campaign pledge and identify the massacre of up to 1.5m Armenians from 1915 on as genocide.

Turkey, which denies that the deaths were any such thing, has long warned that relations would suffer if the term were used by a US president or Congress. In the event, Mr Obama said his views had not changed – without saying the word.

« There’s a floor below which US-Turkish relations do not go for various reasons and there is a ceiling beyond which they cannot go, » says Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington thinktank. « At the moment we are closer to the top than the bottom. But could we say the relationship is as firm as it was during the Cold War when there was a common enemy? I would say no, because this is an era of uncertainties. »

Moreover, the goal that Mr Davutoglu identifies as Turkey’s « main strategic objective » – membership of the European Union – appears considerably more remote than it did several years ago, with the leaders of France, Germany and Austria set against it.

US influence reaches much less into Turkey than the EU did in its heyday, as at root Washington views Ankara as a strategic partner with influence in the Middle East and beyond, while the fundamental concern of the EU accession process is domestic reform that can make a country ready for membership.

Mr Aliriza adds that the reason for Mr Obama’s stance on the genocide issue – Turkey’s effort to improve relations with Armenia – is less copper-bottomed than the arguments made by past presidents, who cited national security as the rationale for avoiding the term. If the Armenian talks should falter, the issue may recur.

Even now, a US Congressional resolution denouncing genocide is backed by 125 members of the House of Representatives, but may not come to a vote. Mr Davutoglu, sounding a less sanguine note, says such a resolution would be « very destructive ».

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