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Ankara revels in regional status 8 novembre 2011

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie, USA / Etats-Unis.
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Financial Times (UK) Tuesday, November 8, 2011, p. 6

By Daniel Dombey in Istanbul

Interview. Abdullah Gul, Turkish president. Turkish leader emphasises the country’s growing role on the world stage, writes Daniel Dombey

In the gilded splendour of the Sultan Suite in Istanbul’s Ciragan Palace, the president of Turkey sets out his rising country’s view of its place on the world stage.

Abdullah Gul warns Syria not to use Kurdish militants against Turkey, tells the Financial Times relations with the US have never been healthier and rejects Iran’s claims that Ankara is merely following Washington’s bidding.

It is a tour d’horizon that highlights Turkey’s diplomatic activism in the Middle East and beyond and also a new closeness between Washington and Ankara. This shift, triggered by the two countries’ reaction to the Arab spring, contrasts with last year when tensions ran high.

Mr Gul’s measured manner sometimes also contrasts with the more forceful approach of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister. But both men emphasise Turkey’s growing role in a region in flux.

« Turkey’s success, especially during the last decade, has impressed the Arab world, » says Mr Gul, stressing his nation’s status as a secular, democratic, free-market Muslim majority country. « For that reason they are following us closely and for that reason we have indirect influence. »

Still, in a move welcomed by the US, Turkey has broken with Syria’s government , leading to tensions with Damascus that Mr Gul does little to disguise.

He notes that Syria has previously hosted members of the Kurdistan Workers party, or PKK, which the US, the European Union and Turkey all proscribe as a terrorist group, and urges it not do so again.

« I would strongly suggest and would expect that they would not get into such a dangerous game, » he says. « Even though I do not think they would do that, we are still closely following the matter. »

His comments take on particular relevance because of an upsurge in PKK attacks in Turkey in recent months, which were followed by sustained Turkish bombing and a limited ground incursion against PKK targets in northern Iraq.

While Mr Gul, a former foreign minister, does not have executive powers as president, his continuing influence is signified by the crush of dignitaries in the large ante-room outside. Among them are Hillary Clinton’s number two at the US State Department, Iran’s foreign minister and many others, all in town for a meeting on Afghanistan.

Inside, Mr Gul insists Ankara will press on with its bid to join the European Union, even though some EU member states have, he says, begun to alienate public opinion with their « negative attitudes ». Referring to Turkey’s low budget deficit and government debt, he adds: « Right at the moment we are doing much better than most of the EU countries in terms of the Maastricht criteria. »

When it comes to Washington, rather than Brussels, his words seem warmer.

« The period we are going through is the healthiest relations that we ever had with the US, » he says, speaking in a week when Washington announced its first significant arms sale to Turkey since 2009, a $111m attack helicopter deal.

US officials also attest to a big shift since last year when Washington slapped down a Turkish-backed compromise on Iran’s nuclear programme and Ankara voted against US-championed sanctions on Iran at the United Nations.

This year, Washington has welcomed Turkey’s decision to host a missile defence radar base most Nato countries say is intended to counter a threat from Iran, even though Mr Gul says the system does not single out Tehran. « No one single country should be pointed out as an enemy, » he says. « Rather this is a system against missiles. »

And while Turkey’s relations with Israel have become increasingly bitter , some top US officials are inclined to blame that on Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, rather than on Turkey’s leadership.

Meanwhile, Turkish officials expect the US to transfer drones from northern Iraq to a base in Incirlik, Turkey, to help monitor PKK movements.

But Mr Gul pushes back at Iran’s efforts to depict Turkey’s line on Syria as a bid to curry favour with Washington. In fact, Ankara repeatedly sought to convince Damascus to embrace reform, only to see Syria step up attacks on its own citizens.

« When we talk to Iran, we always tell them that we are not against the Syrian regime due to pressure imposed by any other country, » he says. « It is because of and for the people of Syria. »

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