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U.S.-Turkish Relations on the Rebound 1 mars 2012

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie, USA / Etats-Unis.
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National Journal (USA) March 1, 2012

James Kitfield

Just over a year ago U.S.-Turkish relations were in such free fall that commentators were wondering, “Who lost Turkey?” A breach that began with Ankara’s opposition to the Iraq war had only deepened over the years as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan pursued a new “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy that included outreach to Iran, Russia, and Syria. Many Western experts interpreted that policy as a strategic shift toward the East and the Muslim world.

Then came the disastrous summer of 2010, when Turkey broke with the United States to oppose U.N. sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program, then backed a flotilla that tried to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, leaving nine Turkish citizens dead at the hands of Israeli commandos and precipitating an acrimonious meltdown in Turkish-Israeli relations. By January 2011, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy had written a brief on Turkish foreign policy under the Freedom and Justice Party, or AKP, in which the authors concluded that Turkey’s “axis shift” and “policy rift” with Washington “may be permanent.”

What a difference an Arab Spring makes.

As the U.S. and its allies consider how to counter Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad’s wanton killing of protesters and defuse a possible Syrian civil war, Turkey is suddenly emerging as a regional linchpin. Ankara is not only forcefully advocating for Assad’s ouster, it has also accepted thousands of Syrian refugees and allowed army defectors in the “Free Syrian Army” to encamp on the Turkish side of the border.

With the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Turkey is seen as a key check on Iranian influence in that country, where it has supported a secular political party also favored by Washington. Turkey also recently accepted elements of a NATO missile shield designed to protect Europe from the threat of Iranian missiles, a move that infuriated Tehran and further drew the traditional rivals into an open competition for influence. Meanwhile, the Obama administration continues to view the AKP model of an Islamist political party governing a secular, economically vibrant democracy as a helpful goal for nascent democracies emerging from the Arab Spring.

Turkey’s zero-problems policy was initially focused on opening new markets and increasing trade ties in the region. For a time, it worked, as Turkey averaged 6.7 percent annual growth over the past decade, far better than any of its European neighbors. As revolutions rocked the thrones of autocrats in the region beginning last year, however, Ankara faced manifest problems on its borders and masses of people in the region agitating for the same freedoms that the AKP purportedly stood for at home. After some initial foot-dragging on NATO’s intervention in Libya and unsuccessful attempts to persuade Syria’s Assad to implement democratic reforms, Erdogan sided with the democracy movements.

“Turkish leaders were confronted not only by the Arab Spring movements, but also by a broadly supportive domestic audience that increasingly expects its government to take an activist role in shaping events in the region,” said Ross Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and the director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. “There’s also more than just a little realpolitik to this shift in Ankara’s foreign policy, because Turkey recognizes that the instability will force it to more openly compete for power and influence in the region with Iran. That does mean that U.S. and Turkish interests now align much more closely, and that Ankara will look to use its prominent role in the NATO alliance to its advantage.”

The key question posed by that realignment is whether it represents a true strategic reorientation, or just tactical maneuvering on the part of a famously mercurial Erdogan. Turkey’s break with both Israel and Syria, for instance, came after Erdogan felt personally disrespected by leaders in those countries. Ankara also continues to take a dimmer view than Washington of the effectiveness of sanctions against Iran, and it opposes a military option to turn back Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons program. Given the huge stakes involved and its naturally cautious foreign-policy instincts, Turkey will also want the backing of the largest international coalition possible for whatever next steps are taken in response to the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.

“Events in Syria are definitely pushing Turkey in our direction, and the AKP is beginning to awaken to the threat that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to their outsized regional aspirations, but that shift is transactional and contingent on rapidly changing events,” said Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey during the Bush administration, now at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “If you scratch beneath the surface of Erdogan’s rhetoric, I still think he believes that Israel is the real regional problem, and not Iran.”

Turkish officials argue that it was the narrative of Turkey’s break with the West that was overblown, caused by misunderstandings and disagreements on tactics rather than on strategic principles. Ankara is well aware that Tehran is its main rival, as evidenced by a recent increase in the number of attacks in Turkey by Kurdish terrorists based in Iran and Syria. Erdogan and Obama now consult more frequently than almost any other two world leaders, including more than a dozen times in 2011 alone, a Turkish diplomat notes.

“All the talk of ‘who lost Turkey’ last year was certainly difficult for U.S.-Turkish relations, but Turkish foreign policy remained very pragmatic in seeking stability in its neighborhood,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington. When that stability was upended by the Arab Spring and Turkey was forced to take sides, she noted, Ankara found itself naturally aligned with the democratic camp. “Turkey still wants to play the role of mediator between the Middle East and the West, and I think the Obama administration realizes that having a strong, Muslim ally anchored in NATO and assuming that role is very helpful at this time.”

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