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Growing Mistrust Between U.S. and Turkey Is Played Out in Public 24 décembre 2013

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie, USA / Etats-Unis.

The New York Times (USA) Tuesday, December 24, 2013, p. A 9

By Tim Arango, Istanbul

Coming together over crisis has been a hallmark of the relationship between the United States and Turkey in recent years. So it was an especially troubling sign of degraded trust that a meeting between Turkish and American diplomats was canceled last week because it seemed more like an ambush than a consultation.

A corruption inquiry of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s inner circle had been quickly intensifying, and late in the week, the Turkish foreign minister requested through an intermediary a meeting with the American ambassador, Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., to discuss the crisis, according to interviews with American and Turkish officials.

For days, American diplomats had been privately pleading that the Turks resist trying to divert attention by playing off the investigation as part of a foreign plot. But on Saturday, before the scheduled meeting, the machinery was obviously spinning.

Pro-government newspapers featured Mr. Ricciardone on their front pages, and later in the day the Turkish news media reported that the foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, was set to call Secretary of State John Kerry and banish the American ambassador over an unspecified American role in the corruption inquiry. And Mr. Erdogan embarked on a series of speeches in which he, too, hinted at American treachery and suggested Mr. Ricciardone might be expelled from the country.

Mutual suspicion ruled the day, and the Americans called the meeting off.

It was only a couple of years ago that President Obama, struggling for an American response to the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Syria, was said to be speaking with Mr. Erdogan more than the American president was to any world leader, with the exception of the British prime minister, David Cameron. And it was a source of pride for Turks: One newspaper at the time hailed the frequent conversations as a sign of Turkey’s « ascent in the international arena. »

« There was a honeymoon from 2010 until the summer of 2013, » said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. « It was guided by the personal rapport Obama and Erdogan had established. »

That now seems a long time ago here. The reality, say analysts, is that the two countries’ foreign policies have been notably diverging, and that the blowup over the corruption investigation and the American diplomatic contingent is being taken as the latest sign of a deepening distrust.

They are at odds over Egypt, where Turkey had been a strong supporter of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, and where the United States has sought a relationship with Egypt’s new military rulers.

In Syria, Turkey has aggressively backed and armed rebel fighters, and felt betrayed when the United States backed away from military action against the Syrian government in September. In Iraq, American officials believe the Turks, by signing oil contracts with the northern Kurdish region that cut out the central government in Baghdad, are pursuing a policy that could lead to the country’s breakup.

And more recently, Turkey angered its NATO allies by signing a missile-defense system deal with a Chinese company that is under American sanctions for its dealings with Iran, North Korea and Syria.

The United States Congress has threatened to cut off subsidies to Turkey for the purchase, and NATO has said it would never integrate Chinese technology into its own missile-defense system.

At the same time, Turkey’s own domestic troubles — laid bare by the antigovernment protests in the summer set off by a government plan to raze Gezi Park in Istanbul, and now by the corruption inquiry — are coming under a harsh spotlight, with both crises now being linked by Mr. Erdogan to the United States.

In the case of the corruption inquiry, he has been able to do so because two of its elements do obliquely point to the United States, even if there has been no explicit evidence of a link.

Part of the inquiry is focusing on the state-owned Halkbank, whose chief executive has been arrested in the case on suspicion of bribery. The bank has also long been suspected by the United States of helping Iran evade sanctions over its nuclear program by using gold to purchase Iranian oil and gas.

This year, 47 American lawmakers wrote a letter, which has been re-aired in the Turkish news media over the past week, to urge Mr. Kerry to push the Turks for closer monitoring of the relationship between Iran and Halkbank.

« These guys were massive sanctions busters, » said Steven A. Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on Turkey. « It’s been a sore point between Washington and Ankara. »

The other element is that the inquiry, which has targeted several people in the prime minister’s circle, has been linked to Fethullah Gulen, a popular Muslim cleric who once was a close ally of the prime minister but is now a fierce political enemy.

His life of exile in Pennsylvania has led to conspiracy theories here, and his followers are believed to occupy important positions within the police and judiciary, which are carrying out the corruption inquiry.

The investigation into Halkbank, Mr. Cook said, might « be part of a Gulenist effort to demonstrate to the U.S. that maybe Erdogan is not a reliable partner. »

It was just this May that Mr. Obama stood in the Rose Garden with Mr. Erdogan and said to reporters, « I value so much the partnership that I’ve been able to develop with Prime Minister Erdogan. » Now, when Mr. Erdogan speaks caustically about American scheming, officials are left to wonder if Mr. Erdogan really believes what he says, or whether he is using such talk as a populist ploy.

Suspicion of foreign meddling is deeply ingrained here, running back to the last days of the Ottoman Empire, when the region was, Mr. Cagaptay said, « a playing field for various foreign actors. »

Mr. Cook said that in Washington « there is an intellectual understanding » that Turkish officials fall back on such conspiracy theories at times of crisis. Yet, he said that among some American policy makers, « there has been a reassessment of Erdogan and his temperament. »

As with most alliances, the relationship has had its ebbs and flows over the past generation. But the current tension has a facet that was missing even in some of the most fraught episodes between the two countries, such as in 2003 when Turkey refused permission for the American military to invade Iraq across its borders, and in 2010 when it voted against United Nations sanctions on Iran.

« It’s the first time in memory that pro-government newspapers are calling for the American ambassador to leave, » Mr. Cagaptay said. « That’s unique. »


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