x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Turkey's political ties questioned as al Bashir cancels summit visit

The Sudanese president's decision not to attend a summit of Islamic states in Istanbul helps host country Turkey overcome a potentially embarrassing situation.

ISTANBUL // The decision of Sudan's president Hassan Omar al Bashir not to attend a summit of Islamic states in Istanbul may have helped host country Turkey to overcome a potentially embarrassing situation. But the episode itself, as well as reactions of the Turkish leadership to EU criticism, are likely to rekindle a debate about whether Ankara's ties to the West are loosening.

Mr al Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), in connection with war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Darfur region, was expected to arrive in Istanbul late on Sunday for an economic summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, or OIC. But he told Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president that he would not come in order to address domestic issues, the Sudanese news agency SUNA said on its website.

"The Turkish President accepted the apology of President al Bashir and expressed his hope that President al Bashir will visit Turkey shortly," the agency reported. Mr al Bashir was not in danger of being arrested in Istanbul. Turkey is not part of the ICC and does not regard itself bound by arrest warrants issued by the court. Turkey last week came under international pressure not to host Mr al Bashir. Human rights groups in Turkey said they would stage protests against the visit, while the European Union, which Turkey wants to join, also asked Ankara not to welcome the Sudanese president.

The US government called on Turkey to send messages to Sudan that should be "consistent with ours and with our European friends". With pressure mounting, Mr Gul let the Sudanese government know that a visit by Mr al Bashir would "cause problems", Milliyet, a Turkish newspaper, reported yesterday. Even if Mr Bashir had stuck to his planned visit to Istanbul, Mr Gul would not have met him for a bilateral meeting, the daily said. "The Sudanese see and understand well the difficulties," a high-ranking Turkish diplomat told Agence France-Presse.

But the Sudanese delegation at the Istanbul meeting told Turkish media yesterday that there had been no "advice" coming from Turkey concerning Mr al Bashir's visit and that the president had stayed at home to look for a solution in a dispute between his ruling National Congress Party and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. Whatever the real reason behind Mr al Bashir's decision not to fly to Istanbul, Turkey's leaders did not hide their anger about what they saw as interference by the EU.

"What do they meddle in this for?" Mr Gul asked in reference to the Europeans. "This is not a bilateral visit," he told Turkish journalists two days before Mr al Bashir dropped his travel plans. Meanwhile, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, defended Mr al Bashir against the accusation of genocide in Darfur, in statements that observers said are likely to raise new questions about Turkey's foreign policy course.

Answering questions on TRT, Turkey's state-run television channel, Mr Erdogan said he himself visited Darfur three years ago. "We could not find evidence of genocide there," he said. "It is not possible that a man who has committed himself to our religion, Islam, commits genocide." Mr Erdogan also renewed his criticism of Israeli military actions in the Gaza Strip. By giving strong support to Mr al Bashir, Mr Erdogan had "poured gasoline" on the ongoing debate about Turkey's place in the world, wrote Semih Idiz, a foreign policy columnist with Milliyet.

After Turkey strengthened ties with Syria and Iran, while at the same time cancelling a military exercise with Israel recently, some western observers had wondered whether Mr Erdogan's government would steer the only Muslim Nato country away from the West. Mr Gul and other top politicians in Ankara denied this, saying Turkey was looking towards the West as well as the East. "In this event, Turkey has been stuck between the two worlds," Idiz wrote about the debate surrounding Mr al Bashir's visit.

Taha Akyol, another Milliyet columnist, said Turkey had to decide which values to apply to its foreign policy. "Yes, al Bashir visited seven countries, like Egypt, Saudi-Arabia and Zimbabwe, after the arrest warrant against him had been issued," Akyol wrote. "But does Turkey want to be a country that has the same 'standards' like those countries, does it want to become the eighth country that al Bashir visits?"

Several Turkish newspapers also criticised Mr Erdogan for saying that it was unthinkable for a Muslim to commit genocide. If the prime minister wanted to express the idea that genocide was incompatible with Islam, he was right, wrote Ahmet Hakan in Hurriyet. But if Mr Erdogan wanted to say that a Muslims simply would never commit a crime like genocide, then he was wrong. "Yes, Muslims do commit genocides and murders," Hakan wrote.

tseibert@thenational.ae