x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

US ties with Turkey in doubt after raid

The contrast between responses on the Gaza flotilla from Ankara and Washington is seen as a sign of rift between two powers vying for influence in Middle East.

Barack Obama, the US president, left, shakes hands with Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Ankara last year.
Barack Obama, the US president, left, shakes hands with Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Ankara last year.

WASHINGTON // The contrast between the forceful Turkish condemnation of the Israeli flotilla raid and the muted American response reflects a broader splintering between the two countries' policies that has raised new doubts about the health of the US-Turkey relationship, some analysts have said.

While Turkish officials denounced the raid in blunt terms - the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, called it a "bloody massacre" - the White House has tread more cautiously, issuing only a mild public rebuke and signing on to a UN statement expressing "deep regret" at the loss of life and calling for a transparent investigation. Turkish officials, including Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, publicly criticised the US position as too weak. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, urged Turkey and other countries to tone down the rhetoric, saying that the situation "requires careful, thoughtful responses from all concerned".

Officials on both sides deny that the public disagreement is a sign that relations have frayed. But many observers say the friction over the flotilla incident, in which nine activists died, including a dual US-Turkish citizen, is only the latest in a series of foreign policy clashes between two countries that are vying for influence in the Middle East. Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, said US-Turkey relations were already strained and the flotilla incident was "icing on the cake".

"There are very severe tensions," said Mr Barkey, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I think there's a real crisis in the air." In May, Turkey - along with Brazil - brokered a deal with Iran to ship much of Iran's low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for 20 per cent-enriched uranium to fuel a medical reactor. The deal was hailed by Turkey as an "historic turning point" and was viewed as an important step in the country's bid to assert itself as a regional power broker.

But the deal irked US and European officials because it allows Iran to keep enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon and continue to enrich fuel. The White House also fears the deal could disrupt its efforts to build international consensus for a new round of United Nations sanctions. The day after the deal was announced, in fact, the United States and Europe submitted a sanctions resolution at the UN Security Council. The move was timed to convey their dissatisfaction with fuel swap deal, analysts said. That resolution, in turn, prompted Mr Erdogan to send letters to 26 countries opposing the sanctions and seeking support for deal. A vote on the sanctions is expected to occur this week.

Steven Cook, who specialises in Turkish politics at the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent think tank that advises the US government, said the tit-for-tat is a sign of the increased competition between the two countries. He pointed to several other foreign policy issues on which Turkey and the United States have disagreed. Turkey, he noted, has criticised the US-led peace process for excluding Hamas and focusing almost exclusively on the West Bank. The United States, meanwhile, has objected to some of Mr Erdogan's rhetoric on Israel.

Ankara also has developed an increasingly cozy relationship with Damascus, raising the prospect of the United States and Turkey falling on opposite sides of a potential Israeli conflict with Syria, Mr Cook said. "There's a host of questions about what would happen in that scenario and I think that the Turks would probably end up on a different side" than the United States, he said. "They just calculate interests differently than we do from where they sit."

Still, despite the differences, US officials continue to describe the US relationship with Turkey as strong. Mrs Clinton and her counterpart, Mr Davutoglu, met for more than three hours in Washington this week to discuss the flotilla crisis. State Department officials described the meeting as a positive one between two allies. Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said President Barack Obama, and Mr Erdogan had a "good conversation" by phone this week, and called Turkey an "important friend".

But the relationship falls dramatically short of the partnership the White House had envisioned when Mr Obama first took office, observers said. Mr Obama visited Turkey during his official trip to Europe, hoping to court a secular democracy with a predominantly Muslim population that could help the US achieve its aims in the Middle East. Now, Mr Cook said, Turkey's view of itself as a rising regional power has increasingly caused it to move in its own direction.

"There's a certain amount of frustration that [the United States] can't keep the Turks in their lane," he said. "The Turks want to do everything and that tends to undercut the things we want to do." sstanek@thenational.ae