x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

White House aims to rekindle relations with 'anchor state'

The US president, Barack Obama prepares to host the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the White House.

WASHINGTON // The US president, Barack Obama, hosts the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the White House tomorrow. Mr Erdogan will undoubtedly exude confidence as his host tries to rekindle relations with an ever more pivotal Turkey, a country the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, once defined as "an anchor state" for US policy. Under his tenure, Turkey has become the world's 17th largest economy and is a member of the G20. Turkey now seeks recognition as a global power, not simply as a Middle Eastern or Muslim power. It is in the Middle East that Turkey's rise can be felt the most. After decades of timid diplomacy and alignment with western policy, an increasingly emboldened Turkey is flexing its political and economic muscle and carving itself a central role in Middle East politics. In the meantime, US influence in the region is waning. Turkey, some predict, will prove essential in helping the US achieve progress on many issues. Henri Barkey, a Turkey specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says Mr Obama will try to enroll Turkish support for his policies on Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arab-Israeli peace process. Turkey's newly assertive regional policy, however, is not without complications for US policy, analysts in Washington argue. In unusually blunt comments in Newsweek, the US assistant secretary of state for European affairs, Philip Gordon, admitted that there are "more points of disagreement than of agreement" between the two countries. This largely derives from a profound lack of trust dating from 2003, when the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq. Relations between the two countries tanked over Turkish concerns that US adventurism would embolden Kurdish separatism and dissolve Iraq's territorial integrity, stirring powerful anti-American sentiments. Mr Obama has tried to overcome that legacy, multiplying gestures of goodwill toward Ankara, experts say. He delivered a well-received speech to the Turkish Parliament in April as part of his outreach to the Muslim world and regularly praises Turkish democracy for its achievements. He also upholds the Turkish model as a way to harmonise political Islam and modernity. This public diplomacy, however, has not succeeded in taming anti-US feelings, Steve Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations said. Mr Obama will seek a Turkish commitment to stay in line with the consensus that emerges from the P5+1, the group of major powers - the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia and Germany - steering multilateral diplomacy on Iran. This will prove difficult as Turkey has adopted an accommodating tone vis-a-vis Tehran that threatens Washington's strategy of balancing its offer of engagement with the threat of coercive measures. Ankara, reluctant to alienate its neighbor and sacrifice important trade and energy interests, opposes further sanctions to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, even abstaining from a crucial vote on November 27 at the International Atomic Energy Agency that censured Tehran. "Iran is the litmust test [for whether Turkey's newfound assertiveness is good for US interests]," the Brookings Institution's Omer Taspinar argued. "What would be the good of having a stronger and more active country in the region if that country fails to play ball with Washington on the most important issue?" Analysts predict that Mr Obama will renew his request that Turkey contribute more troops to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, a mission it currently leads, to support the new strategy and increase in US troops announced by Mr Obama last Tuesday. Mr Barkey believes Ankara is unlikely to commit fighting troops but may agree to send more trainers. Mr Obama will also seek support for his troubled efforts to negotiate peace between Arabs and Israelis. Turkey may be of help as it enjoys good relations with Hamas and Syria, but this came to the detriment of its once strong ties with Israel. Mr Obama will find better news on the Iraqi front. Contrary to expectations that Turkey would adopt a confrontational line against the Kurdish authorities in the North that could destabilise the whole country, Ankara has made a "180-degree change in policy", promoting political dialogue and trade with the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government instead of isolating it, Mr Barkey says. Mr Cook sees the opening of consulates in Erbil and Basra and the developing trade between the two countries as evidence of Turkey's interest in stabilizing Iraq. Both Mr Barkey and Mr Cook warn that Turkey's triumphant mood may lead to hubris and overreach. Mr Cook notes that there are important actors in the region, including Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that are unhappy with the trajectory of Ankara's foreign policy, notably its cosy relations with Iran. ehokayem@thenational.ae