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Mevlut Katik 1/06/05

There is no rest for weary Turkish diplomats. Having secured a commitment from the European Union to open accession talks, Turkish leaders have turned their attention to repairing frayed relations with the United States. Turkish politicians and pundits believe the recent visit by US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage was a step in the right direction in the effort to reestablish strong bilateral ties.

Relations were strained for much of 2003-2004, with tension sparked by the Turkish parliament’s decision not to provide temporary bases for American troops prior to the US-led invasion of Iraq. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Leaders of the two countries set aside differences in mid-2004, prior to US President George Bush’s state visit in June. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Even so, a chill continued to hover over what was, before 2003, a close bilateral relationship. Bush’s re-election in November, however, prompted Ankara to renew efforts to fully restore ties.

Armitage was in Ankara on January 2-3 for talks with top Turkish officials, including Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and military chief Gen. Hilmi Ozkok. Discussions focused on current conditions in Iraq. Following the meetings, Turkey and the United States agreed to hold a tripartite meeting, along with Iraqi authorities, to discuss stabilization efforts in Iraq. That meeting, which could occur as soon as mid-January, could address Turkish concerns about the ongoing presence of Kurdish militants from the PKK/Kongra-Gel in northern Iraq.

“Both Washington and Ankara know that they need partnership and cooperation,” said Zeyno Baran, the director of international and security programs at the Washington-based Nixon Center. “This [the Armitage visit] is a new start for the next four years.”

Ankara has repeatedly urged the United States to use American troops in Iraq to crack down on the estimated 5,000 Kurdish militants who are active in northern areas of the country. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. With American occupation forces stretched thin by a spreading insurgency, US officials have been slow to act on the Turkish appeals. At a January 3 joint news conference, Armitage expressed hope that the upcoming talks would “discuss the whole question of the PKK.”

US and Turkish officials also discussed the upcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections, scheduled for January 30. Ongoing violence, along with Suuni Muslim dissatisfaction with the electoral process, has raised doubts about the potential success of the vote to assist in Iraq’s stabilization. At the joint news conference, Gul stressed that Turkish officials had “talked with all the groups in Iraq to help the election process,” striving to use all of Ankara’s influence to diminish the violence.

Armitage’s talks with Ozkok, the Turkish armed forces chief, reportedly focused on Turkish military involvement in Afghanistan. Turkey is slated to assume leadership for the second time of the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, known as ISAF, in February. Armitage later praised Turkey for its “strenuous efforts” to promote democratization in Afghanistan.

In addition, Armitage at the news conference confirmed that he had raised the Middle East question with Turkish officials, mentioning that a “window of opportunity” existed for the revival of peace efforts. Meanwhile, in Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said that Ankara “could play a positive and constructive role” in helping to promote “engagement between Israelis and Palestinians.” Turkey’s identity as a secular Muslim state could allow it to serve as a go-between, some Turkish political analysts said. Indeed, following Armitage’s visit, Gul embarked on a two-day visit to Israel, where the Turkish foreign minister delivered a message from Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, then pledged to pass on Israel’s reply.

Turkish political analysts generally praised the outcome of the Armitage visit. Widely respected political commentator Sami Kohen, writing in the Milliyet daily on January 5, said the two countries were once again moving in the right direction. “No concrete results came of this [Armitage’s] short visit,” Kohen wrote, “but the decision to continue the dialogue and contacts raise hope that a new process is starting – aimed at fine-tuning [common] interests.”

At the same time, Kohen cautioned that, as it tries to renew the traditional friendship, the United States should “see the fact that much has changed in Turkey.” He went on to say that “doubts and discontent” continue to exist in Ankara with official US policies, while “spreading anti-Americanism [is prevalent] on the public level.”

One major geopolitical change in recent months is the EU’s December 17 decision to open what promises to be a lengthy membership process for Turkey. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In the months leading up to the EU decision, Turkish leaders engaged in a determined effort to sway opinion in EU member states.

Baran, the Nixon Center expert, downplayed the notion that Turkey could get caught in the middle of what has lately been a tense US-EU relationship. “The United States believes that Turkey’s EU accession process will make Turkey stronger and, de facto, a better ally and regional power,” Baran said.

“What we see is a number of EU countries that had distanced themselves from Washington are now realizing that Bush will be in power for another four years, and they [must] try to repair trans-Atlantic relations,” Baran added. “Turkey has not fallen into any crack in this, nor does it [Ankara] have to choose one [side] or the other.”

Such sentiment was echoed by Turkish political analyst Cuneyt Ulsever. In a commentary published January 3 in the Hurriyet daily, Ulsever criticized both Ankara and Washington for “mutual mistakes” made in 2003-04. “I hope that in 2005 Turkey realizes once again that she needs the United States more than ever at the door of the EU, and the United States realizes once again that she cannot establish a new order in the Middle East without Turkey,” Ulsever said.

Editor’s Note: Mevlut Katik is a London-based journalist and analyst. He is a former BBC correspondent and also worked for The Economist group.

Posted January 6, 2005 © Eurasianet

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