Obama seeks to lure Turkey back towards West
Ankara — Barack Obama will make his first foray into the Muslim world next week when he visits Turkey, a trip analysts say is aimed at pinning down a long-time ally Washington fears is slipping from its grasp.
While Turkey hopes the two-day visit will strengthen ties strained by the Iraq war, Obama is expected to push a bigger agenda for a country bordering Iran and Iraq as well as Europe and Syria.
"There is a growing sense in Washington that the United States is losing Turkey," said Soner Cagaptay from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Cagaptay said that Washington and Ankara had been sharply at odds in recent years over hot-button issues such as how to deal with Iran’s nuclear programme, the rise to power of the radical Palestinian movement Hamas in Gaza, and Sudan.
Obama intends to "give Turkey… a bear hug from the West" by coming to Turkey immediately after attending European Union and NATO summits, he added.
"Symbolically, he is telling the whole world that this is a European trip and that Turkey is a part of that, in a way dropping the idea of NATO, Europe and (Turkey’s) EU accession as an anchor with which to tie Turkey to the West."
While Turkey was long regarded as one of the United States’ closest allies in the Muslim world, many observers detected a cooling of ties during George W. Bush’s presidency.
An overwhelming majority of Turks were opposed to the US-led invasion of Iraq while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted government were notably critical of Bush’s war on terror.
"I believe that President Obama must redefine terror and terrorist organisations in the Middle East," Erdogan said in a recent speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, hinting that the new leader should review US policy toward Hamas and other militant groups blacklisted as terror outfits.
"And based on this new definition a new American policy must be implemented in the Middle East," he added.
Cengiz Aktar, a foreign relations expert from the Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, stressed that Turkey should not misinterpret Obama’s visit as a sign that Washington would agree to Turkey’s every demand or move.
Erdogan’s "Islamist-rooted government needs to change its stance" regarding Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir, subject to an international arrest warrant for alleged war crimes in Darfur, and Hamas whose stated aim is to destroy Israel, he said.
Obama is scheduled to arrive in Turkey late Sunday ahead of official talks in Ankara on Monday, a day before flying to Istanbul where he is expected to visit a 17th century Ottoman mosque.
Many have touted Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO, as the possible stage for Obama’s promised address to the Muslim world, but Cagaptay said that would not fit in with the visit’s dominant theme.
"The (US) emphasis is no more Turkey’s Muslimness or Turkey being part of a larger Muslim World but that it is a European country that is part of the West that happens to be Muslim," he said.
Opinion polls have shown that Obama is massively more popular among Turks than Bush although his standing could be severely tested late this month when he is expected to deliver a proclamation on whether to label Ottoman World War I-era mass killings of Armenians as "genocide".
Mensur Akgun, a foreign relations expert from Istanbul’s Kultur University, warned that Obama’s bid to foster closer cooperation would suffer if the president fulfils his election promise to recognise the 1915-1917 killings as genocide — a label Ankara rejects.
"That would damage bilateral ties, hamper debate inside Turkey on the killings and hit Ankara’s dialogue process with Yerevan to resolve their differences," he said.
Obama’s visit, Cagaptay said, provides Turkey the chance to get a recognition of its importance for the United States and "steal Obama’s heart" before his proclamation on April 24 — the 94th anniversary of the start of the massacres.
"Turkey is the only NATO country that borders Iraq and Iran — one is a problem that America wants to put away, the other a problem that America wants to tackle," he said.
"It is a country that borders the Black Sea and the Caucasus, an area in which Washington is trying to figure out what to do. It is a central hub for US operations in Afghanistan and beyond."