Prospects For Turkish - U.S. Ties Not The Best

BY SEMIH IDIZ

HURRIYET DAILY NEWS - It is hardly a secret that Turkish-US relations are going through one of their most turbulent periods in recent history. Indications are that things may get worse before they get better. At least this is the feeling I got from talking to US diplomats, researchers and journalists over the past three days in Bodrum.

The occasion of our discussions was a brainstorming roundtable session organized by the Turkish Center for Economics and Political Studies (EDAM) and the Center for European Reform. Because of the Chatham House rules in force, I cannot quote any of the participants or go into the details of our discussions.

It is nevertheless possible to reflect some of the ideas and opinions floated on the sidelines of the roundtable and in private discussions. From these, it is clear that there are three elemental issues that have to be resolved somehow if ties between Ankara and Washington are to be normalized again: Turkish-Israeli relations, the question of Iran, and Turkish-Armenian ties.

If we look at Turkish-Israeli relations first, these have become a kind of litmus test for Turkish-US relations as well. As long as the dispute between Turkey and Israel remains unresolved, it is clear that Washington will veer towards Israel on issues like the investigation into the Mavi Marmara incident, which in turn will feed the already widespread anti-Americanism among Turks.

This is a fact that the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government, which has shown serious populist tendencies to date, cannot afford to overlook, especially as we move closer to next year's general elections and the campaign atmosphere.

From Israel's perspective, on the other hand, there appears little hope that the Netanyahu government will provide an apology, let alone compensation, over the killing of nine Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara by Israeli soldiers.

The short of it is that getting an apology and compensation from Israel has become a matter of honor and public credibility for Prime Minister Erdogan's government. The opposite side of the coin, on the other hand, is that not providing an apology, let alone compensation, has also become a matter of national honor for the Netanyahu government.

Because of this, no early rapprochement should be expected between Turkey and Israel, and this situation will of course continue to cast a shadow over Ankara's ties with Washington. Even if the Obama administration wants to normalize ties with Turkey despite this problem, it seems the US Congress, where the Jewish lobby is paramount, will ensure that this does not happen.

The question of Iran, on the other hand, continues to be a festering wound between Turkey and Washington, where the two governments don't see eye to eye at all. There seems little possibility, however, that Ankara will change tack on its growing ties with Tehran for the sake of improving relations with the US.

Doing so would represent a great loss of face for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), and that is a touchy possibility given the populist nature of the government.

It seems that we may also be facing further potential sore points between the two countries, in addition to the fact that Turkey voted against UN sanctions against Iran at the Security Council. Washington continues to remain keen on a missile defense system that has one leg in Turkey and which many analysts say will be primarily aimed at Iran.

The dilemma for Ankara, when the issue is on the table in earnest, is how to manage this problem without falling out with its key NATO ally, namely the US, while at the same time not antagonizing Iran.

The decision is a hard one, and Turkish diplomats are exhorting their American counterparts that even if the missile defense system is put in place in the end, its mission definition should not name any country in particular, 'because this would create automatic enemies for NATO.' What this means in plain language is that Ankara doesn't want any document about the mission of the proposed missile defense system to name Iran.

Turkey's dilemma is, however, that Iran has already been named in this context, and even if it's not mentioned in any document, the whole world knows who the initial target of this system is. It's not clear at this stage how Turkey will extricate itself from this problem if indeed the proposed missile defense system goes ahead.

The third thorn in the side of Turkish-US ties is the stalled Turkish-Armenian normalization process and the fate of the Zurich protocols signed last year, which were supposed to have paved the way for a breakthrough between these two deeply estranged neighbors.

It seems from the discussions we held in Bodrum that the general belief in Washington, and particularly in the US Congress, is that Turkey negotiated the Zurich Protocols with Armenia in bad faith, not to actually move ahead in terms of Turkish-Armenian ties, but to prevent President Barack Obama from using the 'G word' ['genocide'] in his annual April 24 message earlier this year.

One person in Bodrum said the mood in Congress on Turkey is 'ugly' because of this, and that the Armenian lobby is mobilizing with all its strength to use the downturn in Turkish-US ties in order to try and push through an Armenian genocide resolution in the House and the Senate.

Whether it will be successful this time remains to be seen. But if it is, this will likely lead to a 'train crash' in Turkish-US ties, which some are already predicting somewhat pessimistically as being somewhere down the line anyway, if the present mood in bilateral ties remains sour.

Even this somewhat cursory list of problem areas in Turkish-US ties appears to indeed suggest that things will probably get worse before they get better. In addition to these problems, there are also Ankara's overtures to Russia and China, which we are told are causing some consternation in Washington.

The lines of the sides involved in all above three issues are so firmly drawn that it appears almost to be stating the obvious to say that the prospects for Turkish-US ties in the coming months don't look the best.

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