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November 14, 2012, Wednesday

Turkey, US and the new Syrian opposition

The reelection of Barack Obama has been widely welcomed in Turkey, and it has been particularly welcomed in government circles, due to the widely publicized relationship between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Obama.

Indeed, Prime Minister Erdoğan was among the first 15 leaders whose congratulations President Obama returned the day after his reelection. Turkish-American relations have not seen such chemistry between leaders since the Turgut Özal years. That is good news. The more nuanced news is that the atmosphere in the US Congress is nowhere near as good as the relationship between the two leaders. Does that matter? In fact it does, especially when taking a long-term perspective. The mood in the US Congress is very much conditioned by the discomfort since 2010, when Turkey voted against the Iran sanctions in the UN Security Council and the Mavi Marmara incident seriously damaged relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv.

Turkey managed to offset that tension by its strenuous work with the Obama administration. Ankara's decision to host the early warning radar system in Kürecik, Malatya was a milestone, and common positions taken during the Arab Awakening have brought the two countries even closer.

There is considerable cooperation and coordination on Syria. The most recent achievement has been the forming of the Syrian National Coalition, which has widened the base of the opposition. This is most welcome, as the fractured Syrian opposition has increasingly tended to be held hostage to events on the ground. The switch from the Syrian National Council to the Syrian National Coalition is one that the US favored and Turkey went along with. One of the most important expectations of the new opposition is to obtain access to Syrian funds frozen in Western countries. Furthermore, being recognized as the official representative of the Syrian people would cement its legitimacy.

Turkish expectations that President Obama will change course on the issue of aiding and arming the rebels are likely to be frustrated. Yet the possibility that the US may support the rebels clandestinely cannot be excluded. The form and quantity of aid to be extended to the Syrian opposition may become a source of tension between Ankara and Washington. I will be in Washington next week and will gauge the mood there on Syria.

Although one hears more self-confident messages from President Bashar al-Assad of late, it is unclear what the situation on the ground really is. The number of Syrian officers defecting to Turkey seems to be on the increase again. Syria will continue to occupy decision-makers in Ankara for some time to come. That said, there is considerable optimism in relation to the formation of the new Syrian opposition.

The coming weeks will also be consumed by the choice President Obama makes in relation to who the new secretary of state will be. The choice will be important for Turkey as well. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu enjoyed a good relationship with outgoing Hillary Clinton, who did an outstanding job in the role. Whatever might be awaiting her in the future, she certainly deserves a break.

Turkey and the US will probably continue to work closely in a number of areas. Syria will be a priority for both sides, but it remains to be seen whether US assistance for Turkey's efforts will be satisfactory to Ankara. The US has an interest in reviving Turkey's EU vocation. NATO support in Syria might be critical in reviving that anchor. Domestically, Turkish public opinion seems to be willing to reengage with Brussels, and the increasing uncertainty surrounding the changes expected in 2013 and 2014 will be closely monitored in Washington.

Nobody is capable of predicting what will happen with the constitution, the proposed transition to a presidential system or on the issue of succession. The coming two years promise to be very eventful.  

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