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May 15, 2013, Wednesday

Erdoğan and regional American policies

It is no longer a secret: Turkish and American policies regarding the Arab Middle East are diverging. Ankara and Washington D.C. are at odds about the future of Palestine and the Turkish support given to Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. Turkey's friendly relations with Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir was another issue of dissent between the two countries. The two countries also had differences when it came to non-Arab regional politics. The two capitals came closest to cutting off their ties when Ankara decided to vote against the American-designed sanctions on Iran's nuclear program. Turkey gave a hard time to the Americans by downgrading its diplomatic relations with Israel and resisting calls to revive relations with Tel Aviv until Israel bowed to Turkey's requests about the Mavi Marmara incident.

Together with the Arab Spring, both Turkey and US realized the merit in working with the opposition parties. Turkey was more open towards cooperating with the Islamist political parties in the post-revolution countries. The American positions were represented mainly by Qatari interventions into regional politics. Turkish-American differences about the transformation in Libya was in fact screened as a Turkish-Qatari difference. The same was true for Syria. At the very beginning of the Arab Spring unrest in Syria, Turkey was still hopeful of a peaceful transformation of the regime, whereas Qatar's Al Jazeera promoted immediate revolution in the country.

Today, Turkey is suffering from the situation in Syria. The differences between the two countries may even grow during the official visit of the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the White House. This time it is Turkey that asks for immediate intervention from the international community, and it is the US that runs after a diplomatic bargaining strategy. Having been hit by Syrian state-organized terrorism, Turkey will most probably ask for a NATO umbrella that will secure its borders through the establishment of a buffer zone within Syrian soil. Americans will most probably resist the idea, claiming that Russian influence on the region should not be neglected.

It is most legitimate that two allies should have different views on a particular issue. But the Syrian problem has the potential of further diverging Turkish and American policies about the Arab Middle East. A failure to synchronize Turkish and American policies about Syria will certainly lead to further divergence on issues relating to Turkey's support to Hamas, to the Muslim Brotherhood and to other Islamist political parties.

Turkish-American relations and the American image in Turkey suffered, in the past, from American support to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), or lack of American support to Turkey. This barrier is broken today. Even before the official visit, the US administration reinstated its long-held position that Turkey and the US are on the same side of the war against terrorism. With the words of George W. Bush, the PKK was the common enemy of the US and of Turkey at the same time.

Syria and the Syrian regime-related terrorism that has started anew have the potential to change the dynamics of Turkish-American relations. Americans will decide whether to cooperate with their historical ally, or to leave the region altogether. 

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