Nicholas Birch

EurasiaNet, NY
Jan 8 2008

Less than three months ago, the United States and Turkey seemed poised
for a political falling out. Since then, bilateral ties have made a
stunning comeback, and Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who arrived in
Washington on January 7, is expected to stress "the new found warmth"
during a meeting with US President George W. Bush.

Closer strategic cooperation opened the way for the rapid US-Turkish
rapprochement. Gul's visit is coming two months after Prime Minister
Recep Tayyip Erdogan secured a US pledge to provide real-time
intelligence support for Turkish raids against Kurdistan Workers Party
(PKK) bases in northern Iraq. [For background see the Eurasia Insight
archive]. With US backing, the Turkish military opened an aerial
bombardment campaign of PKK camps on December 16. Two days later,
Washington turned a blind eye to a small army incursion into Iraq.

Turks saw the US intelligence support as the first serious sign that
Washington was taking their struggle against the PKK seriously.

Accordingly, anti-American sentiment in Turkey began experiencing
a decline. "The latest developments have been a turning point" in
US-Turkish relations, Gul told Turkish journalists accompanying him
to Washington. He added that Turkish "aid to northern Iraq and Iraq
as a whole would increase tenfold ... once the PKK is out."

"Our relations with the United States have an importance that goes
beyond our relations with any other country. The United States is not
[just] any ally for us, it is the most important ally," added Gul,
as reported in Today's Zaman. "It is a fact that there has been
some turmoil in the relations in past years. But today this has been
overcome, and a climate of confidence has emerged."

Speaking on CNN-Turk television recently, the government's chief
foreign policy advisor, Ahmet Davutoglu, characterized relations
between Ankara and Washington as "the best they have been since the
end of the Cold War."

The long-standing US-Turkish alliance seemed on the brink of collapse
as recently as last October, when the US Congress appeared poised
to adopt a resolution to recognize the World War I-era slaughter
of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide. [For background see the
Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition, Ankara felt that Washington
was not doing enough to contain PKK militants. [For background see
the Eurasia Insight archive].

Now, to keep diplomatic momentum moving forward, some experts believe
Turkey should help advance Washington's global diplomatic agenda.

Along with the Iraqi government and the European Union, the Bush
administration is keen to see Turkey rapidly follow up military
action against the PKK with political and economic policies aimed at
diminishing Kurdish support for militancy. But following a PKK bomb
attack that killed six people in southeastern Turkey on January 3,
it is now unclear whether Turkish government talk of a PKK pardon
can receive needed support from either the military or the hawkish
mainstream media.

Meanwhile, Middle Eastern geopolitics remains a potential stumbling
block in US-Turkish relations. With Bush set to depart after his
meeting with Gul on the longest Middle Eastern tour of his presidency,
few analysts think Washington and Ankara will ever see eye to eye on
Iran and Syria, Turkey's neighbors and - more or less - friends.

Some analysts believe that Pakistan, a country in turmoil since the
December 27 assassination of presidential hopeful Benazir Bhutto,
is one area where Turkey can play an important supporting role for
the United States. "Turkey has a lot of credit in both Pakistan and
Afghanistan," says Hikmet Cetin, a former NATO senior representative
in Afghanistan. "It has more space for maneuver than the United States
in both countries, and it should do more."

With 1,500 troops in Afghanistan, Turkey is the only Muslim state
contributing to peacekeeping efforts there.

But Turkey's close interest in the region extends further than that.

Pakistan's founders modeled their state on that developed by Turkish
founder Kemal Ataturk. Many Turkish 30-somethings can still sing bits
of the Pakistani national anthem that they were made to learn when
Pakistani dictator Mohammad Zia ul-Haq visited Turkey in the 1980s.

More recently, and more seriously, Turkey played an important
behind-the-scenes role in the historic 2005 meeting between the
Pakistani and Israeli foreign ministers. Last April, Pakistan's
president, Pervez Musharraf, was in Ankara to broker an agreement
with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai to increase cooperation over
anti-terrorism. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Gul repaid the compliment to his Turkish-educated, fluent
Turkish-speaking counterpart when he traveled to Pakistan on December
3 for talks with Musharraf. He also met with Bhutto and Nawaf Sharif,
another Pakistani presidential contender. "Turkey has very close
political and military relations with Pakistan," said Zeyno Baran,
a Turkish expert at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

Baran suggested that Ankara wouldn't need to offer much to win US
gratitude. "As a Muslim country, Turkey has a natural insight that
westerners sometimes lack," she said. "Simply translating what is
happening on the ground [in Pakistan] to a western perspective would
be a great help."

A Pakistan expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,
George Perkovich, agrees that members of the Bush administration would
appreciate Turkish input on the formulation of a stabilization strategy
for Islamabad. Since Bhutto's assassination, he says, senior members
of the Bush administration have "absolved themselves of Pakistan. They
don't know what they want to do. If somebody from Turkey came along
and said 'we've got an idea of how to push things forward', I think
the President would say, 'Jeeze, tell me.'"

The issue of Pakistan was on the agenda for the Gul-Bush meeting.

Turkish diplomats specializing in the region accompanied the Turkish
president to Washington. Responding to a question about Pakistan on
January 7, Gul himself said that Turkey was "the country that knows
and understand this region the best."

Yet, beyond agreement with Washington that Pakistan and Afghanistan
represent a combined, and growing, security threat, there is little
evidence that the Turkish delegation is coming with creative ideas,
either large or small. Most analysts put that lack of creativity
down to Turkey's preoccupation with other issues. One senior Turkish
official who knows Pakistan well thinks it has more to do with the
source of Pakistan's turmoil. He believes Pakistan's problem will not
be solved until something is done to control the "hundreds of extremist
madrasa [religious colleges]" in the country's tribal northwest. "I
don't know how ready Turkey is to take a strong stance in the fight
against religious fundamentalism over there," he said.

Editor's Note: Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the
Middle East.