The Turkish media have hailed the five-day visit of President Abdullah Gul to the United States as consolidating a new era in ties between the two countries. But some commentators remain uncertain about how long-lived the new rapprochement is likely to be.
Reports of Gul’s January 8 meeting in the White House with President George W. Bush dominated the headlines on January 9, with most newspapers focusing on Bush repeating his previous condemnation of the violent insurgency being waged in Turkey by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Several columnists contrasted the current warmth in U.S.-Turkish ties with the tensions of recent years, particularly over Washington’s refusal to move against the PKK’s main camps in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq or to allow Turkey to do so. All are unanimous in attributing the recent change in the relationship to the meeting between Bush and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Washington on November 5, 2007, at which the United States agreed to provide Turkey with actionable intelligence on the PKK in northern Iraq in return for Ankara promising to restrict military action to air strikes and short-lived, targeted incursions (see EDM, November 6, 2007). However, there is less agreement on whether, in the longer term, it is the current rapprochement or the previous tensions that are likely to prove the aberration in U.S.-Turkish ties.
Writing in the moderate Islamist Yeni Safak, Fehmi Koru, a long-time supporter of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and a friend of Gul since their days as graduate students in the United Kingdom, maintained that the fundamental reason for the improvement in the relationship was that Washington had finally accepted the validity of the arguments that Turkey had been making for years and that, such as the importance that the United States now attaches to Turkey, Bush had wanted to learn Turkey’s opinions before departing on his tour of the Middle East. Koru dismissed suggestions that Gul should have postponed his visit pending the outcome of the forthcoming U.S. presidential elections and claimed that the greater importance given to Turkey had now become U.S. state policy and would remain unchanged whomever subsequently occupied the White House (Yeni Safak, January 9).
Murat Yetkin, a columnist at the liberal daily Radikal, agreed that the improvement in ties was likely to be long lasting and quoted an unnamed U.S. official as dismissing concerns that the situation might change after the next U.S. presidential election. Yetkin predicted that the new cooperation against the PKK could extend into coordinated action in other strategic areas, such as energy, the Balkans, and the Caucasus (Radikal, January 8).
Ergun Babahan in the center-right daily Sabah also regarded Gul’s visit as marking a long-term change in U.S. attitudes toward Turkey and interpreted it as demonstrating a new awareness in Washington of Turkey’s importance as a regional actor in the Middle East. However, he cautioned that, although Turkey was important to the United States, the fact that it was the world’s sole remaining superpower and occupying one of Turkey’s neighbors meant that a good U.S.-Turkish relationship was even more important to Ankara than it was to Washington (Sabah, January 9).
Beril Dedeoglu, a columnist for Today’s Zaman, which is run by supporters of the exiled Islamist preacher Fetullah Gulen, also discussed prospects for cooperation between Turkey and the United States in the Caucasus and the Balkans. She noted that Washington would regard stronger relationships between Turkey and countries such as Pakistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine as having a stabilizing and moderating influence that would ultimately serve U.S. interests. However, she added that the same could not be said of Turkish policy toward countries such as Iran, where Ankara’s strategy of engagement and closer political and economic ties was diametrically opposed to Washington’s efforts to isolate the Iranian regime (Today’s Zaman, January 9).
Ilnur Cevik, the editor-in-chief of the New Anatolian, who has extensive business interests in northern Iraq and has long called for increased dialogue between Ankara and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), argued that the U.S. and Turkey were “natural allies.” He cited the efforts of the Bush administration last fall not only to accommodate Turkish concerns over the PKK despite opposition from the KRG, but also to prevent a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide from coming before the U.S. House of Representatives as evidence of the importance that Washington attached to Turkey. But he warned against unrealistic expectations, commenting that it would be wrong to “think that the Americans have turned their backs on the Kurds of Iraq or that the Armenian resolution will not be revived” (New Anatolian, January 8)
Perhaps predictably, the ultranationalist Yeni Cag took a more cynical view of the recent rapprochement. After contrasting Gul’s effusive description on January 6 of the United States as Turkey’s “most important ally” with the hostility he has often used in the past, Yeni Cag listed a number of incidents that it claimed revealed the true attitude of the U.S. stance toward Turkey. It culminated with the incident on July 4, 2003, when U.S. troops in Iraq detained, hooded, and interrogated a unit of Turkish Special Forces on suspicion of planning to assassinate a local Kurdish official. The incident was widely regarded in Turkey, particularly in the armed forces, as a national humiliation and, for Turkish nationalists at least, the photographs of Gul and Bush smiling together during their January 8 meeting at the White House have done nothing to erase that memory (Yeni Cag, January 9).