Two Calls, Many Scenarios: How Will Washington Readjust to Turkey’s New Regional Role?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 33

President Barack Obama telephoned President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip separately on Monday. In his first official contact with the Turkish leaders since his inauguration, Obama discussed cooperation between the two countries over a wide spectrum of issues of common concern. Earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden met Foreign Minister Ali Babacan at the security conference in Munich. Obama might have a face-to-face meeting with Gul during the NATO summit in April, celebrating the Atlantic alliance’s 60th anniversary.

The statement released by the White House said "President Obama had warm and productive phone conversations with Turkish President Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan… The President emphasized the importance of the United States’ alliance with Turkey and said he looks forward to working with both President Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan on a broad agenda of mutual strategic interest." Obama stressed the need to strengthen the U.S.-Turkish relationship and work together toward meeting the challenges of the 21st century (, February 16).

The Turkish President’s office also issued a statement saying that "President Obama emphasized the importance he attaches to Turkish-U.S. relations and expressed his appreciation for [Turkey’s] leadership role in regional issues." It was noted that the two sides had reiterated their determination to work together (, February 16).

In its report, the Turkish Prime Minister’s office highlighted President Obama’s positive remarks about the Turkish-American strategic partnership and Turkey’s role for regional peace. The statement said that Erdogan had "expressed [to Obama] Turkey’s sensitivities in Armenia and the Middle East and emphasized the importance of a fair and impartial American attitude in order not to hurt bilateral relations [between Turkey and the United States]." The statement also quoted Obama as saying, "I would like to affirm the vital role played by your leadership in the Middle East peace process. America has always appreciated Turkey’s sensitivities" (, January 16).

Figuring out the reasons behind the timing of Obama’s calls has been a guessing game. Most observers focus on the issues raised during the talks as a key to understanding the content of the conversations and how Turkish-American relations may evolve in the days to come. According to official statements and various news stories, the issues discussed during both conversations included cooperation in NATO, U.S. support for Turkish-Iraqi rapprochement, the need for collaboration in Middle-East peace efforts, developments in Turkish-Armenian relations, Turkish-EU relations, and the United States’ policies toward Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Statements from the Turkish leaders preferred to highlight Obama’s praise of Turkey’s strategic role, especially its policies in the Middle East. Following Turkey’s vocal criticism of Israel during the Gaza invasion, concerns had arisen about the future of Turkish-American relations. Pro-AKP media outlets maintained that Obama’s expression of U.S. readiness to cooperate with Turkey was a positive sign that tension between Turkey and Israel would not undermine Turkey’s place in the United States’ Middle East policies. They go so far as to claim that despite the urging by some pro-Israel lobbyists for Washington to punish Ankara for the Davos incident, the warm phone conversations show that Ankara has successfully managed to keep its relations with Tel Aviv and Washington in separate baskets (Yeni Safak, February 18).

Other reports claimed that Obama solicited Turkey’s contributions for his administration’s plans for a new peace initiative in the Middle East. Furthermore, the Turkish side was reportedly assured by Obama that legislation recognizing the Armenian claims of genocide would not be brought before Congress (Radikal, February 17; Ihlas Haber Ajansi, February 17). According to a Turkish expert evaluating the phone conversations, it is unlikely that Obama will use the word "genocide" in his Armenian Remembrance Day statement on April 24 (Zaman, February 18). Erdogan said that he had had a detailed conversation with Obama about the Armenian claims, but he declined to give any details (Milliyet, February 19).

Turkish media outlets critical of the government, however, noted that the White House statement had departed from the issues highlighted by Ankara, instead putting emphasis on Turkey’s NATO membership and changes in the U.S. policies toward Pakistan and Afghanistan. They also pointed out that Obama’s office did not even mention the Armenian issue in the list of topics being discussed. According to these sources, some Washington-based analysts maintain that the reference to NATO was meant to remind Turkey of its responsibilities under the Atlantic alliance and warn Ankara about its "independent initiatives" (, February 17; Cumhuriyet, February 17).

Indeed, Turkey has opted to develop special missions for itself outside the alliance framework—its role as peace broker in the Middle East, for example—and has occasionally deviated from the transatlantic community on issues such as how to deal with Russia, Sudan, and Iran. In Ankara’s view, this new activism could be complementary to Western efforts to promote peace and stability in troubled regions; but according to critics of the government, Turkey’s attempts to carve an autonomous international profile might strain Turkish-American relations.

Many Turkish analysts also agree that the mention of Afghanistan by the White House was significant in light of Washington’s recently announced plans to bolster U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. About 800 Turkish troops are currently serving in Afghanistan under the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF), and Turkey has held the ISAF command for two terms in the past. Given the difficulties NATO has encountered in carrying out its mission in Afghanistan and the Obama administration’s determination to refocus its attention there, Ankara, along with other NATO allies, might be coming under pressure to increase its contributions to the ISAF and remove the obstacles it sets to EU-NATO coordination (Today’s Zaman, February 18, Hurriyet Daily News, February 18; EDM, February 9). When this issue was brought up in the past, Turkey declined to commit additional troops, but it remains to be seen how Ankara will respond to such requests in the run-up to the NATO Summit in April.

Discussions following Obama’s two telephone calls show that Turkish-American relations in the Obama administration are still in uncharted waters. By calling Gul and Erdogan separately, Obama showed that he was aware of who wielded power in Ankara; but how Washington will readjust itself to Ankara’s more assertive role in regional politics is a question that still begs for an answer. Developments ahead of the NATO summit and Obama’s handling of the Armenian claims will give more concrete indications of whether and how the parties will find common ground beyond rhetoric.