Turkey and US Under Obama

Story Stream
recent articles

ANKARA — As people across the globe celebrated last week’s election of Barack Obama, America’s first African-Ameri¬can president, locals in a remote village in southeastern Turkey slaughtered 44 sheep to register their joy. “Obama will usher in peace, unite the world,” they declared before smearing sacrificial blood on an image of Obama in keep¬ing with an age old rite to ward off evil spirits. In Turkey’s capital city of An¬kara, though, the mood was rather more subdued as Turkish leaders pondered the meaning of America’s new president for their country. Strategically wedged between Europe, the Caucasus, and the Middle East, Turkey is a key actor in the biggest foreign policy challenges facing the new U.S. administration: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear am¬bitions, and a newly belligerent Russia.

Turkey’s interests have not always con¬verged with those of the United States. This was never more evident than when the Turkish Parliament refused to let U.S. troops use Turkey as a launch¬ing pad to open a second front against Saddam Hussein in March 2003. The rebuttal unleashed a cycle of mutual hostility and recrimination that is only just beginning to ease.

Yet nothing alarms Turks quite as much as the prospect that Obama will fulfill his campaign promise to recognize the mass slaughter of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 as genocide. While acknowledging the ground-breaking nature of the U.S. presidential election, it is from this narrow prism that many Turks tend to weigh the pros and cons of President-elect Barack Obama.

Will Obama stick to his promise to Armenian-American constituents and wreck Turkish-American relations for good or, as in the past, will America’s reliance on Turkey’s military coopera¬tion win the day? And what of the Iraqi Kurds? Will a Democratic president be more amenable to their irredentist im¬pulses? Obama’s foreign policy vision suggests that Turkish fears are over¬blown, and that there exists a window of opportunity for reinforcing strategic partnership with the United States in ways that can positively impact the region provided leaders on both sides show pluck and imagination and avoid the pitfalls that line the way. Rather than focus on parochial phobias, Turkey should recognize the opening that the Obama administration presents. After eight years of Bush policies that have alienated Turks across the political spectrum, there is now leadership in Washington that likely will share Turkey’s multilateralist approach to foreign policy headaches in its backyard and beyond.

The opportunities

The greatest opportunity for enhanced partnership between Turkey and the United States lies in Turkey’s growing regional role. Whether it be bringing together Syrians and Israelis, Palestinians and Israelis, Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis, or Afghanis and Pakistanis, Turkey’s good offices and influence are increas¬ingly being called upon to help resolve long-running regional conflicts. Until recently, Turkey’s freelancing had frequently irritated Washington, such as when it invited Khaled Meshaal, the radical Hamas leader, to Ankara in September 2005. By contrast Obama, who has spoken about engaging rather than isolating America’s antagonists, may find Turkey a useful ambassador to lay the groundwork for dialogue, particularly with Iran. Turkey will play a pivotal role in establishing new and secure energy routes for Europe that bypass Russia. Turkey can also do much to help with institution building in a post-American Iraq.

The risks

The genocide time bomb ticks away

The prevailing wisdom in Ankara, Yerevan (capital of Armenia), and Washington alike is that with U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, U.S. Vice President-elect Joseph Biden, and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, no U.S. administra¬tion has been as predisposed to genocide recognition. A congressional bill re-confirming what a growing body of historians call incontrovertible fact was shelved at the last minute in 2007 after the Bush administration convinced the bill’s proponents that its adoption would put American lives at risk; Turkey might have retaliated by denying access to the Incirlik airbase—the main supply route for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the new lineup in Washington, many argue, makes it less likely that realpolitik will prevail. Mindful of such dangers, Turkey last year revived attempts to make friends with Armenia and in September, Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül, became the first Turkish leader to set foot in Armenia. Turkish and Armenian diplomats have been quietly working on a deal to establish formal relations and to re-open their common border, which was sealed by Turkey after Armenia occupied a big slice of Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Turkey insists that any deal with Armenia should allow for a commission of historians to uncover what “really happened” in 1915. After some initial wobbles, Turkey is said to be ready to re-open the border and to go along with Armenia’s demands that the proposed historical commission be addressed within a broader set of bilateral issues. Turkey believes that all of this should stave off genocide recognition by the new U.S. administration. That is why hardliners within the Armenian Diaspora seem bent on stopping Turkey and Armenia from making peace. For all the conciliatory noises coming out of Yerevan, some Armenian decision-makers may believe that Obama’s victory means Armenia can push for even greater concessions from Turkey. That would be a gross miscalculation. For starters, if Obama is serious about tackling Afghanistan and pulling out of Iraq, then the United States will need Turkey more than ever before. Incirlik will probably be one of the main exit points for U.S. soldiers being rotated out of Iraq. Turkey has some 1,500 troops in Afghanistan; more could be tapped, though the Turks rule out any combat role. In¬deed, many predict that once in office Obama will be more of a pragmatist than a liberal.

The new U.S. administration is therefore unlikely to make the genocide resolution a priority. Secondly, Turkey will be holding municipal elections in March. The nearer the polls get the less likely it is that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s increasingly hawkish prime minister, and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will risk opposition calls of treason by mending fences with Armenia. That is why Obama’s transition team should coax Armenia into ac¬cepting Turkey’s offer before its too late. At the same time, it should remind Turkey that the security card has its limits; the longer Turkey and Armenia remain at odds, the more likely it is that the genocide resolution will pass, and with it an opportunity to curb Russian influence and to bring calm and prosperity to the Caucasus.

The Kurdish conundrum

One of the biggest reasons why Turks continue to dislike America (not Americans) in large numbers1 is because they believe that the United States is surreptitiously working to es¬tablish an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq that will eventually comprise fat chunks of southeastern Turkey. The “proof,” their argument runs, lies in the refusal by the United States to take military action against some 5,000 rebels of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) based in northern Iraq. The suspicions persist even though the United States has been providing the Turkish army with real time intelligence on the PKK since November 2007, and has been allowing Turkish fighter jets to strike PKK bases across the border.

It hasn’t helped that the PKK is mounting increasinglyaudacious attacks, killing an ever-growing number of Turk¬ish soldiers each time. It would help for the new administra¬tion to call very publicly on the Iraqi Kurds to do more to prevent the PKK from moving so freely in areas under their control. At the same time, the notion that withdrawal from Iraq means abandoning the Iraqi Kurds should be firmly dispelled. Ankara’s recent overtures to the president of the Kurdish regional government, Massoud Barzani, should be encouraged, as should his efforts to peacefully disarm the PKK. Yet, America’s intentions will remain in question so long as it sits on the fence on a purportedly new separatist Kurdish group, the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (Pejak), that is fighting for Kurdish autonomy inside Iran. It is an open secret that Pejak and the PKK are one and the same. Yet the U.S. Department of State does not label Pejak a terrorist group as it does the PKK. Not surprisingly, Iran (a country that in the past used to arm and shelter the PKK in an effort to undermine Turkey) is now helping Turkey hunt them down. The Obama administration would gain much sympathy in Turkey if it were to call Pejak by its real name—terrorists—and rouse the mettle to condemn their mischief in Iran. Talk of U.S. double standards would sub¬side, Turkish-Iranian military cooperation would be nipped in the bud, and Iran would have one less reason to believe the United States is committed to overthrowing its regime.

Human rights

The conventional wisdom in Ankara has long held that the Republicans are better for Turkey. They best appreciate Turkey’s strategic value and are less bothered about its patchy human rights record than the Democrats. Obama should do nothing to disabuse Turkey of this notion. Torture and other violations are on the rise. The government seems to have lost all interest in reforms tailored to win EU membership. And de¬spite earlier promises to do more for the country’s estimated 14 million ethnic Kurds, Prime Minister Erdoğan has done little to improve their lot, and seems increasingly inclined to take his cue from the generals. Kurds continue to be punished for using their mother tongue and giving their children Kurdish names. Long-promised economic development schemes have failed to materialize. All of this has provided the PKK with a steady stream of recruits. For many Kurds, Obama’s victory offered hope that they too might break free from second-class status some day. Unsurprisingly, the villagers who slaughtered sheep to celebrate his success were Kurds.


The election of Barack Obama has provoked hope and excitement across the world and the overwhelming majority of Turks share those feelings. The opportunity to turn a fresh page in Turkish-American relations has never been better. The onus is on leaders in Turkey and the United States to rise above their parochial interests and ensure that this historic moment is seized.

Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles