As Turkey Flexes Regional Muscle, Ties With U.S. Sour

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators wave Turkish and Palestinian flags during a protest  in Ankara. i i

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators wave Turkish and Palestinian flags during a protest Sunday in Ankara against Israel's deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship. The attack was the latest blow to U.S.-Turkish relations. Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators wave Turkish and Palestinian flags during a protest  in Ankara.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators wave Turkish and Palestinian flags during a protest Sunday in Ankara against Israel's deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship. The attack was the latest blow to U.S.-Turkish relations.

Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

The Israeli naval raid last week on a flotilla that tried to break the blockade around Gaza has created a rift in relations between the U.S. and Turkey. The two countries have had a long and strategic relationship, but it was already beginning to sour before the Israeli raid on the flotilla, which left nine Turkish activists dead.

Within hours of the Israeli naval raid, the top echelons of the Turkish government began berating and condemning the U.S. for not speaking out more loudly against Israel.

The Obama administration is trying to repair relations with Turkey, one of its key NATO allies. Turkey plays a critical role in U.S. efforts to tackle two thorny foreign policy issues: Iran and Middle East peace.

Rising Power In The Region

But the current Turkish government, under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is charting a different course than the U.S. when it comes to those issues, says Hugh Pope, with the International Crisis Group in Istanbul.

"The way that especially the prime minister of Turkey, Erdogan, has vocalized his friendship for Iran, his willingness to be compromising with Syria, and his relationship with the leadership of Sudan, have all made people inside the Washington establishment wary of Turkey," Pope says.

He says part of the reason Turkey is trying to build relations with its neighbors is that it probably can. The country has increased its power and influence in the region. It's embarked on what's known as a no-problem foreign policy in a bid to improve relations with Turkey's neighbors and beyond.

Turkey is a favorite destination for tourists from European nations and from the Middle East. Pope says Turkey has lifted visa restrictions on many countries and is also expanding business ties with regional states such as Jordan, Iraq, Libya and Iran.

"Turkey is a rising power in the region. Its economy is worth half of the whole Middle East, from Iran to Morocco," Pope says. "Turkey has now signed free trade agreements with most Middle Eastern states in its neighborhood, adding tens of millions of consumers potentially to its markets. In Syria, for instance, Turkish goods are now everywhere."

Turkey's Goals Diverge From U.S.

Turkey's increased power and influence help it forge ahead in its effort to stabilize the region — sometimes working at odds with the U.S.

Last month, Turkey and Brazil brokered a deal with Tehran to help resolve the dispute over Iran's nuclear program. Turkey and Brazil thought they had the encouragement of the Obama administration. But the U.S. dismissed the deal and pushed ahead with U.N. sanctions, which the U.N. Security Council approved Wednesday.

Barcin Yinanc, associate editor of the Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review, says Turkey felt betrayed.

"When it's genuinely acting to find a solution, in dialogue, in cooperation, in coordination with the United States, and it does its mission and then it receives [the] cold shoulder. So it's no doubt that this is going to create some kind of disappointment on the part of Turkey," she says.

Yinanc says some of this disappointment may be reflected in the Erdogan government's strong words against the U.S. over the Israeli raid on the flotilla.

But, she says, "other Turkish political parties also have an affinity with the Palestinians, but they would have followed a more balancing line, whereas this government has really decided to prefer confrontation to engagement."

Overlapping Interests

Soli Ozel, a political science professor at Istanbul's Bilgi University, says the situation isn't completely bleak. He says there are still many overlapping points of strategic interests between Turkey and the U.S.

"The withdrawal of American troops from Iraq obviously is an important matter and the two sides are coordinating their efforts. In Afghanistan, there is enormous coordination and cooperation," he says.

Ozel says relations between Turkey and the U.S. were much worse in 2003, after Ankara refused to allow American troops to transit into Iraq for the start of the war. And yet, Washington and Ankara kept on talking.

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