Asli Aydintasbas

Asli Aydintasbas

 

It is hard to even describe the sense of double-betrayal Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan must be feeling towards the man he considered a friend, Barack Obama.

First came the harsh statements from Washington early last summer criticizing Erdogan government’s ferocious response to protests against his rule. Since the Obama administration had pretty much turned a blind eye to the Turkish leader’s creeping authoritarianism over the past few years – including the imprisonment of journalists, political show trials or tax penalties on disloyal oligarchs —Washington’s support for the secular demonstrations came as a shock.

Then of course came a bigger disappointment— the administration’s about-face on Syria… Turkey had long been campaigning for a tougher international stance against the Assad regime but Ankara’s persistent lobbying for a no-fly zone and arming of the Syrian opposition met with a prolonged state of hand-wringing from Washington. With half a million refugees and a lawless southern border, Ankara sees the war in Syria as a direct national security threat. On top, there have been enough acts of aggression–such as the shooting down of a Turkish plane and three bombing incidents costing the lives of 70 Turkish citizens – to lead the Erdogan government to regard the Assad regime as more than a nuisance—an outright enemy whose survival threatened Turkey’s stability.

On at least two occasions – during Hillary Clinton’s last month as a Secretary of State, and after Erdogan’s White House rendezvous with Obama last May— the Turkish government was assured that Washington was on the verge of a momentous decision to topple the regime of Bashar Assad.

But late in August, when Bashar Assad’s army used chemical weapons against civilians, Washington finally looked poised to tackle the matter of Syria. Though suspicious that U.S. strikes would deliver a meaningful blow to the Assad regime or even “end the war,” with a sizeable NATO base in Incirlik and 900 km of a border, Ankara was willing to support military intervention in every possible way.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Erdogan, emotive as ever, has been hammering the U.N. and “the West” over this past week, warning that an agreement to stop the use of chemical weapons would not put an end to Syrian horrors. He has already expressed skepticism that the Assad regime will abide by the Russian-US deal.

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“If you are no longer interested in having an empire, we’ll take it,” I said, speaking recently in Istanbul to a group of U.S. congressmen and women who expressed ample frustration and, in the case of Syria, a clear disinterest in the affairs of the Middle East.

I have been observing with some amusement on recent trips to the United States how diametrically opposed Turkish and American appetites about the Middle East have grown. Since the onset of the Iraq war, and more noticeably with the Obama administration, the American public has come to see our region as a “burden.” In Washington, the route to democracy in Egypt and Libya has dampened the initial excitement about the Arab Spring. Regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, the main U.S. policy goal is “keep out of the headlines.” To American eyes, current Israeli and Palestinian leadership look too capricious to even bother with a peace process and everyone I meet in Washington talks about Syria as “a mess,” suggesting that the best course is to stay out.

Not in Turkey. In fact, throughout the history of the modern Turkish republic, the appetite to delve into the Arab affairs has never been greater. Turkish diplomats and leaders are shuttling back and forth among regional centers and Turkey is deeply embroiled in the politics of Syria and Iraq. Ankara has lifted visa restrictions for most Arab countries, and trade with the Middle East has skyrocketed to roughly a third of Turkish exports today. Turks are in the process of building bridges with Iraqi Kurdistan –once regarded as the archenemy – and the Islamist ruling AK Party in Ankara regards the resurgence of Islamist parties in the post-dictatorship Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya as nothing but a strategic gain for Turkey.

In fact, once destined to enter the European Union, Ankara has diverted much of its focus to the Middle East and is more interested in regional leadership than haranguing for the last seat in an unfriendly – and to Turks, sinking – Europe.

Turkish self-confidence is high these days – perhaps higher than ever in the history of the modern republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

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Letter From Istanbul

 

As I write these lines overlooking the Bosphorus on a warm autumn day, a blast on a civilian bus shook the streets of Tel Aviv only a few minutes ago. That explosion came after six straight days of an Israeli air campaign in Gaza, not only flaming Palestinian anger, but also lining up a new post-Arab Spring coalition against Israel. Hamas is no longer an isolated entity; it has the new Islamist governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and the Arab League as guardians.

That’s not all. The death toll in the bloody civil war against the Asad regime in Syria has been pretty steady lately; averaging between 100 and 200 lives every day.

Oh and don’t let me forget to mention that Iraq is on the brink of a civil war, with the government of Nuri el-Maliki massing up troops on the oil-rich town of Kirkuk this week, seemingly against the Iraqi Kurdish forces there.

While all this was happening, President Barack Obama was on a mediagenic tour in Asia, his vision summed up by his deputy national security adviser as “continuing to fill in our pivot to Asia will be a critical part of the president’s second term and ultimately his foreign policy legacy.”

All of this falls neatly in line with the White House declared strategy of “leading from behind” – or leaving “light footprints” as former CIA chief General David Patraeus told Congress –which has so far translated into a deliberate American lack of interest in the Middle East.

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Not in a million years would I ever imagine using that headline, “Turks are from Mars, Americans are from Venus” – but that was precisely the title of my column last week [in Milliyet] on Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s recent visit to Washington to discuss Syria.

Risk-averse and strangely attached to the status-quo, Ankara has typically been a difficult ally for Washington—one that reluctantly supported but secretly resented U.S. interventions in the Middle East over the past decades. But a new spirit is hovering over Turkey these days. With growing regional ambitions and a relatively strong democracy, Turks are welcoming the Arab Spring more enthusiastically than anyone else in the neighborhood. Ankara’s moderately Islamist government has thrown its support for the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya early on, and after a brief experiment with diplomatic brinkmanship, Turkey has severed ties with its one-time close ally in Damascus. Last summer, Turkey opened its borders to thousands of refugees fleeing Assad’s brutal campaign and has since been sheltering opposition groups and defectors from the Syrian army.

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