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U.S. Supports Greater Regional Role For Turkey

President Obama reached out to Turkish President Abdullah Gul (left) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for help in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
President Obama reached out to Turkish President Abdullah Gul (left) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for help in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
U.S. President Barack Obama recently called his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul along with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to affirm the new U.S. administration's support for Turkey's "leading role" in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and the Caucasus.

Indeed, Iraq and Afghanistan are the two areas where Turkey could help the United States and the West, as it did in the past during the Korean crisis in the 1950s and the conflict in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. As the United States prepares to withdraw from Iraq and send more troops to Afghanistan, Turkey could play a welcome role by stepping in to contribute to Iraq's further stabilization.

After a relatively long period of hesitation, over the past few months Ankara has started to improve relations with the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, which is led by President Mas'ud Barzani. Turkey's biggest concern has long been that the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, just across the Turkish border, would encourage the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has found a safe haven in northern Iraq from which to launch terrorist attacks inside Turkey.

Tens of thousands of civilians, Turkish troops, and PKK rebels have been killed in the last three decades in what Ankara calls a terrorist campaign by the PKK to dismember Turkey and declare an independent Kurdistan. Successive Turkish governments have maintained that the Kurdish government in northern Iraq has failed to make good on its commitment to crack down on the PKK. Barzani, for his part, believes that Turkey should seek a political solution to the problem with its Kurdish minority through reforms, instead of relying on military force.

Many experts believe that if the ongoing gradual improvement in political stability in Iraq is reversed and ethnic-sectarian conflicts flare up anew, the Kurds in the north might declare independence. That would have serious implications not only for Iraq itself, but also for neighboring Turkey and the whole Middle East. Kurdish regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has also warned of turmoil in Iraq if U.S. troops are withdrawn before all problems between Baghdad and the Kurds are resolved.

Force For Stability

This is the last thing the Obama administration needs. By seeking to improve relations with the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq and become increasingly involved in Iraq's economic development, Turkey could help Washington to ensure that the situation in Iraq continues to normalize and stabilize as the U.S. troop withdrawal proceeds. Turkish leaders have said repeatedly that they are ready to do so, provided both the Iraqi Kurdish administration and the United States demonstrate a clearer commitment to cracking down on the PKK presence on Iraqi soil.

Furthermore, Turkey could play a major role in removing thousands of tons of U.S. equipment and supplies from Iraq in the next year or two. Ankara has provided the United States access to the Habur Gate in southeastern Turkey for transporting construction materials, food, fuel, and other nonmilitary items into Iraq. The United States would need Turkey's help in using the same route to withdraw its troops smoothly.

In 2002, Turkey was among the first countries to participate in a multinational peacekeeping force for Afghanistan. Seven years later, the new administration in Washington is intensifying its efforts to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. As a first step, on February 17 President Obama ordered the dispatch of an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. The United States is also pressuring other NATO members to share the burden of the Afghan mission.

In this context, Turkey is best placed to provide both training and equipment for the Afghan National Army and police force, as well as to participate in the economic development that is essential to neutralizing terrorist and insurgent groups' efforts to destabilize the country.

And now, following Kyrgyzstan's announcement of the closure of the U.S. air base at Manas near Bishkek, the base at Incirlik in Turkey could become a major hub for the United States as it sets about building up its presence in Afghanistan.

Turkey's Fine Line

Recently, Erdogan's Justice and Development (AK) party has shifted Turkey's foreign policy away from its previous primarily Western and NATO orientation to a more centrist one focused on improving relations with Muslim countries in the Middle East, as well as the Caucasus and Russia. While this may have led to some disappointment in the West, it is appreciated in Arab countries, and in Moscow and Tehran. It has also strengthened Ankara's potential for playing a major role in the region.

Last year, Turkey mediated indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria. But while Erdogan's fiery exchange with Israeli President Shimon Peres on January 29 in Davos about the Israeli offensive in Gaza won him votes in Turkey and sympathy on the "Arab Street," it strained the traditionally good relations between Turkey and Israel. It also led many Israelis to question how unbiased Turkey is as a possible mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Since the recent parliamentary elections in Israel that are expected to produce a new, rightist coalition, hopes for an Israeli-Syrian peace deal have diminished. Both Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party rule out meaningful talks with the Palestinians in which Turkey might be of assistance.

Obama has reportedly told Prime Minister Erdogan that Washington also supports Turkey's efforts to improve relations with neighboring Armenia. Turkish press reports add that, asked about Ankara's concerns relating to possible U.S. recognition of the Armenian killings in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 as "genocide," Obama said that he "understands Turkey's sensitivities." To be sure, this is not likely to become a serious obstacle to improved U.S.-Turkish relations as long as more pressing issues such as Iraq and Afghanistan need to be dealt with.

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of programming with RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL