US and Turkey on a collision course

US-Turkish relations are walking a tightrope just days before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to announce whether he will be a candidate in the presidential elections in May. Washington’s refusal to give Ankara the go-ahead to strike the Kurdish PKK in northern Iraq and the likely recognition of the Armenian genocide by Congress have worsened the already heavy atmosphere. For its part, Washington was furious at Ankara’s refusal to allow US forces to transit Turkey in the Iraq war, and lately it has been very displeased with intense anti-Americanism in Turkey and Erdogan’s continuous contacts with Tehran and Hamas. Turkey’s next president will be elected by the national assembly for seven years and will take up his post by May 16. The prime minister has said he will announce his party’s candidate next Sunday. Erdogan’s party has a clear majority and could elect a president, but the deep state has made its objection clear to the Islamist prime minister’s rising to the country’s supreme political post, and some extreme voices have even called for a coup. As this undeclared war of nerves is developing between democratic political Islam and the military establishment, Americans and Europeans are keeping a close eye on Erdogan’s moves and are getting ready to evaluate and handle the possible reactions of the army should he run. Developments inside Turkey are overshadowed by the dissatisfaction of the civil and limitary leadership and of public opinion with the US stance on the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and the initiative in the US Congress to recognize the Armenian genocide. During visits made to Washington in February, both Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and armed forces Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit argued forcefully for permission to take military action against the PKK and warned that any recognition of the Armenian genocide would seriously harm bilateral relations. Both employed specific arguments, the chief of them – which America is taking into account – being the possible consequences for the use of the air base at Incirlik. Meanwhile, another issue which is not of geostrategic importance but which is an extremely emotional one for Turkish public opinion, is the likelihood of the US Congress recognizing the genocide of the Armenians. That is something that other Turkish deputies have raised during visits to Washington for that specific purpose in the past two months. All have warned of the danger of a serious crisis in bilateral relations. As Bill Clinton did in 2000, so President George W. Bush has distanced himself from the initiatives taken by lawmakers of both parties and opposed recognition of the genocide. Clinton’s initiative succeeded but things are more difficult now. In fact, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have reached the point of sending a joint letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, asking her to retract her decision to put it to a meeting of the Congress on the grounds that such an action could endanger American interests. Pelosi, who has close ties with the Armenian community in her electorate in California, had played a leading part in the initiative in favor of recognizing the genocide. Rice and Gates reminded her that when the French National Assembly recognized the genocide last October, the Turkish armed forces cut off all contact with France and canceled the defense cooperation contacts that were under negotiation. The two leading members of the Bush administration also emphasized that the use of Turkish air space is of vital importance for American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that Turkey is an energy resources transmission hub. Daniel Fried, assistant state secretary for Europe, took a similar line in a recent speech to congress when he said that «the skepticism toward Europe and the anti-Americanism that is developing in Turkey, and the tension concerning the country’s identity and military direction» are leading to an upsurge of «popular nationalism» that results in a dangerous mix. In a further indication of prevailing concerns, an American official expressed the shared hopes of Washington and Brussels that internal troubles would be resolved peacefully by democratic means. Within that context, the assessments that Turkish sources told Kathimerini during Gul’s recent visit to Washington are of interest. Those sources believe that Erdogan will be blamed personally for any failure to reverse Congress’s likely recognition of the genocide. «Following the recognition by a major European country such as France, if the same thing happens in the most important country in the world, then it will be a heavy blow for Erdogan,» they said. The sources did not rule out the possibility of Erdogan’s resorting to some extreme, nationalist reaction in view of the presidential elections in May and the parliamentary elections in October. This is of major concern to Turkey’s neighbors.

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