Obama says ’Yes we can’ to Turkey

ANKARA - US Secretary of State Clinton’s visit promises a ’good beginning’ for Washington and Ankara, as the NATOallies develop a real strategic partnership. This new era will be heralded by US President Obama’s visit to Turkey, expected next month

Following U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s successful visit this weekend, Turkey is now preparing to host U.S. President Barack Obama.

Obama’s decision is a cue for Turkey’s central role in the new administration’s foreign policy and likely the beginning of an era of intense cooperation that will amount to a strategic partnership. "When I return home, I'll tell President Obama he will find a warm welcome when he comes here," Clinton said at a news conference on Saturday. "He will find, as I have always found, not only a partner for the challenges and opportunities that we face together, but a friend for all times and challenges that lie ahead."

The timing and scope of Obama’s visit remain unclear but he is expected to come at the end of a European tour next month, which will include a G-20 summit in London and a NATO summit in Strasbourg during the first week of April. It is likely that Obama will be in Turkey between April 6 and 8, when he is expected to participate in an Istanbul summit of the United Nations-sponsored Alliance of Civilizations.

Obama, who promised during his election campaign that one of the top priorities of his presidency would be to work to repair America's reputation worldwide, has pledged to deliver a speech in the capital of a Muslim nation early in his presidency.


Neither Turkish nor American officials expect that Obama will deliver this highly anticipated speech from Turkey.

"He will deliver his speech for Turks," Clinton said. "Turkey, as everybody knows, is a good model of democracy with its secular constitution. It proves that Islam can coexist with them."

"Barack Obama is coming for a bilateral visit, that means not for a multilateral meeting," Babacan said yesterday in an interview with the private television station NTV. "He specifically wants to visit Turkey. I don’t know whether the Alliance of Civilizations will be on his agenda or whether he will deliver a speech to Muslim world. These things are not certain yet."

For many in Ankara, both the talks with Clinton and the upcoming Obama visit mark the beginning of a new era between two allies, whose ties had become strained in recent years over Turkey’s refusal, in 2003, to open a northern front to the U.S. in its war in Iraq. "Turkish-American relations have entered into a new era," Babacan said.

Turkey and the U.S. reaffirmed the strategic nature of their relations in 2006, but the chill between the two countries only started to thaw after Washington decided to provide actionable intelligence to Turkey in its fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in northern Iraq.

More cooperation needed

Both Babacan and Clinton underscored the similarities between their governments’ foreign-policy priorities, saying that makes more cooperation in these fields inevitable. "The coexistence of democracy, secularism and Islam in Turkey is a major example for the region," Babacan said. "The U.S. attaches importance to this. They have expressed their intention to work together in many fields in this new period."

On the Middle East, Clinton offered her appreciation both to Babacan and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for the "leadership role" Turkey has played in bringing Israel and Syria together.

"The U.S. supports a comprehensive peace where Israel lives in peace and security with the Palestinians and the Palestinians have their own state and Israel lives in peace with all of its Arab neighbors, including Syria," Clinton said. "The importance of this [Israel-Syria] track cannot be overstated."

Babacan said Turkey was ready to mediate between Israel and Syria if the two parties made such a request and if the international community, including the United States, supported the process. Babacan told Clinton that problems in the region were inter-linked, making a "piece by piece" solution impossible, an official involved in the talks said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official added that Ankara also urged Washington on the need to bring Hamas into the political picture and to engage with Iran and that Clinton expressed support for the Egyptian efforts for peace.

Another important issue discussed over the weekend, and will be addressed during Obama’s visit, was Washington’s plans to withdraw some of its troops and military equipments from Iraq via Turkey. Though Clinton said no final decision has been made yet on the matter, Babacan said Ankara was ready to cooperate, saying the details would have to be discussed during consultations between the allies, but "some technical talks have already been held between the two sides."

The United States is pushing its allies to send more combat troops to Afghanistan, where NATO is in the middle of a struggle against Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces. The NATO summit is expected to focus on this issue and Turkey is among the countries whose contributions are highly sought by Washington.

"We’ll discuss it. It’s up to the Turkish government [to send more troops]," Clinton said in an interview with CNNTürk on Saturday. Babacan said the issue was not on Clinton’s agenda but added, "It does not mean that there will be no such request."

Turkey is unlikely to increase its military presence in Afghanistan, Babacan said.

Clinton hinted that Turkey could play a key role in the normalization of ties between Washington and Tehran. "You know them much better than we do," she said in her CNNTürk interview. "We would need your influence on Iran’s attitudes."

Coincidentally, just a day after meeting with Clinton, Babacan traveled to Iran to participate in a regional economic meeting where he will meet with his Iranian counterpart. Babacan said he would not convey a massage from Clinton to Tehran.

Risk of recognition

Diplomatic sources said efforts for the U.S. Congress to recognize the killings of Armenians in 1915 as genocide did not appear on the agenda of the Clinton-Babacan talks. But a joint statement released following the meeting highlighted U.S. support for "the efforts of Turkey and Armenia to normalize relations."

Still, that does not rule out the possibility of U.S. recognition of Armenia’s claims. "I still see a risk," Babacan said. "Mr. Obama made the promise five times in a row," Babacan said.

Clinton assured Turkish officials that the intelligence sharing would continue during Obama’s tenure "The U.S. will continue its intelligence support for Turkish operations against the PKK and is reviewing ways to be more supportive," the statement said.
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