U.S. Supports Turkey Playing a Leading Role on Syria Crisis

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is in Washington to consult with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and lawmakers on regional issues, including the violence that is dragging Syria toward a civil war. Photographer: Johannes Simon/Getty Images

The U.S. is supporting a leading role for Turkey in organizing international pressure on Syria, as the two allies seek to build a coalition able to back the Syrian opposition movement and help broker an end to the violence.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is in Washington to consult with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and lawmakers on regional issues, including the violence that is dragging Syria toward a civil war. Iran’s nuclear program and violence in Iraq are also on the agenda, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said.

The U.S. and Turkey are seeking each other’s support after a decade when bilateral ties deteriorated due to disagreements over Iran’s nuclear program, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s stance against Israel.

The importance of Turkey to the U.S. has been “magnified”

by the global and regional situation, said Chris Phillips, a lecturer in the international relations of the Middle East at the Queen Mary University of London.

Turkey is “placing itself as the key bridging state between the West and the wider Muslim and Arab world,” said Phillips in a phone interview from London. For that to work, he said, Turkey “needs close relationships with the U.S.”

Davutoglu’s talks in Washington reflect an effort to bolster a 50-year alliance, said Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

International Coalition

Clinton and Davutoglu will discuss on Feb. 13 their efforts to organize a ‘Friends of Syria” group, a coalition of countries that support the idea of a democratic Syria, Nuland said yesterday. Turkey unveiled plans on Jan. 8 to establish the “most broad-based” international coalition to end Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown, with Davutoglu saying it should include members of the UN Security Council, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and Arab states.

“It was significant that Turkey turned away” from Syria, Barkey said in a telephone interview, noting that Erdogan’s family vacationed in the past with the Assads.

The UN estimates more than 5,400 people have died as Assad has intensified his attack on the Syrian opposition.

Davutoglu told U.S. lawmakers during a visit to Capitol Hill yesterday that about 40,000 soldiers have defected from the Syrian army, some joining the opposition and others fleeing to Turkey, said Senator John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Backing the Opposition

Turkey fostered the formation of the Syrian National Council in October in Istanbul, and Davutoglu has met with the alliance of opposition groups which seeks to overthrow Assad. Turkey shares a land border with Syria, making it a potential staging ground if a protected zone is established for the opposition or for refugees.

Turkey also gives the U.S. and its Western allies political cover. “It’s important to have a Muslim ally” in the Middle East, Barkey said.

Teaming up with Turkey reflects an older style of U.S. foreign policy, Phillips said. “Americans are going back to their classic Cold War strategy of rejecting direct intervention and presence in the Middle East and trying to influence the region through powerful allies,” he said.

Obama’s Visit

Obama’s first visit to a Muslim country as president was in April 2009 to Turkey, where he sought to rebuild relations that soured under former President George W. Bush when Turkey opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and prevented the opening of a northern front for the assault on Baghdad.

The alliance has flourished since protests in the Arab world began more than a year ago, even as Turkey’s relations with Israel slid to a historic low. Erdogan downgraded diplomatic ties, halted defense purchases and announced plans to send more warships to the eastern Mediterranean after Israel refused to apologize for the May 2010 killing of nine Turkish activists on a humanitarian aid ship that sought to break Israel’s embargo on the Gaza Strip.

“It’s not common for Turkey to have such good relations with the U.S. at a time when ties with Israel are strained to this extent,” said Suhnaz Yilmaz Ozbagci, a professor of international relations at Koc University in Istanbul.

Meanwhile, Davutoglu’s “zero-problems” foreign policy is unraveling as Ankara strives to maintain a tricky relationship of competing and aligning interests with Iran. It is also trading barbs with Iraq due to the rise in sectarian attacks there after the U.S. troop withdrawal.

Failed Accord

The Turkish premier engineered an agreement with Brazil on Iran’s nuclear program in 2010 and, when the U.S. rejected it, he jeopardized relations by opposing sanctions on Tehran in the United Nations Security Council.

Bilateral ties with the U.S. got a boost when Turkey agreed in September to host an early-warning radar as part of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization missile defense shield.

The relationship “isn’t perfect and it won’t be perfect,” Jane Harman, the former California Democratic congresswoman who now runs the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group, said in a telephone interview. “But as the Middle East undergoes an earthquake in terms of realigned governments, this government has proven that it remains democratic and in most respects moderate.”

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