Erdogan’s Rhetoric is Kerry’s Headache Reply

The diplomatic divide between the US and Turkey grows.

By Egemen Bezci and Geoffrey Levin

In a previous opinion piece (Ankara on line three, Mr Secretary, Asia Times Online, February 20, 2013) we argued that the US-Turkish relations are under pressure, with various domestic and geopolitical forces pushing the two traditional allies away from a shared vision for the Middle East. 

Despite US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Ankara on March 1, the political gulf between the two countries has only widened in the weeks since we wrote last. At the center of these heightened tensions lies not action, but rather rhetoric – lines that are no doubt popular with some at home, but at the same time, threaten to slowly erode the good relations once enjoyed between the two countries. 

It all began on February 27, when, in the fifth meeting of the U.N. Alliance of the Civilization conference in Vienna, Austria, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated, “Just as with Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism, it has become necessary to view Islamophobia as a crime against humanity.” Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before Erdogan’s statement earned criticism from United States, Israel, Canada, the European Union and others. 

Even before meeting with Erdogan, Kerry responded to the prime minister’s remark at a press conference with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, declaring that “We not only did we disagree with it, but we find it objectionable … I raised the speech with the foreign minister and I will raise it again with the prime minister.” 

This statement from Erdogan goes beyond that of simply criticizing Israeli policy – it attacks the core ideology underlying Israel’s existence, something that very few Americans would even question. Moreover, rather than backing off, Turkey has instead designated a formal Ambassador to Palestine, which in no way will improve Turkey’s relationship with Israel. With these developments further inflaming the tensions between two of America’s strongest allies in the region, Secretary Kerry has his work cut out for him. 

At the same time, he has three other major items to deal with regarding the Turkish-US relations. On the Syrian issue, the Obama administration prefer to avoid direct involvement in the ongoing tension, though Washington remains highly concerned about the Syria becoming a new center of attraction for the Jihadist networks as well. On this point, while there is a rising concern of US and Israel regarding the Jihadists, Turkey still stands as one of the major supporters of the opposition in Syria. The rupture in the visions of US and Turkey, on the Syrian issue, through an educated guess can be argued that was at the top of agenda of Secretary Kerry’s Ankara visit. 

The second major issue between Turkey and US, is the Turkey’s rapidly escalating relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government. Turkey has its own ongoing Kurdish question on its top issue. Thus, Ankara works particularly closely with Irbil as an integrated part of the Turkey’s Kurdish question. Yet Turkey’s bilateral relations with the Iraqi Kurdish administration on terms of energy issues worries Washington since doing so bypasses Baghdad and risks souring relations with the Nuri al-Maliki government, undermining the unity of Iraq. 

The third, and maybe the most emotional issue, is Turkish-Israeli relations. Turkey and Israel, former allies and strategic partners, broke all their diplomatic ties after the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in May 2010, where Israeli commandos raided the boat convoy headed to Gaza and killed nine Turkish activists in the process. Turkish-Israeli relations have deteriorated to a point that the Turkish army changed its threat perception and labeled Israel as “hostile”. 

Washington is highly concerned about the tension between two of its most important allies in the region. However, Secretary Kerry’s efforts in Ankara to work a deal of reconciliation for its two important allies backfired with Erdogan’s Zionism statement. 

Since Obama will make its first foreign trip to Israel next month, and Erdogan has been waiting for an appointment with President Obama since November, now may be an ideal time for the president himself to step in and mend fences. Yet this would require, among other things, Erdogan to tone down his rhetoric. 

Though it might help him with voters at home, the cost is not only Turkey’s relationship with Israel, but also Turkey’s vital partnership with America as well. Because if Erdogan forces Obama to choose between the two, he may not be pleased with the answer – and may soon find himself searching for new partners in East to help with his foreign policy goals.

Egemen Bezci and Geoffrey Levin are Senior Editors at the Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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