04/07/2009, 00.00
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In Turkey Obama turns the page but does not dispel every doubt

by Geries Othman
During his visit US president signals his support for Turkish membership in the European Union, the dialogue of civilisations and better relations with Islam. Armenian and Kurdish issues are put on the backburner. Some protests take place and some criticism is voiced.
Istanbul (AsiaNews) – US President Barack Obama, accompanied by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyp Erdogan, visited today some of Istanbul’s landmarks, most notably the Blue Mosque and Hagia (Saint) Sophia Basilica. In his two-day visit to Turkey the US leader is trying to breathe new life into US-Turkish friendship and bridge the gap with the Muslim world. Not everyone thinks he can.

After urging Europeans in Brussels to welcome Turkey into their 27-nation union, a proposal rejected by France and frostily received by Germany, the US president reiterated his point of view in Turkey.

“Let me be clear,” he said yesterday in Ankara. The “United States strongly supports Turkey's bid to become a member of the European Union. [. . .] Turkey is bound to Europe by more than bridges over the Phosphorus.”

Sublime Porte, Armenians and Kurds

Before taking office Obama had already intimated that he would speak in an important Muslim city in order to alter the relationship between the United States and the Islamic world, especially Turkey.

US-Turkish relations have been decidedly cool since the start of the Iraq war.

The Kurdish question, PKK bases in northern Iraq and especially Turkish fears over US attitudes towards the so-called controversial 1915 Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire had contributed to the frosty atmosphere.

By opting to visit Turkey Obama cautiously but unambiguously ended Bush’s unilateralism.

On the one hand, he chose not to address the Armenian issue, except to say he was encouraged by Turkish-Armenian talks to settle their differences. On the other, he did not hesitate to adopt a joint platform to boost bilateral relations between Ankara and Washington so as to develop strategies that might bridge the gap between the West and the Muslim world.

It could not be otherwise anyway. Turkey is the only predominantly Muslim country in NATO. Its support is crucial, especially for US policy in the Middle East.

Turkey in fact could be the easiest route for US withdrawal from Iraq; not to mention the fact that it is a crucial gateway for energy supplies from the Caspian Sea to Europe. Losing it would be inconceivable. 

In his talks in Turkey Barack Obama, who is the fifth US president to visit that country, also discussed the fight against terrorism, peace in the Middle East, and the campaign against nuclear proliferation.

Shrewdly the US president chose conciliatory words. Quoting a Turkish proverb, he said: “You cannot put out fire with flames.”

Similarly, he noted that “force alone cannot solve our problems, and it is no alternative to extremism. The future must belong to those who create, not those who destroy.”

At the same time he warned “Iran's leaders must choose whether they will try to build a weapon or build a better future for their people”, and reiterated US support for Turkey’s fight against “the terrorist activities of the PKK,” the main party of Kurdish separatism.

Despite all the smiles, thewarm welcome and handshakes, public opinion polls in Turkey indicate that few Turks want closer ties to the United States, chiefly because of the US-Israel relationship.

It therefore comes as no surprise that Obama’s visit was met by protests and clashes between demonstrators and police in various Turkish cities.

Alliance of civilisations

After Ankara the US president travelled to Istanbul to take part in the 2nd Alliance of Civilisations Forum.

In 2004 Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero launched the idea for such an event at the height of the Iraq conflict when Bush’s political fortunes were still riding high.

To speak then of an “alliance” in lieu of a “clash” of civilisations was all but a pipedream, especially since the Spanish leader had just pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq, causing US displeasure that continued over the following four years.

In 2005, the United Nations picked up the idea and turned into an official venue whose mandate was to contribute to mutual understanding and promote peaceful coexistence and dialogue among various cultures and religions. Very soon Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan became its greatest supporter.

The first forum was held in Madrid in January 2008. Nobel Prize winners, formers heads of state and government as well as scholars from around the world attended. However, it was largely a fiasco because political leaders actually in office stayed away.

Now with a new president in the White House the “Alliance” might open up new horizons. 

Organised in cooperation with the Turkish government, the 2009 Forum has attracted world leaders, heads of international organisations and big business as well as media, civil society and youth group representatives.

In addition to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, Spanish Prime Minister Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and United Nations High Representative for the Alliance of Civilisations Jorge Sampaio are at the forum. Some religious leaders like Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I are also in attendance.

Today, as guest of honour, Barack Obama met Turkey’s religious leaders like Armenian Patriarch Vicar Aram Atesiyan, Istanbul’s Chief Rabbi Isak Haleva, Istanbul Mufti Mustafa Cagrici and Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Yusuf Cetin.

In a direct appeal to the Islamic world, Obama said that the “United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam”, adding “that America's relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

However, some are not so sure. Some doubters are inclined to believe that this apparent “shift in values” is just part of another political and military strategy.

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