Obama visits Turkey to open new stage of bilateral ties
U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Turkey, important and need to both, may see the beginning of a new stage of U.S.-Turkey relations, which have been strained over the Iraqi war and the Armenia issue.
Obama's choice of visiting Turkey so early in his presidency highlighted the U.S. desire not to lose its only Muslim country ally that can help it ease troubles in the Middle East region at large.
Obama, arrived at the Turkish capital of Ankara on Sunday evening, is scheduled to meet on Monday with Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and political parties leaders before addressing the Turkish parliament.
His first task should be to assure the Turkish top leaders Washington's value of the alliance.
"President Barack Obama's visit to Turkey aims at highlighting Ankara's significance," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was quoted by Anatolia news agency as saying on Friday, just two days ahead of Obama's arrival.
Gibbs said en route to the northeast French city of Strasbourg that Obama wanted to enhance relations with Turkey emphasizing the importance of working together with its NATO ally.
He said the inclusion of Turkey in the destinations of Obama's first trip, which might strike as rather a surprise for the Turkish people, was an important gesture from the U.S. president.
Obama eyes at seeking Turkey's help for the pullout of Iraqi troops, who get their vast majority of logistic support through Turkish land or air space, while Turkey also needs U.S. troops cooperation and intelligence in fighting against the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq. The closer cooperation on the once-thorny Iraqi issue is the most direct way to mend ties.
As the only Muslim country in the western alliance, Turkey is viewed as a bridge between the Muslim East and the Christian West.
Obama has voiced his determination to improve U.S. ties with the Islamic world, promising a major speech from a Muslim capital in 100 days of presidency. Though Ankara is reportedly not to be the venue for such a speech, the predominantly Muslim nation is an easy place for Obama's reaching out to Muslims.
During Obama's stay in Ankara, he will pay homage to the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey. Later in Istanbul, he will attend a Alliance of Civilizations forum, initiated by the governments of Spain and Turkey to address tension across cultural divides between the West and Islamic world. All these bear a strong symbolic meaning of Obama's "reaching out" visit.
Bordering Iran and Syria, Turkey can play a vital role in helping unfold Obama's new diplomacy with the two "troubled countries", isolated by his predecessor George W. Bush.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul has tried to ease tension between Tehran and Washington during his visit to Iran on March 10, during which he tried to persuade Iran to seize the opportunity to resolve the nuclear dispute through talks since a new administration that favors dialogue is in office in Washington, Anatolia reported.
Gul's visit comes right after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Turkey. Clinton said in Ankara that the U.S would ask Turkey to help push forward Obama's plan to engage Iran, adding that Obama administration valued Gul's upcoming Iran visit, while Iran has also said it had sought Turkey's assistance in talks with the United States.
Ankara is also ready to revive indirect negotiations between Israel and Syria, offering the United States a helping hand in stabilizing the Middle East and mediating the peace process.
On the Turkish part, it also has its own gains. Turkish officials have repeatedly boasting over Obama's tour to their country, somewhat a surprise to them.
"Obama's visit is a natural outcome of Turkey's increasing role in its region," said Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan in an interview on March 22, following his similar remarks just a week before that the visit "was a result of the positive impact of Turkey's influence both in the region and in the world."
During Obama's visit, Turkey would seek continuous U.S. cooperation in fighting the PKK, listed by both as a terrorist organization which took up arms in 1984 with the aim of creating an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey. Some 40,000 people have been killed in the over-two-decade conflict.
Turkey would also ask for more U.S. canvassing efforts in its membership bid to join the EU. Having long been seeking to joint the EU, Turkey's bid has been held up by opposition from France, Austria and other EU countries, which demand Ankara do more on some domestic and external issues, including human rights and reforms.
Obama threw his weight on Sunday behind Turkey's EU membership bid. Speaking to his European counterparts at a luncheon meeting in Prague, Obama said efforts should be made for closer ties between the West and the Muslim world, adding it would be a good sign of such efforts if Turkey could join the EU.