- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 7, 2005

ISTANBUL — Turkey’s prime minister, who meets President Bush at the White House today, is still reeling from French and Dutch referendums that were seen as a slap at his country and he hopes to relieve strains with the United States caused by the war in Iraq.

Relations with Washington loom especially important for Recep Tayyip Erdogan after voters in France and the Netherlands last week rejected a new European Union constitution, in part because of fears raised by Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.

“Turkey’s whole strategy is to join the EU in 10-to-15 years time; it has no plan B,” said one Washington-based analyst. “If the EU leaves it out in the cold, it might turn into a loose cannon, a dangerous failed state.”

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice seems to appreciate the problem. She said last week, “We cannot afford to have … a divide between Turkey and the rest of Europe.”

But it is not clear how much sympathy Mr. Erdogan can expect in Washington, where many feel they have gotten little in return for the warm welcome given the Turkish leader when he first took office.

In March 2002, Turkey’s parliament refused to let U.S. troops invade Iraq from the country, and last year Mr. Erdogan was silent when a party member described U.S.-led operations in Fallujah as “genocide.” In January, he was one of only a few world leaders to question the legitimacy of Iraqi elections.

Last month, however, Turkey finally agreed to let the United States use its air base at Incirlik for cargo shipments to Afghanistan and Iraq, and a few days later, Mr. Erdogan made a high-profile visit to Israel.

Now, said political columnist Murat Yetkin of the liberal daily Radikal, Mr. Bush will be looking to hear “about concrete areas of cooperation.”

The most crucial of these involve Syria and Iran — the former a chief state sponsor of insurgent activity in Iraq, the latter a looming nuclear threat to the region.

Turkey agrees with that assessment in principle, but for more than a decade has been bound to both countries by a shared concern that the growing influence of the Kurds in Iraq will arouse Kurdish independence movements in their own countries.

“What the Bush administration will be wanting to learn from this meeting is which comes first for Turkey — democracy in the Middle East, or fear of the Kurds,” said Omer Taspinar, a Turkey expert at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Erdogan, a pragmatist, will likely find little difficulty in bowing to U.S. demands to limit Turkey’s relations with Syria, if not cut them entirely.

But in return he would like to see steps taken against Turkish Kurdish separatists who have sheltered in northern Iraq since the 1990s.

The Kurdistan Workers Party’s 15-year war against the Turkish state petered out in 1999, at the cost of more than 35,000 lives. After a five-year cease-fire, fighting has returned to southeast Turkey, killing 219 persons last year and about 50 Turkish soldiers so far this year.

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