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Turkey and US face tough decisions on relations after Israeli flotilla raid

While its relations with Israel continue to plummet to new depths in the wake of the Gaza flotilla raid, Turkey is considering how to handle the US as Washington tries to balance its ties with Jerusalem and Ankara.

The flags of Turkey and Israel

As Turkey's relations with Israel dive, Ankara looks to the US

Few countries are more enraged by Israel's raid on the Gaza aid flotilla than Turkey. Much of the action during Monday's pre-dawn raid by Israeli commandos was focused on a Turkish-flagged ship and at least four of the nine fatalities arising from the attack were pro-Palestinian Turks.

In the days following, relations between Turkey and Israel have been strained to breaking point with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan calling the raid a "bloody massacre" and accusing Israel of "unacceptable lawlessness."

Erdogan has even gone so far as to refer to Israel - a close partner since diplomatic ties with the Jewish state were established in 1949 - as "a festering boil in the Middle East that spreads hate and enmity, dynamites regional peace and spreads instability."

In such a situation, it is unsurprising that relations between Turkey and Israel are currently plummeting to an all-time low, even lower than when the relationship soured over Israel's military operations in Gaza in 2008. But experts are also watching closely how relations between Turkey and Israel's most powerful ally – the United States – will develop as the shockwaves from the flotilla raid ripple on.

A furious Erdogan wasted no time calling US President Barack Obama after the incident.

"Israel is faced with the danger of losing its sole friend in the region and the greatest contributor so far to regional peace," Erdogan told the US president in a one-hour telephone conversation, according to a Turkish government statement on Wednesday.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Erdogan suggested that Turkey could abandon Israel but trade and military ties remain too strong

Turkey-Israel ties 'too strong to break'

Turkey has been Israel's chief regional ally since a military cooperation deal was signed between the two countries in 1996. However, some sections of the US media claim the implication behind Erdogan's statement is that Turkey, with its mainly Muslim population, could shift its allegiance towards its new-found friends in the Arab world, partners which the Islamist-rooted government in Ankara have been courting for some time.

Joost Lagendijk, a senior advisor at the Istanbul Policy Center, disagrees. He believes that the connections between Turkey and Israel are too strong to be severed.

"While we will see the two sides divided at an official, political level, Turkey and Israel will still have strong military and business ties," he told Deutsche Welle. "It makes good sense to have good relations with the Arabs but rejecting Israel for the Arabs is not a viable alternative."

While relations – especially those concerning trade – have been improving over the past few years with a host of Arab nations, including Syria, Iran, Lebanon and Jordan, Turkey still has its eyes set on Europe and EU membership. The European Union is still the main power that Turkey trusts most in the international arena, despite the EU's continued ambivalence towards Ankara's accession hopes.

However, some observers claim that the Israeli raid offers Turkey an opportunity to dangle the possibility of an eastward shift in the face of the United States to gain some leverage in a number of issues. Joost Lagendijk believes it would be foolish to do so.

"Turkey's standing in the Middle East and its dealing with its Arab partners are only possible because it has such good connections with both the US and the EU,” he said. “That's what makes Turkey such an interesting partner to the Arabs. What would the value of Turkey be without that?"

Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, believes Turkey will pursue its own goals in the Middle East and won't feel the need to pressure the US into supporting it.

"Turkey has economic, political and strategic interests in the Arab Middle East and Turkish leaders obviously feel less inhibited to pursue their own interests in the region, regardless of Washington's wishes," he told Deutsche Welle. "The Turks are willing to bend the regional rules of the game to serve Ankara's own interests. If the resulting policies serve US goals at the same time, all well and good. If not, so be it."

The United States may be closely watching Turkey's growing connection to regional Arab powers but is unlikely to feel any threat from its closer ties with the likes of Iran and Syria. Despite its ambitions, Turkey's current economic and strategic power is still not enough to project discernible influence in the Middle East and it still requires good relations with the US and EU to add weight to its status in the region.

US looking to keep Muslim ally Turkey on side

President Barack Obama and Turkey's President Abdullah Gul

The US wants to maintain good relations with Turkey

Bilateral relations by their nature have mutual benefits and Turkey isn't the only partner seeking support. The United States sees Turkey as a key Muslim ally and the Obama administration has been working hard to repair the damage to relations caused by the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Turkey had refused at the time to allow the US to use its territory as a staging ground for invasion.

Since then, the US and Turkey have set-up intelligence sharing networks in the on-going fight against international terrorism while Turkey hosts the US military infrastructure needed for its missions in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Turkey is still a key Muslim ally to the US and is a favorite partner, one which is held up as an example of a predominantly Islamic country with a growing democracy," Joost Lagendijk said. "The US won't want to jeapordise that. If it turns on Turkey for any reason, then the whole rhetoric Washington has created about reforming the Islamic world will crumble."

Despite this, Steven Cook says, the two nations are increasingly finding themselves at odds with each other.

"Washington and Ankara do share the same goals: peace between Israel and the Palestinians; a stable, unified Iraq; an Iran without nuclear weapons; stability in Afghanistan; and a Western-oriented Syria," he said. "When you get down to details, however, Washington and Ankara are on the opposite ends of virtually all these issues."

But after six decades of strategic cooperation, the stark reality is that while Turkey and the United States are not enemies in the Middle East, they are fast becoming strategic competitors.

"Turkey is asserting itself more in the Middle East, where it has gone from a tepid observer to an influential player in eight short years," Cook added.

Washington faces balancing act with Ankara, Jerusalem

President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, May 18, 2009.

US ties with Israel will impact on its relations with Turkey

While Turkey and the United States will not want to fall out, the situation arising from the Israeli flotilla raid may still give Turkey an opportunity to press its own agenda while maintaining strong ties with the US. As pressure from the international community grows, Turkey currently stands a greater chance at getting its own way over ending the blockade of Gaza

"The world has woken up to the Gaza situation and now it is not only Turkey calling for the end of the blockade,” Lagendijk said. “Turkey, if it is clever, can use this to pressure the US which itself is growing more frustrated with the Netanyahu government in Israel. Maybe this will lead to the US calling for an end to the embargo."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Turner

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