Latest update: February 9th, 2013
U.S. President Barack Obama has described Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the world leader in the Middle East with whom he has the closest relationship. But you wouldn’t know it, given the recent insults and reprimands various ministers in the Turkish government have hurled at the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, in addition to the very public backhanded attempt by Turkey to incite Syrian violence towards U.S. ally Israel.
Just a few days after a suicide attack on the U.S. Embassy in Turkey on February 1, the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Francis J. Ricciardone, gave a lengthy press briefing which included a few mild rebukes. Ricciardone mentioned Turkey’s jailing of non-violent protesters and a lack of transparency regarding charges against a large number of imprisoned former military personnel and academics, as well as a limitation in Turkey’s international terrorism law.
The response to those remarks created a hailstorm of very public and very blunt attacks by many high level Turkish officials, all of which amounted to “get your nose out of our domestic business or get out.”
Ricciardone, a Fulbright Scholar who is fluent in Turkish, Arabic, French and Italian, was appointed to his current post by President Obama in 2011. The Ambassador has spent many years in various posts in the Middle East, and in 2001 was the Director of the State Department’s Coalition Against Terrorism.
In a reference to the dozens of Turkish nationals who were imprisoned after an alleged coup plot was uncovered, Ricciardone said, “You have your military leaders, who were entrusted with the protection of this country behind bars as if they were terrorists.”
He also said, “You have non-violent student protesters protesting tuition hikes behind bars. When a legal system produces such results and confuses people like that for terrorists, it makes it hard for American and European courts to match up.”
Ricciardone’s remarks ran more than a dozen pages long, most of which were complimentary about the host country. The points about which the Turks took greatest umbrage addressed the jailing of hundreds of members of the military in an alleged military coup.
That plot, known as “Sledgehammer,” was an alleged secularist military plan dating back to 2003. The suspects, all members of the Turkish military, allegedly planned to create havoc through coordinated acts of violence that included bombings throughout Turkey. The chaos would destabilize the government, thereby paving the way for a coup d’état. The Turkish military has successfully pulled out three coups since 1960.
In response to a journalist’s questions at the press event, Ricciardone said:
My point about the justice system though is that you are striving to improve it, your leaders, your ministers, have recognized the flaws in the justice system, among them being lengthy pre-trial detentions, lack of clarity in presenting charges, lack of transparency. Those are things your leaders – not your opposition, not foreign leaders – have spoken about.
But the response has been toxic.
AKP spokesman Huseyin Çelik vehemently censured the U.S. Ambassador for his remarks. Çelik was quoted in Turkish papers as saying on the private broadcasting channel Kanal A, “We are inviting Ricciardone to remain within his boundaries and limits. We are not pleased with [his remarks]; we condemn and denounce them. He should know his place.”
Çelik said of Ricciardone, “You are a diplomat; how can you make a judgment on those issues when you don’t even know the whole nature of the events and how the system works? Who gives you the right to question [the political and legal system]?”
Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ also said Ricciardone should avoid making statements which could be considered an intervention into Turkey’s domestic laws. In what sounds very much like a warning, the Deputy Prime Minister said it will be better for both Turkey and the U.S. if the ambassador minds his own business.
“It would be better if Ricciardone minded his own business,” Bozdağ said. “Those are statements that do not bode well for his assignment in Turkey.”
Another Deputy Prime Minister, Bülent Arınç, said it was “inappropriate” for Ricciardone to have made his comments, explaining on a private broadcasting network SKY Turk, “there is a problem arising from the personality of the esteemed ambassador,” but, Arınç claimed, the ambassador has issued an apology letter which means “he is conscious that what he has done is not correct.”
The U.S. Embassy in Ankara denied that an apology letter was sent.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland defended the U.S. Ambassador during her briefing on Thursday, February 7, stating that Ricciardone had not said anything that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had not already said, and nothing that the current secretary of state is not going to say.
American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin – who is no fan of Ambassador Ricciardone – told The Jewish Press that the evidence against the Sledgehammer prisoners is “so flimsy as to be laughable.” Rubin said, “the only thing those prisoners are guilty of is crossing the Prime Minister and Fethullah Gulen.”
TURKEY TAUNTS SYRIA FOR NOT ATTACKING ISRAEL
In a separate incident which highlighted a divergence in positions between the U.S. and Turkey, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu brutally criticized Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for failing to respond with force to Israel’s bombing of a weapons convey near the Lebanese border that was allegedly carrying chemical or biological weapons to Hezbollah.
Davutoglu said, “Why didn’t Assad even throw a pebble when Israeli jets were flying over his palace and playing with the dignity of his country?” He went on, “Is there a secret agreement between al-Assad and Israel? Why don’t you use the same power that you use against defenseless women against Israel, which you have been as an enemy since its foundation,” he said to reporters on a trip to Belgrade last week.
In the February 5 news briefing, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called Davutoglu’s comments “inflammatory,” and said they harmed U.S.-Turkish relations.
Despite the relatively high level war of words being waged between U.S. and Turkish officials, there is speculating that President Obama will visit Turkey sometime soon, perhaps during his spring trip to the Middle East.
AEI’s Rubin characterized that visit as an unfortunate “reward” for Turkey’s misbehavior.
He explained, “had U.S. ambassadors in Ankara taken a detached and firm line to Turkey, we might not be in a situation where ‘the model for democracy’ in the region had a press freedom ranking below Russia, Venezuela, and Iraq and was regaining its ‘Midnight Express’ reputation on human rights.”
IS THE REAL ISSUE OIL IN NORTHERN IRAQ?
There is speculation that the escalating tensions between the U.S. and Turkey are actually about an entirely different issue, one that crops up in most discussions about the Middle East: oil.
Until about four years ago, Turkey was adamantly opposed to establishing any relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq for fear that it would lead to a balkanization of that neighboring state. Now, however, due to its interest in investing in oil and gas projects in the region, Turkey’s position has thawed dramatically. Turkey has begun receiving crude oil from KRG fields, to be refined into gas and diesel fuel, with payment by the Kurds in crude oil.
Turkey’s burgeoning economic relationship with the KRG has infuriated the Baghdad government. The U.S., through Ricciardone, has warned Turkey that it might cause the disintegration of Iraq, creating even greater destabilization in the region. This scenario is of particular concern not only to the U.S., but also to Israel, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf States.
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.
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