Obama Tests Waters in Turkey

In traveling to Turkey on his first visit to Europe as head of state, President Barack Obama is embarking on a diplomatic mission charged with symbolism and potentially full of opportunities.

"The atmospherics of the visit are as important as the substance," Hugh Pope, a Turkey analyst for the International Crisis Group, told the Associated Press.

Joshua Landis, co-director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, described Turkey's strategic importance as a political and cultural link. "Turkey is key to Washington's design to improve relations with the Muslim world," Landis told Bloomberg.

Positioned between Europe and Asia, Turkey is a member of NATO waiting to join the European Union but also has a majority Muslim population and is currently ruled by an Islamist party.

Under the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey is a potential bridge between the new U.S. administration and the states and non-state actors of the Middle East with whom Obama is determined to forge better relations.

Who else in the region can claim close political and diplomatic relations with Iran, Syria and Israel?

Last year Turkey mediated indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria over the return of the Golan Heights.

Turkey has often invited Western criticism for its closeness to regional players long shunned as too extreme to engage. This would include its strategic partnership with Iran.

"There are few countries in the world that the Iranians have to listen to," Mark Parris of the Brookings Institution in Washington told Bloomberg. "Turkey as a neighbor, as another big Muslim country, as a historic rival for power in that neighborhood, is one."

The country is a potentially a useful interlocutor as Obama pursues his mission to persuade Tehran to give up on its nuclear ambitions.

After befriending Hamas and its leaders this year, Erdogan is now considered a potential channel to the Palestinian Islamic movement for Western governments still unwilling to talk to them directly.

That fact, and Erdogan's verbal outburst against Israel's military assault on Gaza last January, has caused some disquiet in Israel.

According to a former Israeli diplomat Alon Liel, "The Israeli public today doesn't see Erdogan as an honest broker. He did a good job at first, but when things became tense, he lost his temper."

With its patchy record on human rights and its treatment of its Kurdish minority, Turkey is seen by many to be walking a tightrope. It is trying to balance its historic commitment to secularism and developing its European credentials, while responding democratically to a muslim electorate not always happy with U.S. policy.

"As Turkey becomes more democratic, its leaders will be forced to oppose U.S. interests in order to gain public approval," said Landis, noting Turkey's refusal to allow its military bases to be used for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The relationship Obama is about to begin may prove pivotal in his attempt to reinvigorate U.S. standing and influence here. Most agree, however it will require a very delicate diplomatic touch.