U.S. President Barack Obama will travel to Turkey on April 6-7 after a busy week of meetings with members of the G-20, NATO and the European Union. Obama has made no secret of his desire to look to Ankara as a reinvigorated U.S. ally. As the land bridge between Europe, the Middle East and Asia, Turkey has an array of geopolitical arenas
to choose from in deciding where to throw around its weight. The United States will do its best to harness Turkey's rise to complement its own foreign policy goals, but the Islamic world is one such arena where Washington and Ankara are likely to find the most common ground. After six years in Iraq, the United States is now in a position to take a step back from the Middle East and refocus its attention on the jihadist insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But if only it were that easy. The United States still has to worry about holding together an extremely fragile security arrangement among Iraq's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions while the Iranians are sitting just across the border waiting to consolidate Shiite influence in Baghdad. Meanwhile, the Arab Sunni powers are desperately searching for security guarantees against their Persian rivals, the Israelis are trying to restrain the Americans from engaging the Iranians, the Syrians remain an intractable negotiating partner and the Europeans are doing everything they can to avoid throwing additional resources at the war in Afghanistan. In short, the United States needs help. Turkey — a Muslim power that sits above the Arab-Persian fray and a NATO ally that holds the keys to the Black Sea — is Washington's prime candidate to help manage myriad thorny issues in the Islamic world. Turkey's work begins in its immediate backyard, where Iran has a grand strategy
to consolidate Shiite influence in Iraq, bolster Hezbollah in Lebanon and re-arm Hamas in Gaza, while pushing the envelope with its nuclear weapons program. Although Iran prefers to view the Turkey as a fellow rising, non-Arab leader of the Middle East, the Turks have the Iranians beat in a geopolitical contest.
In the economic sphere, Iran is grossly dependent on oil revenues for its income. With plummeting oil prices, the Iranians have to scrape the barrel to sustain popular subsidies in an election season while the energy sector continues to falter due to neglect, mismanagement and lack of foreign investment. The Turks, on the other hand, have the largest economy out of any other Muslim nation (including energy powerhouse Saudi Arabia), and while its manufacturing industry is now taking a hit from declining exports to Europe, it is geographically positioned to make up for a good chunk of the difference through exports to the Middle East. Turkey has already increased exports to Iraq by 75 percent in the first two months of 2009. Turkey also lies in a sweet spot to transit energy resources from the Caucasus and the Middle East to Europe. The Iranians may have designs to divert much of Iraq's oil wealth in the predominantly Shiite south toward Tehran's direction, but the Turks have the technological skill to ramp up oil production in Iraq to feed the Western market, and have already put these plans into motion (not to mention there is a Saddam-era pipeline that the Turks have maintained in tip-top shape just waiting to be used). With more cash to spare, the Turks also have more resources than the Iranians to contribute to Iraq's reconstruction efforts, thereby enabling Ankara to purchase political allies with greater frequency than many of its competitors. Militarily, Turkey is also a pre-eminent power with one of the largest standing armies in the world, robust military alliances with NATO and Israel, strategic naval control over the Black Sea through the Bosporus and a long-standing tradition of military professionalism. The Iranians also boast a large standing army, but its military is primarily an infantry force designed for maintaining internal control within Iran's mountainous terrain. While the Turkish military owns some of the most advanced military systems and is extremely capable of launching mechanized division-sized operations, the Iranians depend on outdated equipment leftover from the U.S. military patronage days of the Shah. Consequently, Iran has to depend heavily on the asymmetrical warfare capabilities of its militant proxies, such as Hezbollah. Politically and ideologically speaking, Iran is handicapped in the Middle East by its Persian and Shiite identity. The Iranians have used their public defiance over the nuclear program and their public support for Hamas in an attempt to bridge the sectarian divide and win supporters in the Arab world. However, the Arab/Sunni-Persian/Shiite rivalry runs deep, and no amount of diplomatic niceties in royal palaces will dilute this distrust. Turkey, on the other hand, is a Sunni power now run by a powerful Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The Turks have even recently stolen the Iranians' radical bravado by publicly lashing out against Israel
over the Gaza offensive against Hamas. Turkey is viewed by the Sunni Arab powerhouses, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as a welcome protector against the Persians. As Turkey becomes more active in its Muslim neighborhood, it can count on the support of the Sunni Arabs to promote its agenda. That agenda includes putting out fires in its backyard, most notably in Mesopotamia and the Levant. In Iraq, the Turks' topmost priority is to keep Kurdish autonomy in check
through a combination of diplomatic maneuvering, military pressure and economic incentives. This is a game that the Turks know well, and Ankara is eager to reclaim its authority over the Kurdish portfolio now that the United States is drawing down in Iraq and leaving such matters in Ankara's hands. Through the Kurdish issue, the Turks will also find a number of key political allies in the Iraqi Sunni and Shiite camps in Baghdad who share their intense aversion to the Kurds. Major political figures like Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and Sunni Vice President Tareq al Hashemi of the Iraqi Islamic Party already have a tight relationship with the Turks, and have gotten a great deal of political mileage out of making bold anti-Kurdish moves to keep the oil rich city of Kirkuk out of Kurdish hands. There are also a number of Sunni and autonomous Shiite players who are far more willing to work with the Turks than be pulled into Iran's orbit of influence. In the Levant, Turkey's agenda is a bit more complex. On one level, it wants to stabilize its southwestern frontier by subduing Syria by restricting Hezbollah (thereby stripping Iran of its key allies) and by calming Israel's nerves. Furthermore, it wants to use its mediation of Israel-Syria peace negotiations to broadcast its diplomatic credentials to the wider world. Additionally, by assuming greater responsibility for problems stemming from Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, the Turks are looking further down the road at a scenario where they can make Israel — its powerful regional ally — more dependent on the Turks by back-stopping the U.S. role as Israel's external security guarantor. The Turks are not stopping at the Middle East, either. Turkey intends to play a major role in how the United States manages its war further east in Afghanistan. Ankara got a kick start already by hosting its third trilateral summit
with the Afghan and Pakistani presidents April 1 in Ankara to discuss ideas on how to stabilize Afghanistan ahead of an April 3-4 NATO summit in France to strategize over the same issue. Turkey and Pakistan share a bond through their strong military tradition and their Muslim identity. With Pakistan constantly treading the friend-foe line with the United States, the Americans could certainly use Ankara's assistance in negotiating with the Pakistanis to crack down on the insurgency within its own borders and purge its security apparatus of rogue Islamist sympathizers. The Turks also hope to use their ethnic links to Afghanistan's large Uzbek and smaller Turkmen populations to manage U.S. attempts to reach out to "moderate" Taliban. Though Turkey's job in southwest Asia will by no means be easy, this meeting underscores the extent to which the United States has reached out to Turkey for help on vital Muslim issues. When Obama arrives in Turkey, he will be sending a message to U.S. allies and adversaries that the United States not only embraces a larger Turkish role in many big geopolitical issues of the day, but will actively work to bolster Turkey's role in each of these arenas. The Turkish alliance becomes especially important as the United States struggles to elicit cooperation from the Europeans
, a deeply divided bunch who are entrenched in their own domestic troubles, and Turkey can contribute much to the U.S. foreign policy agenda in hot spots like Afghanistan. Obama has spoken of the need to speak to the Muslim world with respect and understanding to bridge years of deep hostility and distrust. While Obama's goals for this region may still be far-reaching
, that message will gain credibility with Turkey by his side. Much remains to be coordinated between Washington and Ankara in pursuing their respective agendas, but cooperation between the two powers will come naturally when it comes to issues in the Islamic world.