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Turkey: Ankara welcomes Obama speech on Mideast, expects more

21-05-2011

Ankara, (Today's Zaman):

The message of US President Barack Obama's speech on the Middle East was in general positively received in the diplomatic circles of Ankara, with some officials saying he did not go far enough in tackling issues in the region.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, Turkish diplomatic sources said Obama's warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to make the transition to democracy is in line with the Turkish demands of Assad as well. “The fact that Obama did not give up on Assad is pretty important because Turkey still believes the Syrian president could lead the reform,” one diplomat said. Obama in his speech said Assad must lead a transition to democratic rule or “get out of the way.” He demanded that the Syrian government “stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests; release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests; allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Daraa; and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition.”

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoðan also said the Syrian leader cannot deny his people's "indispensible requests for peace and democracy." Assad should take immediate democratic steps as the momentum toward democracy in the Middle East is "irreversible," Erdoðan said in an interview with PBS's Charlie Rose in Ankara aired recently.

“Obama set the vision for the new age,” said Mehmet Altan, a columnist with the Star daily. “In his speech, Obama told about how the region would be shaped in the future,” he told Today’s Zaman.

“The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region. We support a set of universal rights. Those rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders - whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran. And finally, we support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region. ... It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy,” Obama explained.

Obama’s message for the Middle East peace process was found positive in Ankara. Obama, in a first for a US president, included a clear call for Israel and the Palestinians to use the lines that existed before 1967 as the basis for talks to achieve a negotiated solution to the conflict. Turkey also advocates the idea that Israel withdraw to ‘67 border lines.

The official endorsement of a two-state solution based on the ‘67 border infuriated Israelis, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister expects to hear a reaffirmation of US commitments made to Israel in 2004 from President Obama when he meets Obama on Friday. “Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines, which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers [settlements] in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] beyond those lines,” the statement said.

Turkish officials regretted that Obama did not mention Israeli settlement activity as a major issue in the peace settlement. In contrast, Obama emphasized the issue in the 2009 Cairo speech, drawing sustained applause from the audience. “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” Obama said at the time, continuing: “This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”

US efforts to pressure Israel on settlements diplomatically blew up in the administration’s face when Israel balked at a total freeze, and then the deal the United States cut with Netanyahu ended up upsetting the Palestinians. Turkish officials also welcomed steps to help grow the economies of Tunisia and Egypt. Obama announced a $1 billion in debt relief for the beleaguered Egyptian economy after the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. The aid needs congressional approval and may take some time to be realized. Several prominent lawmakers, including Representative Kay Granger, head of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, have made it clear that they want to see who comes to power in Egypt in the November elections before handing over new money.

Obama did not even mention Saudi Arabia in his speech but talked about Bahrain, the current location of the 5th US Fleet. “Bahrain is a long-standing partner, and we are committed to its security. We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law. Nevertheless, we have insisted publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away,” Obama underlined.

Syria’s foreign minister praised Obama’s address to the Arab and Islamic world in Turkey, and many Arabs were cheered by the American leader’s promises to push for a Palestinian state.

In an interview published Tuesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Obama’s speech reflects clear attention to the two-state solution.

Moallem said Obama’s words were important and positive. But he hinted that Arabs expect Washington to pressure the new hard-line Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept the creation of a Palestinian state.

“We need to see how the United States will deal with an Israeli government representing the extreme right, and continues to reject the two-state solution,” Moallem told Lebanon’s As-Safir newspaper.

Netanyahu’s office on Monday issued a statement saying Israel would work closely with the US on peace, but it avoided any mention of a two-state solution.

Syria is one of the big tests of the Obama administration’s attempts to strike a new tone in relations with Middle Eastern nations. Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush sought to isolate Syria to force it to stop its support of militant groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas and do more to prevent militants from entering Iraq.The Obama administration has said it seeks a dialogue with Syria -- as well as with Syria’s ally and Washington’s biggest regional rival, Iran. Damascus has appeared eager for better ties, hoping for an economic boost and U.S. mediation of peace talks with Israel, though it has shown little sign of being ready to cut its backing for militants. More broadly, Obama’s visit to Turkey aimed to overcome widespread resentment in the region for what many saw as the Bush administration’s aggressive policies against Muslims and Arabs. Top Arab satellite news networks Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya brought his speech to Turkey’s Parliament Monday live, as well as a town hall meeting Obama held with Turkish students on Tuesday, in which he said he wants to work with Muslims. Lebanese columnist Rajeh Khoury said Obama’s visit to Turkey draws a road map for the relationship between the West and Islam.

Tareq Masarwah, a columnist in Jordan’s Al-Rai newspaper, pointed to the significance of Obama’s choosing Turkey -- a mainly Muslim nation with a strong secular tradition -- as a nod to moderate Islam.

“Moderation is what we need to confront the extremism and the violence which has dominated Muslims the past three decades,” Masarwah said. But, he said, the sole bridge toward reconciliation is a Palestinian state. Though many Arabs were angered by the US invasion of Iraq and other American policies in the region, the biggest dispute they cite most often is the Palestinian issue, and what they see as Washington’s bias toward Israel.

http://www.todayszaman.com/news-244620-ankara-welcomes-obama-speech-on-mideast-expects-more.html

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