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US-Turkey Relations: A Real Cliffhanger

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In the last days of 2010 US-Turkish relations managed to escape yet another crisis. Backed by the Armenian diaspora, outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sought to hold a vote on a controversial resolution that depicts the deaths of Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire as "genocide".

Turkey is extremely sensitive about this -- and put all its weight behind avoiding a Congressional vote. Relations between Ankara and Washington have already deteriorated substantially this year and the resolution would have put them under much more strain.

The Obama administration was surprisingly silent about the issue. But the last day of the Congress came and went and the resolution was not brought to the House floor, so providing much relief for those who care about the two countries' relations.

There are other pitfalls ahead. The US President commemorates the Armenian deaths every year on April 24th and the 2011 statement will be the next thing for the Turks to worry about.

The incoming Republican-controlled House is likely to be even more suspicious of Turkey's foreign policy priorities than was its Democratic predecessor. Turkey's 'No' vote on Iranian sanctions at the UN Security Council has been neither forgiven nor forgotten. Turkey's efforts to convince Washington of its case are unlikely to get very far.

As for Ankara, the Turkish government has said it will implement the UN sanctions -- but is opposed to pressure from Washington to make Turkish companies comply with unilateral US sanctions as well. Its resistance is unlikely to diminish following a recent New York Times report that the Treasury department has granted American companies exceptions from longstanding US rules against doing business with Iran.

The whole issue of Iran is likely to stay on the table as a cause of friction between Ankara and Washington.

Then there are the damaged relations between Turkey and Israel. These continue to be a cause of concern in both countries since this year's Mavi Marmara incident, in which Israel killed nine Turkish citizens.

This too is set to remain a headache throughout next year. Even though Washington has tried to strike a balance between two of its most important allies in the region, the Turks are convinced that the Obama administration is irrevocably behind the Israelis.

At least there will be a US ambassador in Ankara. For almost six months, the administration's nominee for the post, Francis Ricciardone, was held up in the Senate by the Republican Sam Brownback. But Obama has just pushed Ricciardone through as a "recess appointment" so Washington will have an envoy in place when Turkey holds crucial general elections in June.

Finally, there is WikiLeaks, a potential peril for both countries. The group and its media partners have almost eight thousand cables from the US embassy in Ankara -- more than from any other post. When the first 30 of them were made public, it was enough to shake prime minister Tayyip Erdogan's fragile nervous system. In one of the angriest responses of any country's leader to the leaks, he threatened to sue the authors of the dispatches, who painted an unflattering picture of him as an authoritarian. President Obama soon called Erdogan to offer his regrets and the two men seemed to agree that their relationship would not be affected.

Easier said than done. As soon as more WikiLeaks documents emerge, Turkey's conspiracy-theory machine will whir into action again, leaving common sense struggling behind. At a time when anti-American sentiment remains extremely high in Turkey, the documents could whip up emotions further in the elections.

In 2010 there were so many bumps on the road that two countries' ride became distinctly unpleasant. It looks like 2011 will be tough as well, if relations do not dive into an abyss.