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Turkey’s new ambassador to Washington takes on a challenging task

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Bünyamin Tekin

With the appointment of Sedat Önal, a seasoned diplomat with more than three decades of experience, as Turkey’s new ambassador to the United States, Ankara is signaling its intention to improve its troubled relations with Washington, which will be no easy task.

The appointment comes amid strained relations between the two NATO allies and underscores the challenging task ahead for Ambassador Önal.

Önal, 61, who currently serves as Turkey’s ambassador to the United Nations, will take up his new assignment following the publication of his appointment in the Official Gazette.

His diplomatic career at the Turkish Foreign Ministry spans 35 years, marked by his involvement in critical negotiations with high-ranking US officials. Most notable was Önal’s tenure as deputy foreign minister under Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu from 2018 to 2023, a period marred by tumultuous interactions over Syria, Iraq and military sales.

Mustafa Enes Esen, a former Turkish diplomat and researcher at the Brussels Institute for Diplomacy and Economics (InstituDE), emphasized the importance of Önal’s appointment given the current dynamics of US-Turkey relations.

Mustafa Enes Esen is a former Turkish diplomat. He earned his master’s degree from Georgetown University. His areas of interest are Turkish foreign policy, the Middle East and international security issues. He is currently a researcher at InstituDE.

“The role of the ambassador in Washington is critical to how Ankara is perceived and understood in the US,” Esen said. “Given the complexity of the bilateral relationship, Ambassador Önal’s ability to maneuver will largely depend on the evolving context of that relationship, which presents him with a formidable challenge.”

The choice of Önal, a career diplomat, instead of a political appointee for this important position is seen by some analysts as a positive move.

Soner Çağaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, highlighted Önal’s familiarity with US-Turkish relations in remarks to Al Monitor and emphasized his potential to improve those relations.

Önal has led Turkish delegations to Moscow for the Astana process, which aims to resolve the Syrian conflict in cooperation with Russia and Iran. His expertise on Middle Eastern affairs and familiarity with NATO issues will be crucial, especially as Washington reviews its Syria policy, including the possible withdrawal of US forces from the region.

Reactions on social media to Önal’s appointment have been positive. Many emphasized the importance of having a professional diplomat in this important position. Hümeyra Pamuk and Cansu Çamlıbel, journalists who cover Turkish politics, emphasized Önal’s familiarity with Washington circles.

As Önal prepares to assume his new duties, the focus will be on his ability to navigate the complicated web of issues that has tested relations between Turkey and the US.

Ankara moved closer to Russia after a failed coup in Turkey in 2016. Relations between Turkey and the US have been strained by a number of issues, including Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defense system and Washington’s partnership with the Syrian Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as well as Ankara’s increasingly anti-Western rhetoric.

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