Barack Obama will visit Turkey next month, making what is likely to be his first appearance in a Muslim country since his inauguration as US president.
Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, announced plans for the visit on Saturday in Ankara where, after meeting the prime minister, foreign minister and president, she launched a public charm offensive by appearing on a popular chat show.
Mr Obama made clear from his first day in office that he intended to reach out to the Muslim world where many critics saw the Bush administration’s “war on terror” as a war on Islam.
His choice of Turkey for a first visit signals the importance the US attaches to strengthening ties with a Nato ally that it may soon call on for help in its military exit from Iraq or greater support in Afghanistan.
But it also reflects his focus on engaging with Syria and Iran as he develops policy on the Middle East.
Turkey last year mediated between Syria and Israel in talks suspended because of the Gaza offensive that the US is keen to see revived. “The importance of this track, the peace effort, cannot be overstated,” Mrs Clinton said in a news conference with Ali Babacan, the Turkish foreign minister, who said Turkey would be willing to resume its role if invited to by both sides.
US officials this weekend held the highest-level talks with Syria in four years, as Mr Obama steps up efforts to improve ties with Bashar al-Assad’s government. Damascus has been accused of making trouble in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, backing anti-Israeli militant groups including Hamas and Hizbollah.
For its part, Syria appears to want the benefit of improved economic relations with Washington, which has imposed sanctions on Syria that have restricted development and investment.
“We found a lot of common ground,” said Jeffrey Feltman, the state department’s top official on the Middle East, after he and Dan Shapiro of the National Security Council met Walid Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, on Saturday.
Mrs Clinton also suggested the US could seek to harness Ankara’s good relations with Tehran to help Mr Obama’s plan to engage the Islamic republic. “We’re going to require your help with Iran, especially in terms of affecting a change in Iran’s stance,” she said in an interview with local television.
The US has long hailed Turkey as a rare example of a secular democracy with a majority Muslim population, and Mrs Clinton ladled on the praise, saying the country showed that “democracy and modernity and Islam” could coexist and had a crucial role as a global leader.
But anti-American sentiment persists in Turkey, and one of the challenges will be to win round a public suspicious of the US. Mrs Clinton appeared on the chat show, hosted by four women, to field questions on her love life and joke about her fashion sense.