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    Middle East
     Sep 9, 2006
Turkey's high-stakes march into Lebanon
By M K Bhadrakumar

Two years ago, in a political profile of Turkish Prime Minister Racep Tayyip Erdogan, Der Spiegel came close to concluding that he could be harboring a secret dream of being an Ottoman sultan.

The German magazine was metaphorically summing up Erdogan's phenomenal march from an obscure Istanbul prison cell to Turkey's prime ministership. But the hunch was stunningly prescient, too.

Curiously, even as the Turkish parliament was bracing this week



for a heated debate on the wisdom of deputing troops to Lebanon as part of the United Nations' stabilization force, Erdogan chose a forum of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) to speak on the subject.

The venue of the OIC conclave was highly significant - the ornate Dolmabahce Palace overlooking the Golden Horn in Istanbul, the abode of the last Ottoman sultan, Mehmet VI. Referring to the Levant, Erdogan said, "We can't forget our historic responsibility as an OIC member."

With these few words, Erdogan at once summoned memories of the Caliphate and a host of images from a distant past that modern Turkey has consciously tried to obliterate. Earlier in the evening, Erdogan was quoted as saying that a nation cut off from its past would have no future. "We should own our values," he said.

It is therefore not in the least bit surprising that the decision by the Turkish government to depute troops to Lebanon - duly endorsed by the Turkish parliament in a majority vote on Tuesday - has virtually split the country's polity into two distinct worlds.

What Erdogan perceives as Turkey's age-old "values" becomes heresy for the political opposition, which perceives it as nothing less than an invidious attempt by the Islamist ruling party to bury Kemal Ataturk's legacy of Turkey as a staunchly secular democratic-state model in the Muslim world.

In this context, referring to the pressure on the Turkish government from the United States over the Lebanon deployment, Cumhuriyet newspaper, the flag carrier of "Ataturkism" in the Turkish media, wrote, "The Bush administration is pushing Turkey to be an Islamic state favoring the US, and ignoring the solution of a secular, democratic-state model in a Muslim society."

The 340-192 vote in parliament authorizing the government to deploy a naval force for one year to patrol the waters off Lebanon, and possibly Turkish ground troops of an unspecified number, might appear deceptively simple. Actually, the topic proved to be highly divisive, with significant sections of public opinion, the country's president and all political parties other than the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) vehemently opposing the move. Dissident opinion is apparently sizable even within the AKP.

The Islamist and nationalist camps argue that the Turkish contingent in Lebanon might come to be viewed as an occupation force, which would work against "Islamic solidarity" and hurt Turkey's long-term interests. The nationalists abhor the very idea of Turkey getting entangled in any manner in the Israeli-Arab conflict. They argue that Turkey ought to concentrate attention on the pressing challenge to national security posed by Kurdish separatism.

"Leave aside Palestine; the primary interest is in Mount Kandil and Kirkuk," said top nationalist leader and former deputy prime minister Devlet Bahceli, in reference to Kurdish militant strongholds in Turkey and Iraq, respectively.

There is widespread concern that the United Nations stabilization force will be called on incrementally to serve US-Israeli interests and will prove incapable of protecting the Lebanese people from future Israeli aggression. Overarching all this is the pervasive skepticism about Turkey identifying with the United States' controversial "New Middle East" project.

In a televised address to the nation, Erdogan made a forceful case for his decision. He said the only way to safeguard Turkey's interests would be by involving itself in the region, rather than remaining a "mere bystander"; the political opposition was "failing to comprehend world realities"; Turkey's "elevated interests" demanded involvement and any failure to do so "amounted to a betrayal of our past"; the preconditions for Turkey's deployment of troops were fulfilled (a UN mandate, a ceasefire and acceptability of a Turkish military presence by all parties concerned).

Erdogan ruled out any involvement of the Turkish contingent in a combat role or in any task to disarm Hezbollah. He said, "Hezbollah is a sovereign matter for Lebanon and is an interlocutor of the Lebanese government. It is out of the question for the UN peacekeeping force to be drawn into any task of disarming Hezbollah."

Stepping into a quagmire
The government's sensitivity has to be viewed against the backdrop of Turkey's foreign policy, which is traditionally aimed at avoiding the quagmire in the Middle East - a course originally set by Ataturk, the father of the modern Turkish state. Thus Turkey consistently refrained from taking sides in the countless vanity fairs and disputes among its Arab neighbors (who were historically part of the Ottoman Empire), or in the 50-year Arab-Israeli conflict.
This policy ensured that Turkey kept out of wars and made no fierce enemies in the region, though a deleterious side-effect, arguably, was that Turkey had no firm friends in its neighborhood, either.

Erdogan is now relegating to history that chapter of "masterly inactivity" in Turkey's Middle East policy. This hasn't happened all of a sudden. In his past three years in power, Erdogan dexterously took a huge arc, almost unobtrusively for the most part, of shifting the course of Turkish policy.

He followed a two-pronged approach. Even as he counted on the Foreign Ministry to maintain diplomatic ties with Israel on an even keel, he himself resorted to a "tilt" toward Turkey's Arab brethren at the political level. The "tilt" took the form of a more vocal stance within the OIC, intensified political exchanges with Arab countries, dealings with Hamas in Palestine, a warming of relations with Syria and Iran, and Erdogan himself directing an occasional barb or two against Israel.

Thus Turkey's political leadership blamed Israel for the latest flare-up in the Middle East, and was manifestly reluctant to criticize Hezbollah. Erdogan resorted to sharp rhetoric at the OIC's emergency meeting on Lebanon held in Kuala Lumpur on August 3. He said: "No justification can show what is happening [in Lebanon] to be innocent. This war that we are witnessing can never be accepted as legitimate by any means. It cannot be defended."

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul strode further ahead in an article in the Washington Post: "Throughout the world, the same question is being asked: Why has the sole superpower, which alone has the capability to stop this tragedy, turned a blind eye to the images of human suffering and a deaf ear to the cries for mercy? The grave tragedy that has been unfolding before our eyes in Lebanon, and the inability of the international community to bring it to an end after three weeks of suffering, unfortunately raise questions about the US and its proud legacy of leadership for freedom and justice."

Interestingly, both Washington and Jerusalem took such strident criticism calmly, estimating probably the need for the Turkish leadership to ride the crest of domestic opinion that was so overwhelmingly surcharged over the US-Israeli axis in the Middle East.

What are Erdogan's calculations? First, the Turkish military and political leaderships want to regain the ground lost in Ankara's equations with the administration of US President George W Bush after the rejection by the Turkish parliament in March 2003 of the idea of deployment of US troops on Turkish soil in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

Second, in political terms, Erdogan has been bearing the brunt of the chill in US-Turkey relations. A fresh turn offers itself during his forthcoming official visit to Washington on October 6-7. US backing will become useful for him politically when Turkey prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections next year. Erdogan is equally conscious that his Islamist credentials are useful for the US in the Middle East's politics.

Third, Erdogan intends to enhance Turkey's profile as a key player in the region. He hopes that along with Turkey's regional standing, his own leadership role in the Muslim world will get a fillip, and that in turn is bound to have resonance in the Islamic constituency in Turkey, especially if he projects himself as a candidate in the presidential election in May.

Finally, through a significant military presence in Lebanon, Ankara will be drawing the attention of the European Union once again to Turkey's unmatchable role as a bridge between the Western world and Muslim Middle East.

But there are dangers in Erdogan's audacious decision. First, there are inherent uncertainties in the Lebanon situation over which Turkey has no influence. Second, what today begins as a benign peacekeeping mission by the UN can transform in due course.

Third, Erdogan may believe that Turkey has a natural role to play in the Middle East but, as Michael Rubin, former Pentagon official and prominent Middle East expert with the American Enterprise Institute, put it, "His [Erdogan's] neo-Ottomanism aside, he is neither trusted by the Israelis nor the Lebanese. Many in Israel will not forgive his statements of sympathy for Palestinian terrorist groups, and the Lebanese remember that when they had their Cedar Revolution and the world was pressuring Syria to preserve Lebanese freedom, Erdogan chose Damascus over Beirut."

Most important, Ankara is pinning hopes on Washington's capacity to appreciate its gesture. Whereas peacekeepers, when successful, are soon forgotten, in Lebanon, on the other hand, the chances of things going wrong are real, which would make Turkish participation risky.

But what will matter to the Turkish leadership (civilian and military) is the extent to which Washington is willing to reciprocate Turkey's goodwill by cooperating with Turkey's "war on terror" against the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). There is uneasiness in Ankara whether Washington will go beyond a few cosmetic moves aimed at appeasing Turkey, and proceed to take concrete steps against the Kurdish guerrillas.

To be sure, Bush's recent pledges of a larger anti-PKK effort had an effect on Erdogan. As National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley acknowledged, the PKK matter is "something we [Washington] have to address more aggressively. The president has made that assurance to Prime Minister Erdogan, and I think he was relieved. Now we've got to deliver on it."

The problem is, Washington has made such pledges in the past by way of appeasing Ankara and keeping it from intervening forcefully in northern Iraq. If Turkish expectations are not fulfilled this time around, Erdogan will face a serious problem, as he will be seen to be doing "America's job" in Lebanon.

And that is a public perception that Erdogan simply cannot afford with an election year looming. Turkish columnist Burak Bekdil recently explained that "anti-Americanism" in Turkey had traversed ideological divides and now is an apolitical phenomenon.
Bekdil wrote: "Islamists, nationalists, Kemalists, liberals, social democrats, leftists, your cleaning lady, the waiter at your favorite restaurant, the owner of the shop on the corner, the taxi driver, even the modern Turkish youth who 'try to live like the Americans' are anti-American."

Washington's moves on the PKK issue, therefore, will be a litmus test for Ankara. The Bush administration recently issued an appeal to the PKK to lay down arms. But a Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman curtly reacted, "We found the statement somewhat odd, because we would expect the US to take rather more concrete steps instead of a statement expressing the obvious."

Again, Washington has appointed retired General Joseph Ralston as a "coordinator" for the PKK matter. But according to top Turkish commentator Fatih Altayli, this only "caused annoyance" to Turkish security agencies, which felt that the move held no "meaning" for Turkey as there was "no need for such a coordination group". Altayli quoted Turkish intelligence sources as sensing a "dangerous aspect" to Washington's decision, since "if a US coordinator, who will have an official title, meets with the PKK, and that, too, with Turkey's approval, and performs the role of a go-between for Turkey and the PKK, then Turkey will face a fait accompli".

The question once again returns like a bad coin to the war in Iraq: Can Washington afford to antagonize its Kurdish allies in northern Iraq?

All in all, therefore, Erdogan has taken Turkish policy into uncharted waters. He is indeed a brave and gifted politician with an extraordinary track record of salvaging the ground from hopeless situations. But as opposition leader Deniz Baykal described last week, Erdogan is taking on epic forces.

Baykal said, "Turkey is entering the vortex of the clash of civilizations. How sad, this is a Jewish-Muslim war! In all honesty, Turkey will gain if it keeps out. This is only the first phase of the conflict. One doesn't end the world's oldest conflict by sending in a UN peacekeeping force."

Yet settling a civilizational clash from the dawn of history would have been a tall order for even Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-66), the sultan under whom the Ottoman Empire reached its zenith.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)


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