Sunday, March 20, 2011

Turkey struggles with its Libya stance

My mind goes back to those times in Ankara when we in the diplomatic corps agonized so much over Turkey's role in any NATO operations in the Balkans. Turkey's stance on Libya strikes me as a replay of its stance on the Balkans. In fact, Turkey's "neo-Ottoman" legacy included, Turkey's pretensions were almost the same - that it was a potential bridge between Europe and the Balkans, that it was "more experienced" than Europe in the affairs of the Balkans thanks to Ottoman rule, that Muslim people were involved, that it was in Turkey's neighborhood, etc. In the event, Turkey fell in line and meekly picked up what the West offered - an auxiliary role in the NATO operations. Even for peacekeeping later, the West opted for EU, which of course, meant Turkey stood by largely as a spectator.
The same trajectory seems to be surfacing over Libyan developments. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has significantly fine-tuned his Libya stance. Interestingly, this happened in the course of a speech at a conference of the Jeddah Economic Forum at Jeddah. By the way, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal paid a unpublicized visit to Ankara on Thursday late evening for a few hours. Faisal would have given some thoughtful worldly advice to the Turkish leadership. Wealthy Arabs salt away a lot of 'green money' in Turkey.
Anyway, Erdogan has for the first time appeared to be critical of Muammar Gaddafi: "Gaddafi is contradicting himself. He said he was not officially the leader of Libya. What is expected of a person who is not officially in charge is to hand over [the administration of] Libya to a person who has an official leadership position.” Erdogan didn't make any forthright criticism of the western military attack on Libya, either. All he would say: “Of course, now we want the military intervention to end and stability to be restored as soon as possible in Libya. We are not pessimistic. We should never lose hope. We can stop the unending bloodshed and tears in this region. Believe me, we can do this.”
Now comes the big question: Will Turkey join the western military operations? Traditionally, in such matters Turkish military used to make the final decisions. But the Kemalist era is in a twilight zone and time is in animated suspension in Turkish politics as parliamentary elections are due in June. Turkey seems to be dithering at a crossroads. Late Saturday, Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement that Ankara will make the necessary and appropriate national contribution to implementing the no-fly zone over Libya and measures to protect civilians. “Within that framework the necessary preparations and studies are being made by civil and military authorities in co-ordination." The MFA statement cryptically ended on this note, which opens up all sorts of possibilities. The Turkish media has already begun speculating that Turkey could provide one or two frigates to support an international naval force deployed off the Libyan coast, or it could open its airspace for aerial strikes on Libya.
Of course, much depends on whether or not the western operations - presently involving US, UK, France, Italy and Canada - are eventually brought under the NATO flag. In principle, Turkey has no problem with the no-fly zone concept as such. Nor is it in any position to oppose a NATO operation. My estimation that Turkey will ultimately contribute to any NATO operations in some way. It will be too much of a risk politically for Turkey to dissociate from a major NATO enterprise outside Europe. NATO membership is the anchor sheet of Turkey's strategic thinking. Things have changed a great deal in Turkish foreign policy in the recent years with regard to neighborhood policies - toward Russia, Iran, Israel and so on - but the Turkish military will not be amenable to an open dissociation from a major NATO decision or a NATO project in the Mediterranean.
Of course, Turkey's Libya dilemma somewhat eases with the Arab League's criticism of the western operations. African Union has already called for an immediate cessation of the western operation. Russia and China have been categorical in their opposition to the western air strikes and the unilateral interpretation of Resolution 1973. A NATO move in the face of the growing regional and international opinion becomes problematic. Ankara may just get away with its prevarication and strategic ambiguity - and, who knows, if luck holds, Ankara may even secure a slice of the mediation that may become necessary at some stage to convey a few sensible things to Gaddafi.

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