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TURKEY: Old Colonial Rivalries Revive over Libya

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ANKARA, Mar 25 2011 (IPS) - Turkey’s volte-face Thursday evening to make a sizeable military contribution to NATO’s intervention in the Libyan crisis, after two weeks of fierce opposition to the Alliance’s mingling with Arab affairs, has further blurred Ankara’s position in the North African conflict.

The Turkish Grand General Assembly voted in a closed-door session Thursday in favour of the country’s military participation in NATO’s plans to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which calls for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya, and other measures aiming at restraining the activities of Muammar Gaddafi’s forces fighting anti-government rebels in the country.

The Turkish maritime contribution, proposed by the government in Ankara, will consist of four frigates, one support vessel and one submarine. Five other countries have already committed one ship each, making Turkey’s contribution rather substantial. The NATO naval force’s mission, under Italian command, will be to prevent weapons and ammunition destined for Gaddafi’s army from reaching the Libyan coast.

In another surprise move on Friday, Ankara offered NATO its air force infrastructure in Izmir to host the Alliance’s operations headquarters for creating the no-fly zone.

Several hundreds of demonstrators, mostly from opposition parties and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), gathered during Thursday’s vote outside parliament and the U.S. Embassy shouting slogans against Turkish involvement and the presence in Ankara of NATO’s top military commander, U.S. Adm. James Stavridis, who was having meetings with Turkish senior officers about the crisis in the Middle East.

The Security Council passed Resolution 1973 on Mar. 17 with 10 votes in favor and 5 abstentions (Brazil, China, Germany, India, and Russia) in a 55-minute session. The resolution falls short of authorising regime change, a move that China and Russia might have blocked through the use of their right of veto at the Security Council.


Turkey has sought since the break out of the civil war in Libya to influence western powers to stay out of the conflict, fearing a backlash of Arab public opinion against Europe and the U.S.

In an effort to dissuade a vote by the Security Council, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had on Mar. 14 said that “Any NATO military operation in Libya would be unhelpful and fraught with risk,” a stance he continued to take in subsequent speeches, calling for an immediate cease-fire in Libya and saying he opposed foreign military intervention, including a no-fly zone operation.

But the French initiative, backed by Britain, to begin bombing Libya two days after the U.N. resolution was passed, seems to have played a role in Ankara’s change of strategy.

The formation of an ad hoc coalition by a small number of Western powers, including Britain, Canada and France, and U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision for his country to assume a vital role, at least temporarily, has changed the lay-out on the chess board.

Turkey’s foreign policy has been, since the Israeli Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 against Hamas in Gaza, to assume a regional political power role in the Middle East, tapping on the privileged relations of Ankara with the Muslim world. This has led to severing military ties with the Jewish state and diplomatic cold war between the two countries, which has resulted in boosting Erdogan’s popularity in the Middle East.

Turkey’s new regional agenda, labeled by political observers Neo-Ottomanist, has guided Ankara’s moderate and conciliatory position in the events in the Arab world since last December. Erdogan and Turkish President Abdullah Gul have been very active in trying to advise national leaders in revolt-torn countries, including Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, to show restraint and move towards democratic reforms.

Ideology is the façade of such diplomatic fever. Turkey’s economic interests in the Arab world are paramount to the government’s credibility less than three months before the next national elections.

Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party won — for Turkey — an unprecedented victory in the 2007 contest with 47 percent of the vote, mostly because of the country’s growing prosperity, fuelled by strong exports to the Middle East, which have increased by 600 percent to 30 billion U.S. dollars since the AKP came to power in 2002 and which represent one-third of the country’s total exports. Turkish foreign direct investment in Libya alone exceeds 15 billion dollar.

It is, therefore, easy to understand Ankara’s anxiety in the application of the Security Council resolution. Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO, does not want to be seen as assuming an imperialistic role in the Middle East, a region that was part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 500 years, until 1918.

On the other hand, Turkey cannot pursue its Pax Ottomana agenda by being a mere spectator of the events in the region. Being active in NATO’s activities gives Ankara access to local intelligence and to the intentions and decision-making process of the alliance.

Erdogan, speaking Thursday night in Istanbul, questioned the motives of the hastily formed Anglo-French coalition and warned that the imposition of a no-fly zone or any other military action aiming at seizing Libya’s natural resources would be intolerable.

“I wish that those who only see oil, gold mines and underground treasures when they look in that direction, would see the region through glasses of conscience from now on,” said Erdogan, visibly irritated by an earlier indirect allusion by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe to a modern “crusade”.

France has been a firm opponent of Turkey’s application to join the European Union, creating periodic tensions between the two countries. French President Nicolas Sarkozy kept Turkey out of the Mar. 19 Paris conference on the implementation of resolution 1973.

The Turkish dialectic seems, however, to be two-pronged. On the one hand, it appeals to the anti-western sentiment of the Turkish conservative population and to the Arab street, serving primarily electoral campaign needs and the image of the Muslim democratic model Turkey wants to project in the region.

At the same time, Ankara wants to be part of the club of the powerful in order to reinforce its new-found identity of a catalyser in the Middle East. Its sustained effort to influence hearts and minds there has perhaps prompted the Anglo-French military intervention, in a positioning race in the new Arab world.

Britain, France and Italy — which replaced the Ottomans after 1918 as colonial powers — now apparently see a window of opportunity to return. The dispute is on whether they should be carrying guns or olive branches.

 
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