Lebanon through Turkish eyes

Erdal Güven
14 August 2006

Turkey, as an overwhelmingly Muslim nation located at the edge of the middle east with close cultural as well as historical ties to the region, has always been sensitive to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the latest chapter of this conflict – the war in Lebanon sparked by Hizbollah's border raid of 12 July 2006 and ended with a precarious ceasfire on 14 August – this sensitivity has expressed itself in a range of responses that are more uniform at the popular than at the official, governmental level.

The Turks are, apart from a tiny minority, not anti-semitic or anti-Israeli. At the same time, and despite some bitter memories rooted in the era of the Ottoman empire's disintegration – they have almost always felt themselves closer to their Muslim brethren than to Israel. This attitude was reflected in the way that throughout the Lebanese war, most Turkish citizens sympathised with their fellow Muslims, the Lebanese Shi'a who suffered a majority of the attacks and casualties.

But for the government in Ankara (dominated by the moderate Islamist Justice & Development Party [AKP], led by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and foreign minister Abdullah Gül) it is a different story. These leaders have been obliged to take two factors into account: Turkey's strategic relations with Israel, and the need to avoid alienating the Muslim countries of the region. As a result, Turkey's government has striven to pursue an even-handed, delicately balanced policy in Lebanon. This dual consideration is the latest expression of a recurrent pattern: Turkey can foster its relations with both sides at times of relative calm in the middle east, but finds this policy put under stress at times of crisis.

Erdal Güven is managing editor and foreign-policy columnist on of the Turkish daily Radikal

A consensus of solidarity

Israel's unexpectedly harsh reaction to Hizbollah's initial operation launched an asymmetric war that inflicted heavy civilian casualties on Lebanese people, as well as destroying much of the country's infrastructure. The deaths of hundreds of civilians and the subjection of much of the population to Israeli bombardment were widely condemned in Turkey – in a series of demonstrations, in public declarations by civil-society organisations, in statements and petitions from intellectuals. One group of writers and politicians even undertook a mission of solidarity with the Lebanese people and tried to reach Beirut while it was under bombardment, though its members were blocked by security restrictions.

The opposition parties – from the left to the far-right and the Islamists – seemed united in joining the anti-Israel condemnation. In an unprecedented move, some Turkish members of the Israeli-Turkish parliamentary friendship committee even resigned in protest.

The media's coverage has to a great extent reflected the public mood. For weeks, newspapers were full of pictures of civilians killed and of buildings destroyed as a result of the Israeli attacks, their headlines openly critical of Israeli heavy-handedness. In addtion, most columnists held Israel responsible for the latest round of violence, and recommended both an immediate ceasefire and the unconditional withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanese territory.

Moreover, even Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself – noted for his frankness on Israel's Palestinian policy (he once accussed Israel of "implementing state terrorism" against the Palestinians) – was explicit in his criticism of Israel. He accused the Israeli side of being "to blame" for the war, though backtracked some days later by saying: "It doesn't make sense to ask whose fault it is".

But Israel has not been the only target of Turkish criticism. The United States's overt and unshaken approval of the Israeli attacks has fuelled the already high anti-US tide in Turkey. Furthermore, the US administration's refusal to approve Turkey's possible military intervention in northern Iraq to strike militants of the Kurdish PKK – while fully endorsing Israel's punitive policy towards Hizbollah – was seen as further proof of an "American-style double standard".

In addition, the United Nations and the European Union have come under fire for what many Turks perceive as their passive and ineffective policy. Most interestingly perhaps, there has been criticism of Arab regimes as well – mainly Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan – for their "cowardice" in failing to support their Arab brethren.

Turkey's role in Lebanon

After a frustrating attempt to act as a mediator between the two sides to secure a ceasefire and the release of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers, most attention in the Turkish public arena has focused on Turkey's possible participation in an international force to be deployed in Lebanon when conditions allow for the implementation of the ceasefire.

Despite the pro-Arab (in this case pro-Lebanese) mood, Turkish public opinion in general has been cautious about such direct involvement by Turkey. A few columnists have seen this possible deployment as "a means to strenghten Turkey's regional role" and "a way to improve tarnished American-Turkish relations"; but many sectors of public opinion see this as a "very dangerous mission" and an "unnecesarry adventure".

The government, however, seems willing to take the risk – provided that a ceasefire was secured and the international force would act under full UN mandate.

This readiness, if combined with progress on the ground in southern Lebanon in light of the United Nations Security Council resolution 1701 passed on 11 August, is bound to keep the topic of sending Turkish troops to Lebanon at the top of Turkey's political agenda.

The final decision is as yet uncertain, but it will heavily depend on how the mission of this new force is defined and how Turkish public opinion – as much as the authorities – assesses its risks and responsibilities.

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