North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Soap operas will not save Turkey’s reputation in Lebanon

As Lebanon struggles to create a new government following the port explosion and amid protests, two nations vie for influence in the country

Can Ture
21 July 2021, 12.00am
Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu visit Lebanon on 8 August, 2020
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Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs

“Turkey and France are two friendly and allied countries. And they will remain so. We must ensure that no misunderstanding comes to disturb this relationship of friendship to which we are sincerely attached,” wrote the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, last month in the French newspaper L’Opinion ahead of a meeting with his French counterpart. It was only a few months earlier that Turkey’s President Erdoğan had questioned France’s President Macron’s mental health in a speech. The two men have a history of making harsh remarks about each other.

When a catastrophic explosion at Beirut’s port rocked Lebanon on 4 August 2020 and brought the tiny Middle Eastern country to the attention of the international public, Joe Biden had not yet been elected as US president. Nor was Turkey struggling to repair its political ties with the West. The blast, caused by tons of ammonium nitrate, hit large swathes of Beirut and affected the whole of Lebanon. The tragedy came at a time when the country had been battered by anti-government protests, beginning in October 2019, as well as rising coronavirus cases and an economic downturn resulting in an unprecedented devaluation of the Lebanese pound against the US dollar. The tragic episode was immediately followed by top-rank visits by French and Turkish government figures. Macron rushed to Beirut and pledged support for the reconstruction of the city. He not only promised humanitarian aid but also called on Lebanese politicians to adopt “a new political deal”. He would return to the Lebanese capital three weeks later, this time to urge the country’s politicians to form a reform government, and give them a deadline by which he wanted this to happen.

Only two days after Macron’s visit, a Turkish delegation including Fuad Oktay, top aide to Erdoğan, and Çavuşoğlu, arrived in Beirut. Having met with President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Hassan Diab and the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, Oktay drew attention to the medical and food supplies that he had brought and emphasised Turkey’s continued support for Lebanon. Oktay also offered Lebanese authorities temporary use of the Turkish port of Hatay until the blast-hit Beirut port was back in operation.

The visits were perceived by some as a return of the former colonial powers, with their jostling for power over the country. Macron was quoted as saying, “If France doesn’t play its role, the Iranians, Turks and Saudis will interfere with Lebanese domestic affairs, and their economic and geopolitical interests are likely to be to the detriment of the Lebanese.”

Ankara considers Lebanon as part of its own ‘hinterland’

In response, Turkish officials downplayed Macron’s Beirut comments. “It is actually France that interferes with Lebanese domestic politics; we shouldn’t take Macron too seriously. He is like a spoiled child in the region,” said Oktay. The bickering, along with recent rivalry between the two former imperial powers over Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, gave the world the impression of a power struggle.

For international policy analysts, the recent fallout reflected a continuation of the longer-term feud between Erdoğan and Macron. Jana Jabbour, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris and author of the book 'Turkey: A Rising Power Diplomacy', said: “Ankara wanted through this visit to ‘mark its points’ and defend what it sees as its own sphere of influence. Ankara considers Lebanon as part of its own ‘hinterland’, and has thus very negatively perceived Macron’s visit to the country. In that sense, the visit of Turkish officials aimed to defend Turkey’s influence and role in Lebanon against the perceived ‘foreign interventionism’ of France.”

The EastMed factor

Lebanon is already a battleground for the regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran and, by extension, the actors positioned around the two: Turkey, France, the US and Russia. The confessional character of its constitution allocates top executive posts to different sectarian groups and rules that all sects must be represented in the cabinet, a system that facilitates the exploitation of governmental deadlocks by foreign patrons. Since the resignation of the prime minister, Saad Hariri, in November 2019, Lebanon has been unable to form a robust government because of the disagreements between different political and sectarian factions over ministerial posts. In fact, the lifting of the confessional system has been among the protestors’ main demands.

The actions of the Turkish government after the explosion reflected not only its fallout with the Macron government but the regional animosities in which it has found itself engaged in recent years as a result of the belligerent tone of its foreign policy. “Recently, Turkey found itself in a fight with France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” reported Mohamed Noureddine, professor of modern Turkish history at the Lebanese University. “For Turkey, Lebanon is a significant battleground against these powers.”

In his op-ed for L’Opinion, Çavuşoğlu underlined shared priorities between Turkey and France over Syria and Libya; he did not mention Lebanon. However, last August’s Lebanon showdown is widely seen by analysts as a reflection of the feud over wider regional issues. According to Nuray Mert, a professor and veteran Middle East expert, “It is a reflection of the Turkey-France rift in regional affairs in general. The major stake is Turkey’s ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

The offshore gas reserves recently discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean have been a foreign policy game changer for littoral states in the region, namely Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt and Turkey. It was not until the last few months that the Erdoğan government realised its isolation in the EastMed game and attempted to make amends in its relations with Egypt and Israel, and returned to the table for consultative talks with Greece. Erdoğan toned down his supportive discourse towards the Libyan Government of National Accord with which Ankara signed an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) agreement to cut through the EastMed pipeline and the EEZs of Cyprus and Greece. Turkey and Lebanon are still exploring reserves in their EEZs, while Israel and Egypt have already been natural gas exporters for a while.

Turkey’s military involvement in the Syrian war since 2011, its alignment with the Muslim Brotherhood, and its sectarian leanings have enraged many in the region

Despite an ongoing maritime dispute with Israel, the Lebanese government began exploration activities in 2018, but the presence of oil and gas reserves has not yet been confirmed. Jabbour thinks that the possibility of a discovery is attracting the attention of international powers: “Turkish officials’ rush to Lebanon immediately after Macron’s visit was targeted at defending Turkey’s energy interests in the EastMed, and at reasserting Turkey’s right to have access to the oil and gas resources that may be found off the shores of Lebanon. Ankara’s deployment of the Oruc Reis military vessel in the Mediterranean during Macron’s visit was meant to convey the message that Turkey stands ready to defend its interests against any potential French aggression.”

Persona non grata

Upon coming to power in 2002, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) introduced a then-unprecedented approach to the Arab world. The Western-oriented Turkey had left the Middle East as a ‘neglected backyard’. In a couple of years, the new government improved its relationship with the region. Its popularity among the Arab public increased hand in hand with an economic success story, embodied in high growth figures, and the beginning of the EU accession talks. Turkey was seen as a model for the coexistence of Islam and democracy. It was a popular destination for tourists in the region and Turkish soap operas were aired on TV stations across the Middle East from the early 2000s, with a greater number in recent years.

It was during the term of Ahmet Davutoğlu as foreign minister (2009-2014) that Lebanon came back under Turkey’s spotlight. The country was a pivotal part of Davutoğlu’s ‘strategic depth’ doctrine, which promoted an active role and more involvement for Turkey in the Middle East to establish itself as a regional power. Official visits of politicians were joined by Turkish businessmen and Turkish products began to dominate Arab markets.

In the mid-2000s, Turkey had played an active mediator role in the Lebanese conflict and Turkish Armed Forces sent troops to the UNIFIL II peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon after the 2006 war with Israel. Thousands of Lebanese Turkmens living predominantly in and around the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli obtained Turkish citizenship. “Under the circumstances, the AKP allied itself with the Western- and Saudi-backed Sunni faction, namely the Future Movement (Al-Mustaqbal) of Rafic Hariri. Nonetheless, the close relations between the AKP and Hariri’s party/family avoided direct challenge with Iran, which backed the Shiite-dominated factions. It was a lucky time for Turkey,” says Mert. “A lot has changed since then, apart from the fact that the prime minister’s power is always contested in the Lebanese system and that Hariri’s son Saad is a French protégé,” she added.

Turkey’s military involvement in the Syrian war since 2011, its alignment with the Muslim Brotherhood, and its sectarian leanings have enraged many in the region. The toppling of one Muslim Brotherhood government after another marked the beginning of Turkey’s decline in the region. “Turkey interfered with the internal affairs of many Arab states including Syria and Egypt. This has had a catastrophic impact on its image,” said Noureddine. “Turkey gained historic opportunities between 2002 and 2010, but Erdoğan wasted these chances with his expansionist policies during the Arab Spring. This potential for Turkey completely ended after 2011.”

“Turkey’s loss of influence in Lebanon in recent years is, in a way, a collateral damage fromthe Syrian crisis,” added Jabbour. “Sunnis in Lebanon have been disappointed by Turkey’s inability to topple the Syrian regime of Bachar Al Assad. As for the Shias, they now consider Turkey as their enemy as Ankara is siding against the Alawite regime of Assad.”

Middle Easternisation” of Turkey

The AKP’s foreign policy predicaments coincided with domestic challenges to its tightening grip on the country. The nationwide wave of protests in 2013 not only rocked Turkey but also tarnished Erdoğan’s image. Three years later, the country witnessed a coup attempt. The main suspects were the Gulenists, a network with members occupying strategic positions in the state apparatus, and the AKP government’s long-time ally. The episode was followed by a two-year-long period of emergency rule during which thousands of civil servants, academics, and members of security forces were purged and journalists imprisoned. The conversion to the presidential system was the last blow in a series of authoritarian steps. This democratic decay was accompanied by economic meltdown. For Noureddine, “The admiration [of the Arab world] evaporated after Turkey’s economic and democratic system collapsed.”

"Turkey’s recent evolution shows that instead of serving as a model of democracy for the Arab world, it ended up adopting the very model of authoritarianism embodied by Arab autocracies,” Jabbour commented.

Coskun Aral is a veteran Turkish journalist who lived in Lebanon for a decade during the 1980s and reported on the Lebanese Civil War. In his view, “We were not like Lebanon, but I can say that we have become so. Lately, in Turkey a lot of things have started to look like it.” He cited the dissatisfaction with and indifference to politics among Turkish young people. “This is exactly the case with the Lebanese youth nowadays.”

An uninfluential ‘colonial’ power

If one side of the Lebanon crisis requires humanitarian action to solve short-term problems of poverty, food shortage, shrinking hygiene supplies and the urban destruction caused by the blast and the financial crisis, the other side is a more painstaking effort to reach a social consensus that will reform and reshape the state. The political system generates no effective executive power but frequent political deadlocks.

Since the resignation of the former prime minister, Saad Hariri, in 2019, political rows among Shia, Sunni and Christian factions have prevented any reform efforts, the precondition for the West to release the massive financial aid that the country needs to restore economic stability and diminish its skyrocketing inflation rate. The system had long been recognised as a problem. It’s the reason thousands have taken to the streets since October 2019, protesting the corrupt and uncompromising elites that have been in their political positions for decades, and the confessional system that makes progress impossible.

During its visit after the Beirut explosion, the Macron delegation put forward a relatively concrete action plan that, before everything else, requires a reform government made up of technocrats. The plan envisaged extensive governance and public finance reform, including closer consultation with civil society, more scrutiny over public spending and the deposits in Lebanon’s central bank, enactment of a judicial independence law and strong efforts to curb corruption and smuggling.

The reforms would be followed by a fundraising conference under the coordination of France. But with prime minister-designate Hariri failing to form a government after nine months of trying, the reality of a new government is still an open question and the implementation of the plan seems far from a reality.

The government impasse, mainly caused by the stubborn political parties unwilling to waive their political power, attracted fury in the Elysée Palace and Paris sanctioned certain Lebanese politicians for what the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, called “involvement in the current political blockage and corruption”.

While France has concrete reform demands on the table, Ankara has thus far offered no way out of the current crisis and no structural reform package for long-term stability, only occasional donations and construction projects, despite its economic and political interests in the country. “Turkey’s diplomacy in Lebanon seems to be event-driven,” commented Jabbour. “Instead of ‘acting’ in Lebanon by putting forward clear suggestions and coming up with new proposals to find an effective solution to its multifaceted crisis, Ankara seems to be on the defensive and to be only ‘reacting’ to events and evolutions on the ground.”

According to Noureddine, Turkey is not in a position to act as a mediator. “The Turkish government offers economic and humanitarian aid to Lebanon, which is not in a condition to reject such offers. However, Turkey cannot be a part of a political solution to Lebanon’s crisis. Except for parts of the Sunni community, no Lebanese group has a positive approach towards Turkey. So, the circumstances are not appropriate for a potential Turkish mediation.”

Protestors have repeatedly voiced their wish for foreign actors to change their attitude towards the Lebanese establishment

Mert agreed with this analysis. “Under the circumstances, let alone helping Lebanon to solve its problems, Turkey’s effort to play a role in Lebanon’s future is unwanted not only by one party but by all parties in the Lebanese game.” she said, implying that even the relationship between the Turkish state and Lebanon’s Sunni community is not as strong as it was in the past.

How to win Lebanon back

With his familiarity with Lebanese politics Coşkun Aral is pessimistic about the potential of the continuing protests: “Protests have always existed in Lebanese streets, but it is very unlikely that they will influence or shape Lebanese politics in any way,” he said. However, if there’s one thing that the October 2019 protests did change, it is the way the West conducts its relations with Lebanon.

Overwhelmed by its own economic and political turmoil, the Turkish approach to the massive protests has been a silent indifference thus far. For Jabbour, Turkey’s silence about the protests results from the fact that Saad Hariri, Turkey’s favored leader, was back in politics as the prime minister-designate before stepping down last week: “Turkey was totally absent during the ‘revolution’ of October 2019 in Lebanon. No official position was announced and it remained silent. This does not affect Turkey’s influence and role in Lebanon as the revolution has gradually died and today the country is back to square zero, with the same leaders and politicians at the forefront.”

The protestors have repeatedly voiced their wish for foreign actors to change their attitude towards the Lebanese establishment. “International actors are encouraged to see an interest in this decisive solution for Lebanon, after many decades of state failure and instability, and thus avoid short-term remedies that would only partially postpone the collapse,” said Ibrahim Halawi, UK secretary for Citizens in a State (MMFD), a left-wing opposition political party in Lebanon

However, the movement is not uniform and consists of numerous factions. The grassroots organisations, informal interest groups and political parties that took to the streets in 2019 each have a different vision of change for Lebanon. Many protestors point to the difficulty of calling the protests a ‘movement’. The consensus in demanding a new constitution and new politicians does not extend to all issues.

Some express cynicism about the role of outsiders. Noting France’s provision of teargas and other riot equipment to the Ben Ali government in Tunisia in 2011, Roula Seghaier, a feminist activist who took part in the Lebanese protests, offered a comment: “It [France] did the same in Lebanon in 2019. So, that is a form of recognition of the fact that such protests can bring about change!”

When asked about what the protestors and the feminist bloc she belongs to expect from the international community, Seghaier sounds firm: “To stop funding the warlords in power. That’s it. Enough damage done.”

Her view about the need for a domestic solution and who should be the driving force of a possible change in Lebanon echoes many movement participants interviewed: “If I am to be truly honest as to whom I consider to be legitimate forces of change, it is the working classes and progressive movements that are non-partisan. We do not see a role for the international community outside of stopping their legitimising efforts for the ruling elites.”

Despite the deep fractures among the Lebanese social opposition, most of the groups constituting the 2019 October movement, or ‘the revolution’ as they call it, are united over the adoption of a modern constitutional system that does not favour politicians and bureaucrats on the basis of sect but of competence. Ankara seems to have no choice but to ride this looming wave if it wants to gain ground to cooperate with the Lebanese beyond a limited sectarian appeal.

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