By İsmail Duman, World Bulletin
“During the leadership of Turgut Ozal, Turkey’s relations with the Middle East improved. Turkey had neglected the Middle East before. Ozal mostly established economic ties with the Gulf states at the time. But Turkey and the Arab world have had long-term grudges against each other, and that could not be overcome overnight. So the relations have had ups and downs. For example, Turkey and Syria did not have good relations because of the problem of terrorism. Another example is the water dispute, especially between Iraq and Turkey. But such problems do not exist today anymore.” says Professor Samir Salha. Today, “the Arab world was divided about how much credit should be given to the AK Party government. At the beginning, the more liberal countries, such as Syria, the North African countries and Lebanon were supportive. Then the Arab monarchies started to cooperate with Turkey. Even though the monarchies established a trusting relation with Turkey later than the liberal states, their relations with Turkey have speedily increased. Such countries as Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have economic, social, educational and cultural ties with Turkey. There are even strategic ties. The AK Party has had an even more active foreign policy in the Arab world since the 2007 elections. And there are even more courageous steps taken in that regard.”
As Klauz Jurgins says, Turkey has embarked on a wide-ranging mission to put into practice what the government declared its core aim when it comes to foreign policy: zero problems with neighbors.
Today, many Arab leaders accept Turkey’s role in the region and they are pleased to see Turkey’s assistance in order to solve their crises. Turkey’s active role in the region is very important in the emergence of this picture. As you know, we come across Turkey as a mediator in every problematic issue such as Palestine, Syria, etc...
In this analysis, we want to look at Turkey’s role in Lebanon and of course the perception of Turkey among different groups in Lebanon. Firstly, we should emphasize that as Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu says, “Lebanon is like a small Middle East, with many communities like Christian, Sunni, Shia, Druze. Therefore, the survival of Lebanon as a stable, prosperous state is a reflection, indicator of regional peace.”
Because of the importance of Lebanon, Turkey’s examination in this region is very crucial. If it accomplishes this function carefully, Turkey will take important steps in its ‘zero problem’ policy and Turkish leaders, in this way, can strongly became a hero in the Middle East. But we should say that although ‘Lebanon is a logical choice to implement’ Turkish foreign policy rationale, at the same time, it is a very dangerous game.
Small Middle East: Lebanon
“Lebanon is one of the rare countries that is currently home to religious and sectarian heterogeneity. In Lebanon, where 18 different sects are recognized by the Constitution, each sect tries to sustain its majority in a certain region. For example; throughout history, Southern Lebanon has been identified with the Shiites, Tripoli with the Sunnis, Shuf with the Druzes, and Kisrivan with the Maronites.” says Veysel Ayhan.
Up to the last decade, Lebanon has witnessed very dramatic scenes. As Oytun Orhan mentions, it “has been, for a great deal of time, under political-military domination of Syria and Israel. Israel had invaded South Lebanon in 1982 and kept its presence in the region until its unilateral withdrawal in 2000. Syria had directly intervened in the Lebanese Civil War in 1976, which had started in 1975, and deployed its troops to Lebanon. Syria’s military presence was legitimized in 1989 Taif Accords. Lebanon remained under Syrian military and political tutelage until the mid 2000s.” And Syrian presence has finished in 2005 after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri.
The history of Turkey-Lebanon relations
There are important parallels between the Turkey-Lebanon relations and Lebanon’s political issues and problems. When we look at the improving Turkey-Lebanon relations, we can easily see this equation.
According to Mohammad Noureddine, “For decades, many Lebanese - both Christian and Muslim - harbored negativity toward the Turkish state. The Christian Lebanese community felt that during the Ottoman Empire the Turks treated Christians as second-class citizens. Christian religious leaders, part of the then Christian majority in Lebanon, were instrumental in attempts to achieve Lebanese independence from the Turkish Sultanate. Add to this the influx of tens of thousands of Ottoman citizens of Christian Armenian origin to Lebanon during the First World War, especially after the mass killings in 1915 when they were perceived as a threat to the Ottoman state.
Muslim sentiment in Lebanon is no less important. The end to the Ottoman caliphate and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 generated anger among Muslims in Lebanon and the region who wanted Turkey to remain a leader of the Muslim world. Hence, secular trends within the Turkish government, instituted by Turkish President Kemal Ataturk, negatively influenced the outlook of many Muslim Lebanese toward Turkey.
A third factor limiting positive Lebanese relations with Turkey was the latter's recognition of Israel in 1950, a country not recognized by Lebanon.
Aside from a brief period in the 1950s when Lebanon and Turkey shared similar interests against Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's pan-Arab movement and a common political affiliation with the United States, there has been very little positive interaction between the two countries at the government level.”
On the other hand, Oytun Orhan summarizes the causes of this little interaction between the two countries at the government level:
“1. Lebanon has been, for a great deal of time, under political-military domination of Syria and Israel. A new era started in Turkey-Lebanon relations after the withdrawal of Israel in 2000 and the end of Syrian presence in 2005 after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri.
2. The Syrian domination in Lebanon and tense relations between Turkey and Syria in the 1990s affected Turkey-Lebanon relations in a negative way. The main cause of Turkey-Syria tension was the issue of Syria’s support to the PKK.
3. Turkey-Syria rapprochement, which started in 1999, directly influenced Turkey-Lebanon relations. Syria has always been a significant actor in Lebanon. If Turkey-Syria relations were tense as in the past, it would not be possible for Turkey to be influential in the Lebanese politics.
4. Turkey, due to its own preference and the regional circumstances, was not directly involved in Middle Eastern problems. Consistent with this approach, Turkey was indifferent to Lebanon. After the AKP government was installed in 2002, a new approach became dominant in Turkey’s perspective toward Middle East, which remarked common history and culture and sought closer cooperation. As a result Turkey has developed a close interest in Lebanon.
5. In Lebanon the need for the role Turkey can play has increased and domestic dynamics in Lebanon required Turkey to be more active.
6. Sectarian factions in Lebanon, which differ on many issues, agree solely on the hatred toward Israel. The setback in Turkey-Israel relations in the recent years has affected the way that Turkey is being perceived in a positive way. The Davos incident, in this sense has played a critical role.”
When we look at the process, we come across two important milestones which led to develop Turkey- Lebanon relations in recent years.
First of all is Israel-Lebanon War. In this war, Turkish leaders criticized Israeli attacks severely. In addition to this, Turkey tried to bring this issue to the international arena. In this period, Turkish Prime Minister’s sentences were very important for the Lebanese people. He said that Turkey will play an active role in Lebanon crisis because it is a historical responsibility for Turkey. On the other hand, after this war, Turkey delivered humanitarian aid by its non-governmental organizations and governmental organizations. In this way, Turkey played ‘an active role in the restructuring of Lebanon’ and Lebanese people began to see Turkey as a friend. Moreover, the Turkish military joined to the peace forces (UNIFIL) in Lebanon as a historical responsibility. All of these developments led to good relations between Turkey and Lebanon.
As a second milestone, Turkey was a mediator between different groups in May 2008 crisis. As Veysel Ayhan says, Turkey has contributed to the elimination of bloody internal conflicts among the Shiites, Sunnis and the Druzes in May 2008, and to the peaceful settlement of the problem by using its influence over both the countries in the region and the Lebanese factions. Turkey’s initiatives during the Lebanese Dialogue Conference in Doha with the Lebanese factions contributed meaningfully to the peaceful resolution of issues regarding the presidency and the establishment of a unified government. After settling the presidency issue, Turkey was the only country other than Qatar to be invited to the swearing in of the country’s newly elected President Michel Suleiman.
Hence, today, Turkey-Lebanon relations shifted from low to high intensity. As we know, today, there are cultural, economical, social and political improved relations between Lebanon and Turkey. Turkish-Lebanese foreign trade is 900 million USD as of 2009. And as Gamze Coskun says, Turkey and Lebanon signed a free trade agreement after an accord was reached earlier this year on establishing a free trade zone that also included Jordan and Syria, which is one step further to the establishment of a regional free trade zone.
Different Factions in Lebanon
As we mentioned above, there are very different groups in Lebanon and they represent small Middle East. Because they have very different viewpoints, we want to focus on their perception of Turkey shortly. Here, giving an ear to Veysel Ayhan’s very important analysis in this issue can be very productive and helpful for us. I will try to summarize his analysis:
“1. Lebanese Shiites’ Perceptions of Turkey: In a historical context, Turkey’s relations with Shiite factions are problematic. In the Ottoman period, Shiism was not recognized as a sect that was separate and independent from the Sunni, and the Sunni judge had effective authority over the Shiites. What changed the Shiites’ negative perception of Turkey in sectarian terms was Turkey’s role during and in the aftermath of 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. Turkey’s anti-Israel statements greatly influenced the Shiite organizations. The Lebanese writer, Prof. Dr. Muhammad Noreddin, proposes that non-governmental organizations which went to the region during the 2006 War are the main factor which changed perceptions of Turkey among the Shiites. Dr. Noreddin suggests that the Shiite people looked askance at Turkey’s foreign policy from the very beginning because they had not enjoyed good relations with the Ottoman regime. However, such opinions began to be eradicated when the Shiites were supported by Turkish aid organizations during the days of harsh conflict. Turkey was the only Sunni country that helped the Shiites in Southern Lebanon.
2. The Sunni Factions’ Perceptions of Turkey: Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, relations between Turkey and the Sunni factions developed under the influence of France and Turkish-Syrian relations, respectively. The relations established with the government of Minister Hariri, who visited Turkey in 2004, have continued and developed since Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon. The principal development which led relations to climb from low to high intensity is that the Hariri family’s Oger Telecom purchased a 55% share of Turk Telecom, which was privatized for 6.5 billion dollars in November 2005. Beyond seeing Turkey as a modern and developed country, the Sunnis support Turkey’s diplomatic, political and cultural expansion policy established by the AKP Government for relations with the Middle-East countries. On the other hand, some of the Sunnis who underline the influence of Iran on the Shiite people and Syria believe that Turkey is the only regional power to break the influence of Iran.
3. The Druze Perspective on Turkey: Relations between Turkey and the Lebanese Druze, who have gained a justified place in the history of Lebanon due to their hospitality, honesty and courage, are uneven as they were before. The main factor which shapes the policy of the Druze is the continuation of their existence and influence in Lebanon. Within this framework, they follow either a cooperative or a confrontational policy. It needs to be said that the Druze will revise their policies in accordance with the regional influence of Turkey since the principal aim of Druze is to protect their existence in Lebanon.
4. The Maronites’ Perspective on Turkey The Maronites are another active faction in Lebanese politics. From a historical viewpoint it is possible to say that the Maronites have traditionally adopted an anti-Ottoman cultural and political approach. But, in related to last development, it is possible to say that Turkish-Maronite relations have the potential to improve in the long term.
5. Lebanese Armenians: Since an important number of Lebanese Armenians are composed of the Armenians who were taken to Lebanon by the French after World War I, they have always adopted a distant attitude towards Turkey. The partisans of the Tashnak and the Hunchak Parties were organized in Lebanon, which was one of the countries where Armenian nationalism was the most powerful during the Cold War, and opposed Turkey openly. However, when the Armenian organizations which had a common policy against Turkey were divided into two blocks, pro-Syria and pro-government, at the time of Lebanese crisis, their effectiveness regarding Turkey was degraded.”
When we look at this picture, we can say that many of these groups began to believe that Turkey has been a rising power in the region. In addition to this as Veysel Ayhan says, a great number of the Lebanese factions see the non-sectarian judicial and political system of Turkey as an alternative for the sectarian understanding in Lebanon. According to some columnists, “on the one hand, there are Shiite groups backed by Iran and Syria; and on the other the Sunnis backed by Saudi Arabia. Turkey, consistent with its Middle Eastern policy, did not take sides in this polarization within Lebanon. However, Turkey is pursuing an active neutrality policy rather than being pacifist.” Moreover, in Oytun Orhan’s opinion, Turkey, due to its power and sui generis approach, is regarded as an equilibrating factor among many conflicting parties in Lebanon.
Special Tribunal on Lebanon: Is it a means for outbreak of civil war?
After we look at the perception of Turkey among different factions, we want to focus on Lebanon’s new problem: Special Tribunal on Lebanon. Actually, the last visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is very important in related to this issue. So, firstly, we should deepen in the detail of this problematic issue.
As Gamze Coskun reports, “Lebanon is at the edge of a crisis concerning the UN-backed inquiry into the killing of Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005. Additionally, it was claimed by CBC News, formerly by Der Spiegel, that the Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah (Party of God) was behind murder of Hariri according to the investigations by the tribunal. However, Hezbollah denies any sorts of involvement into the assassination.”
As you know, “the killing of Rafiq al-Hariri” became a very problematic issue in Lebanon. Foreign influences are trying to change Lebanon’s political scene and actors in parallel to this inquiry. It is not chance that Hezbollah became main target in this issue. Although “during an August press conference, Nasrallah displayed video footage intercepted from Israeli reconnaissance planes detailing the route of Hariri’s motorcade and the assassination site the same day a bomb detonated underneath it, killing him and 21 others.”, Israel and other enemies of Hezbollah are trying to influence other Lebanese groups against to Hezbollah.
On the other hand, according to Ramzy Baroud, “all the malevolent plans hatched following the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri are about to converge for one formidable goal: to destabilize and weaken Lebanon, disarm Hezbollah and allow Israel to return, uncontested, and wreck havoc on the tiny country, the way it remorselessly did in 1982.” And he adds: “The tribunal is a highly politicized venture, strongly backed by the US and Israel. It is seen by many in the region, including Hezbollah itself, as a roundabout attempt to subdue the Lebanese resistance to Israel.”
“The Hezbollah-led, opposition March 8 Coalition has sought to cut the STL’s funding as Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah called on the government to boycott the tribunal entirely, which he dismissed as an ‘Israeli project.’ Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his Sunni and Christian allies in the ruling March 14 Coalition, on the other hand, have vowed to stand by the court and its judgment.” says Rannie Amiri. “The impetus behind the week’s diplomatic flurry was not only that the diametrically opposed positions could lead to government paralysis (which some contend is already the case) but spillover into sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni supporters of the rival coalitions.”
Despite credible evidence linking Tel Aviv to the crime, March 14 Coalition, which mainly serves to Israel and U.S. Imperialism in the region, insists on accusing Hezbollah of responsible for the killing of Hariri. On the other hand, although Hezbollah do not want civil war in Lebanon, it emphasizes that if it is necessary, it will not abstain from it. So, in these days, Lebanon has very hot atmosphere. Because of this reality, the visit of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan had very different importance and we should evaluate his visit in the light of these problems and realities.
Erdogan’s last visit to Lebanon
Before looking at the details of Erdogan’s visit, we should remind you that this is not the first visit in order to prevent possible civil war between different groups in Lebanon. Firstly, we saw Saud-Syria joint visit. As Gamze Coskun says, Syria and Saudi Arabia have a considerable effect on the country, both of which has an influence over a fraction in Lebanon. Economic aids of these countries also make Lebanon’s decision making mechanism highly dependent on these countries.
“The two leaders’ unprecedented joint visit to Beirut in July aimed to placate the coalitions they backed—March 14 and March 8 respectively—and symbolically reinforce the country’s stability.” says Rannie Amiri.
On the other hand, as the other regional power, Iranian President also visited Lebanon in the midst of the October. It is known that Iran explicitly supports Hezbollah. “Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s visit to Lebanon last week has sparked much controversy. The visit has turned into Iran’s demonstration of power in the region, underscoring the link between Hezbollah and Iran.” says Beril Dedeoglu, from Today’s Zaman.
“Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a bold show of strength in Lebanon and the visit by Ahmadinejad, welcomed by crowds of cheering Shiites, underscored the eroding position of pro-Western factions in Lebanon.”
According to Franklin Lamb, a writer who has been doing research in Lebanon, “An important reason for the outpouring of popular support was the quarter century of Iranian assistance to Lebanon for social projects, and for rebuilding much of Lebanon following the 1993, 1996 and 2006 Israeli aggressions. Massive aid that was detailed by Hezbollah’s Secretary-General in a recent speech and the cost of which is estimated to be in excess of one billion dollars… Iran’s President is widely believed in the diplomatic community here to have promoted sectarian unity in Lebanon, calmed the current political atmosphere, and delivered on offers of more desperately needed economic projects via 17 bilateral agreements. Iran’s President is widely believed to have achieved a major advancement for Lebanese stability, sovereignty, and independence…”
Erdogan’s visit came after these important visits and all of them aimed to talk about same issue: Lebanon’s stability. Then, why did again Erdogan need to go to Lebanon after these visits?
Oytun Orhan answers this question for us: “Turkey's position is very distinct from Syrian, Iranian and Saudi Arabian positions in Lebanon and that Turkey embraces all sects and groups in the country.”
Erdogan’s sentences in this visit were very similar to the speech of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in his visit in 2009. “During his visit, the foreign minister met with the President of the Parliament, Nebih Berri, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and President Michael Suleiman. The two parties emphasized their shared history and interests, and called for stable relations during the negotiations. Davutoğlu said in his statement that Turkey isn’t a party to the conflicts in the Middle East, and that Turkey’s priority in international policy is to resolve the elements of instability in the region peacefully.”
In this visit, on the other hand, Erdogan, firstly, criticized Israel: “Does (Israel) think it can enter Lebanon with the most modern aircraft and tanks to kill women and children, and destroy schools and hospitals, and then expect us to remain silent? We will not be silent and we will support justice by all means available to us.”
In addition to this, as Gamze Coskun says, concerning the outcomes of the findings, Erdogan called for national unity to ward off the threat of sectarian strife by emphasizing that all Lebanese parties should unite and find solutions to overcome the crisis linked to the UN investigation on assassination of Hariri. Furthermore, Erdogan indicated Turkey’s willingness to work to preserve the unity of Lebanon as well as stating that he was also coordinating with Syrian President Bashar Assad over the situation in the country. "Lebanon must be free of these pressures... we hope it finds stability," said Turkish Prime Minister.
According to the news of Sunday’s Zaman, “Speaking about Turkey's capacity to prevent any potential conflicts in Lebanon, Oytun Orhan said Turkey has serious capability, and political experience inherited from its Ottoman past and that it is a regional power that can serve as a deterrent.”
When we look at the process, we can see that steps of Turkey are very crucial like that of other important countries in the region. So, Turkey should be very carefully in its steps. Here, we should give an ear to the warnings of Ramzy Baroud:
“Now Turkey has appeared in the picture. A new and solid card, it perhaps has the power to change the rules of this painfully predictable game.
If Turkey is indeed serious, it must reveal some of its cards, and send a clear message to those fanning the flames: that 2010 is not 1982; that Lebanon will no longer be testing grounds for Israel’s and US lethal weapons; that the times have changed for real.”
We will see in the future how Turkey will behave. But, if Turkey wants to accomplish this crucial mission, firstly it should look over its relations with Israel and U.S. Otherwise, Turkey will act very pragmatically and it will serve the interest of superpowers.
Turkey will enter its first examination after releasing the consequences of Special Tribunal on Lebanon. If it is really serious, firstly, Turkey should accept that all of these problems in Lebanon stem from Israel and U.S.
On the other hand, Erdogan’s last visit led to some speculations in the media. According to some columnists, Erdogan came only a month after Iranian President’s visit and this means that while Iran represent Shiite in Lebanon, Turkey will represent Sunnis. When we read this picture with some suggestions, this warning can be crucial. For example, Erdogan mainly visit Sunni region in Lebanon. In addition to this, although he met with leaders of many parties, he did not meet Hezbollah General Secretary Nasrallah, but its president in the parliament. As we mentioned above, we should remember that some of the Sunnis who underline the influence of Iran on the Shiite people and Syria believe that Turkey is the only regional power to break the influence of Iran.
So, there is a scene which is very open to manipulate. Although “Husnu Mahalli, a columnist with the Aksam daily, said it is not accurate to describe Erdogan's visit as an attempt to offset the balance against Iran's proxy organization, Hezbollah, and that Turkey's involvement in the process in Lebanon is not new.”, we should take these warnings, which is mentioned above, into account.
“An atmosphere of cooperation is superseding the competition of the past. The competition of the past between Turkey and Egypt, Turkey and Iran or between other countries is rapidly being dissolved. The countries which experience that Turkey does not have a secret agenda witness that Turkey does not aim at competition surprisingly and happily.” says Sedat Laciner, director of USAK, about new Turkish foreign policy.
But, in my opinion, we should think about this issue again and again. In previous analyses, we tried to look at Turkey’s relations with different neighbor countries and unfortunately, we see that Turkey is acting very pragmatically in these relations. On the other hand, as a NATO member, Turkey does not want to contradict with U.S. imperialism. But, it, today, should recognize that Lebanon is very crucial arena. It is not Iran, Syria or Egypt; it is a small Middle East.
Although Cemal Ahmedoglu says that Turkey is managing to bridge the gap between the anti- and pro-resistance factions in Lebanon, we should know that as Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya says, “the House of Saud, the Hariri clan of Lebanon, and the absolute rulers established throughout the Arab World all share common financial and economic links with the Project for the ‘New Middle East’.”
So, Turkey should be very carefully about where it will stand in the decisions of Special Tribunal on Lebanon. This will be vital test for Turkey; I wonder that Will be Turkey against to resistance or not? Will does Turkey, again, serve to Israel and U.S. or not?
As Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya says, “to create hostility within the Muslim populations of the Middle East, Iran is being portrayed as the vanguard of Shia or Shiite expansionism in the region, vis-à-vis the so-called ‘Shia Crescent,’ and Saudi Arabia portrayed as the champion of the Sunni Muslims.”
We will see that if Turkey will need to prefer one of these poles/groups or not. If it takes sides in this polarization within Lebanon, unfortunately, Lebanon will worse than today and Turkey will lose this examination. So, Turkish leaders and diplomats should be very very careful in this issue.
Coming days will clarify this picture...
We hope to see bloodless pictures in the Middle East anymore...