What is Turkey’s Stake in Lebanon?

This commentary originally appeared on insideIRAN.org a project of The Century Foundation

WASHINGTON – Turkey’s mediation efforts in the most recent political crisis in Lebanon in January 2011 are driven by the assessment that a possible conflict would directly threaten Turkey’s interests. Turkey’s government believes it has a true stake in the resolution of the crisis since Turkey signed a series of free trade and strategic coordination agreements with Lebanon in November 2010. Intent on establishing stability in the region, Turkey consistently supports policies, such as visa liberation, free trade, and strategic cooperation councils, as a way to establish and maintain peace and stability in its neighborhood.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan expressed his discontent with the Israeli violations of Lebanese air space and waters as early as January 2010. Such criticism derives partly from Turkey’s pledge (made after the Mavi Marmara incident) to discredit in all international arenas what Turkey views as Israel’s harmful policies. Given Turkey’s persistent critique of Israeli policies since the infamous Davos crisis, this should come as no surprise. However, this was also aimed at affirming Lebanon’s sovereignty while opposing policies detrimental to regional stability.

When Erdogan paid a two-day visit to Lebanon in November 2010, he signed a series of bilateral agreements to establish a free-trade zone and a high-level strategic cooperation council — similar to those already in place with Greece and Syria. During his visit, Erdogan said that Turkey did not want political instability, which would result from the international tribunal’s report on the Hariri assassination. When the Lebanese government collapsed in early January 2011, Turkey was one of the first countries to get involved especially because political instability and possible conflict in Lebanon could jeopardize a future free-trade region between Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon and deepen cooperation with Lebanon.

Turkey’s regional activism has received international criticism, however. Analysts often ignore the level of domestic support Turkish foreign policy receives. It used to be that Turkey established its foreign policy independent of and often against its own public opinion but that is no longer the case. Since 2003, when the Turkish parliament opposed the passage of American troops through Turkey to facilitate the US invasion of Iraq, public opinion in Turkey has been instrumental in determining foreign policy. Turkish public opinion has been sensitive to Middle Eastern affairs especially because of the Iraq wars’ impact on Turkey’s security and economic outlook. There are segments of the Turkish foreign policy establishment, which still have reservations about Turkey’s increased international profile. However, when Turkey’s security interests are concerned, there is a high degree of support. A recent opinion poll shows that Turks identify the Mavi Marmara incident as the second most important event of 2010 after the September 2010 referendum. The same poll finds that Davutoglu is the “most liked minister” in the cabinet. Turkey’s mediation efforts in the Lebanese political crisis should be seen in this light.

Turkish foreign policy is broadly supported not only by the Turkish public but also by the powerful institutions such as the Turkish military. This is clear from Turkey’s policy change towards the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq over the last two years as well as the row with Israel over the Mavi Marmara incident. This was arguably one of the most difficult decisions for the Turkish army as KRG was seen hostile to Turkish interests for a long time. Turkish army dropped its purely security oriented “hard power” approach to northern Iraq and is supporting Turkish government’s initiatives to engage the KRG.

At the beginning of the Lebanese mediation efforts, there were calls for an international meeting to solve the crisis and Erdogan accepted French President Sarkozy’s call for an international meeting on Lebanon. However, the newly appointed Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi urged a solution “from within the region.” Davutoglu emphasized that since all parties in the region would be affected by the crisis, all interested parties including Hezbollah and Iran should be involved in the meetings. Turkey’s view is that whomever could contribute to the resolution of the crisis should be included. The Iranian administration, however, was intent on keeping its influence over the political process in Lebanon and saw “foreign actors” as detrimental to its interests. While Iran seems particularly interested in maintaining its influence over Lebanon through Hezbollah, Turkey is not invested in one particular group’s success, but in Lebanon’s stability as a whole.

To maintain its image of an “honest broker” that can talk to all parties in the region, Turkey speaks to political actors such as Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Turkish shuttle diplomacy in Lebanon included meetings with the Hezbollah leader, Nasrallah. Davutoglu said, “As a political party and a group with very strong support within Lebanese society, Hezbollah is one of the most essential elements of this process.”

Conventional wisdom in Turkish foreign policy was that the country would steer clear of the “messiness” of Middle Eastern affairs and follow the US and EU lines on most foreign policy issues in the Middle East. Turkey had little to no involvement in Lebanon prior to the onset of its economic growth starting in 2002. As Turkish economy grew in the early 2000s, Turkey sought stronger relations through free trade agreements with the Middle East and beyond. Prevalence of economic interests and lack of long established close ties with Lebanese groups means that Turkey is not partisan in its approach to Lebanon, allowing it to engage with all political actors.

Turkey’s heightened level of involvement may impact Iran’s influence in Lebanon as Turkey can provide the country with “another option.” This does not mean that Turkey is trying to replace Iran but that Turkey can become a serious, stable, reliable partner with international acceptance and legitimacy. Such legitimacy might be beneficial to Hezbollah, as the image of being an Iranian “extension” may not serve them in the long run. Unlike other regional powers, which play one faction against another, Turkey stands alone in its neutrality and has the best chance to contribute to Lebanon’s fragile stability.

Kadir Ustun is the Research Coordinator for the SETA Foundation, a Turkish think tank located in Washington, DC.

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