On September 5, 2006 the Turkish parliament voted 340 to 192, along strictly partisan lines, in favor of sending troops to Lebanon to join the UNIFIL contingent beefed up by UN Security Council Resolution 1701. The Justice and Development Party government defied overwhelming public opposition and risked alienating its own base by taking a distinctly unpopular position. The Israeli war against Hizballah was widely disliked in Turkey and emotions there ran high against Israel and the US. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself harshly criticized Israel's attack in different forums. In such an emotional atmosphere, when the time came to debate peacekeeping operations most of the public saw in the possible deployment of Turkish troops an effort to protect Israel and do Washington's bidding.
Some argued that the prime minister was preparing the ground for his upcoming meeting with President Geirge W. Bush. Others were concerned lest Turkish troops militarily antagonize Hizballah or, assuming the ceasefire would be fragile, get caught in the crossfire. In short, much of the public debate was played out in emotional terms and barely touched on the wider strategic landscape. In turn, those who favored troop deployment did so from an aggressive position, arguing that as a regional power Turkey had a historic duty to intervene and that its influence and prestige would thereby increase. The government's position was also diametrically opposed to that of President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who took a harsh stance against sending troops. He argued that Turkey had no national interest at stake and was openly critical of the government's enthusiasm.
Before the government called for an extraordinary session of parliament to debate and vote on the matter, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul attended the Rome summit and visited Lebanon, Israel and Syria to make sure that all the relevant parties would welcome Turkey's participation in a peacekeeping force once the Security Council passed the relevant resolution.
In the wake of the vote, the Financial Times reported that the result was "more than a signal (of) Ankara's determination to participate in what it considers an urgent humanitarian cause". Despite the fact that the Turkish contribution would be mostly limited to naval operations and that ground forces would only be deployed to protect Turkish Red Crescent personnel and other officials, for the newspaper's Ankara correspondent the decision highlighted Turkey's aspiration to be considered an important regional player. It enabled Turkey to serve on an equal footing with European Union countries. Finally, considering Turkey's desire to have a seat at the Security Council in 2009-2010, this was a good investment.
These considerations, particularly the self-perception of Turkey as an important regional actor that could not remain aloof toward such a proximate crisis, no doubt played their part in the government's thinking. In his defense of the government's policy in the parliament, Foreign Minister Gul also intimated that broader strategic considerations guided government thinking. "In short," he stated, "the Lebanese crisis fully exposed Turkey's strategic position where East and West meet and clearly highlighted the Mediterranean dimension of our identity... suffice it to mention the security of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline to underscore our ties to [the eastern Mediterranean]."
Emphatically denying that Turkish troops would be used to disarm Hizballah, Gul then defended the decision. He argued that, "this position is consistent with our status as a bridge between civilizations...and our claims that the European Union will become a global power with Turkey."
Therein lies the true significance of the Turkish decision. The Lebanon war can only be appreciated in the broader context of regional balance of power, where it is related to the American-Iranian struggle to shape the region and define Iran's role in it. The strengthening of the Lebanese state is the stated goal of 1701 and the aim of the West. This will be a challenge to both Syria and Iran, particularly if the mission succeeds. Turkey, which enjoys cordial relations with both Tehran and Damascus and whose government as well as public are sympathetic toward Hizballah, thus unequivocally took the side of its western allies.
This choice also reflects Turkey's newfound commonality of interests with the established Arab states. Concerned with the growing influence of Shi'ite Iran, the Sunni Arab states are determined to contain Tehran's hegemonic aspirations. This explains their criticism of Hizballah and the effective, if undeclared, support for Israel's war that drew fire from their own publics. In these efforts to contain Iran, Turkey is considered an important ally. It is as part of this quest to forge alliances to balance Iran and to limit the effects of the Shi'ite ascendance that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia recently visited Turkey, the first visit of its kind in 40 years.
To generate and maintain stability in Lebanon, a lot will now hinge on how successful UNIFIL is and whether or not the EU continues to show political determination and assert itself as a political actor in the affairs of the region. The mission is very risky and its failure may trigger yet another round of armed conflict. In these efforts Turkey, which enjoys good and open relations with all the parties to a multitude of very messy problems, can obviously play an important and constructive role. This appears to be both the calculation and the aspiration of the government.- Published 14/9/2006 © bitterlemons-international.org