Thursday, June 14, 2007

Turkey as Mediator and Peacekeeper during Middle East Conflict: Analyzing Events of Summer 2006

Global Politician, NY - Jun 12, 2007
Prof. Ruben Safrastyan, Ph.D.

The Government of the pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party (JDP) that came to power in 2002 restructured the hierarchy of the basic directions of the Turkish foreign policy, which had been built up during the last 50 years. In particular, importance of the Middle-Eastern direction has been reviewed and is now one of its priorities. The Foreign Ministry of the country was instructed to improve relations with the Arab states and Iran, at the same time conserving allied relations with Israel on quite a cool level. According to calculations of the major architect of the new strategy in the Turkish foreign policy Ahmet Davutoglu, who is the chief foreign policy adviser to Prime-Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as a result Turkey will have the opportunity to get a mediating role both in the Middle East conflict and in the controversial relations between some Middle-Eastern countries and the West. Therefore, Turkey will become a key state in the region, which will enhance its significance for the European Union and accelerate the process of Turkey's accession to that organization.

In the recent years, Turkey has tried to realize the above-mentioned theoretical theses in practice. Turkey has made concrete steps to improve relations with the Arab states and Iran, criticized Israel's policy regarding Palestine. However, Turkey's pro-Islamist leaders did not dare to review its allied relations with Israel in any serious manner, which doomed their new Middle-Eastern strategy to failure.

The serious crisis in the Middle East of summer 2006, which was escalated up to the armed confrontation, gave Prime-Minister R. T. Erdogan and his supporters another opportunity to try to realize their old theoretical calculations regarding the projected sharp increase of Turkey's role and importance in this strategic region of the world. To achieve that goal, a model of "active diplomacy" was chosen. The model was worked out in early 1990s by President Turgut Ozal to establish Turkey's dominant role in the Turkic-speaking Republics of the Soviet Union.

Turkey and the armed confrontation between Israel and HAMAS

The next phase of aggravation of the Middle East conflict, which was escalated to large-scale military actions in summer 2006, was developed in geographically different, but internally interconnected areas.

The first one was the Gaza sector, where there were clashes between Israeli troops and HAMAS forces. Turkey, following its quite frequently utilized method, immediately announced its willingness to be a mediator between the two conflicting parties. It was done so hastily that it seemed that Turkey wanted to take the lead over other countries in mediation.

First Turkey started to lure Palestinians: Prime Minister Erdogan made a pro-Palestinian statement, condemning Israel for its military operation. Later Turkish Foreign Minister Abdulla Gul said that Israel's "actions" led to "killing of a big number of Palestinians just before the eyes of the whole mankind" and demanded from Israel to stop attacking Palestinians immediately. At the same time, Turkey provided substantial humanitarian support to Palestinians and promised more assistance in the nearest future.

As soon as sympathies of Palestinians seemed already won and then having got Israel's consent, Turkey made an official statement on taking the role of a peace-building mediator. Prime Minister R. T. Erdogan had several phone conversations with the U.S. and Russian Presidents, the British Prime Minister, UN Secretary General, who approved Turkey's intentions; only after such consultations negotiations on its mediation started. The above-mentioned adviser A. Davutoglu, the main initiator of the indicated diplomatic steps, was hastily sent to Damascus to urge Syria to exert pressure on HAMAS to soften its attitude toward Israel. However, the famous scientist and one of the outstanding representatives of the modern geopolitical thought in Turkey failed to get the laurels of Henry Kissinger, so respected by him. Damascus rejected Turkey's request.

Turkey had to act autonomously. Head of the HAMAS mission Ismail Haniya was invited to Ankara, but he rejected the invitation; HAMAS's attitude to Israel remained unchanged. The last blow on Turkey's attempt to mediate was made by the Israeli aircraft, having almost razed to the grand the industrial objects located in the region of Erez (Gaza), built by Turkish construction companies, and that was the "answer" for the anti-Israeli rhetoric of the Turkish leaders.
Thus, Turkey's mediating mission has been a complete failure, and the Turkish diplomacy has got another defeat in the Middle East. At the same time it is necessary to note that inside Turkey its policy in the Israeli-HAMAS conflict as a whole was taken positively. The Turkish public opinion was completely on the Palestinian side. That is why the JDP-led Government's pro-Palestinian statements and the attempts to mediate the immediate cease-fire, even though failed, were perceived with satisfaction. In addition, Prime Minister R. T. Erdogan, very skillful in political manipulations, was able to divert the attention of the pro-Islamist circles from the fact that Turkey preserved its relations with Israel on the same level.

Turkey and Israel's war against Lebanon

Another arena, where the Middle East conflict was aggravated in summer of 2006, was Lebanon. Counteracting the anti-Israeli activity of the Shiite Hezbollah movement from the Lebanese territory, Israel undertook a large-scale military operation against that country and occupied a part of its territory in the south. The anti-Israeli moods, typical for the Turkish population for the recent years, reached their peak. Multi-thousand demonstrations were held and almost unanimous condemnation of the Israeli actions was voiced by the Turkish political circles.

Prime Minister R. T. Erdogan also condemned Israel, but in a softer manner than in the case of the military operation in Gaza. The Prime Minister, actually following the U.S. example, condemned Israel not for the military aggression against the neighboring country, but the asymmetric counter-blow in response to Hezbollah's hostile actions. Ankara's approach of that kind showed that Turkey, taking into account its exclusively favorable geographic situation and possibilities, as well as the failed experience of the "simple" mediation in the previous case, that time decided to undertake more complicated and multilevel actions, aiming at using the new possibilities to achieve the already mentioned strategic goals in the Middle East to the most possible extent.

To such actions there can be attributed Turkey's desire to be used in the "secret diplomacyā€¯, providing a covert support to Hezbollah and to Israel at the same time. Even the few known facts allow to make a conclusion that involvement was quite serious. In particular, Turkey provided its territory as a corridor for supplying Hezbollah with arms and ammunition, and at the same time the Turkish intelligence provided the Israeli side with important information.

The flexible and multilayer policy, pursued by Turkey, this time gave its fruit. Israel and the United States started to consider the Turkish contingent as an important constituent part of the peacekeeping troops, which were planned to deploy in the Southern Lebanon under the UN aegis. Turkey's appropriate proposal was accepted with satisfaction by the UN, the Lebanese Government, and pro-Western Arab countries - Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as the European Union, which headed the peacekeeping mission and was interested in the presence of Turkish units, traditionally considered as efficient and disciplined. Syria's support was achieved because of the Turkish Foreign Minister Abdulla Gul's visit to that country. Hezbollah's consent was received via some secret channels, connecting the JDP pro-Islamist Government with the Middle-Eastern Islamist radical organizations.

Thus, Turkey has got an exclusively favorable situation, which is at the same time potentially fraught with evident and hidden threats for its interests in the Middle East.

Deploying its peacekeepers in the Southern Lebanon, Turkey significantly increases its positions in the region and at the same time gets the opportunity to start an immediate dialog with the United States and European Union, the main parties interested in their presence. Turkey expects the U.S. support in the combat against Kurdish PKK and permission for invasion of its troops into the Northern Iraq and hold punishing actions against the PKK. As for the EU, Turkey expects softening its position in the negotiations on Turkey's membership in that organization. Strategic plans of the Turkish diplomacy also envisage ensuring the maximum favorable position of the UN toward Turkey as long as the UN is the basic mediator in the settlement of the Cyprus problem.

However, such advantages might fade away overnight in case of any armed clash between the Turkish peacekeepers and Hezbollah fighters. It would not only risk the whole fragile system of Ankara's new Middle-Eastern policy, built-up with difficulty for such a long time, but also would lead to serious political complications inside the country prior to the Presidential and Parliamentary elections to be held in 2007, because in that case just the pro-Islamist circles, considered as JDP's base, could raise against the ruling party.

Prime Minister and JDP leader R. T. Erdogan, endowed with some adventurism and the talent of making swift responsible decisions, ignored possible threats and very soon announced his Government's decision to send peacekeepers to the Southern Lebanon. This decision was adopted against backdrop of the fact that about 80% of the population and even the President of the country and all political forces were against it. Most of the JDP's local organizations were against as well.

However, without any special efforts T. R. Erdogan succeeded in getting support of the Turkish Parliament, where his party has a prevailing majority. The results of voting were considered as the Prime Minister's personal victory. Therefore, he and his Government got the opportunity to realize the strategic goals of the new Middle Eastern policy.

Then Turkish diplomacy started to solve tactical problems: to send troops to Lebanon as few as possible and to such an area that would let excluding a direct contact with Hezbollah. Tense negotiations were held in Ankara with the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, followed by the visit of a special delegation to New York to hold consultations with the UN representatives and the U.S. Administration. As a whole, these tasks have been solved by the Turkish diplomacy. Turkey sent quite a small contingent to Lebanon, which was deployed in the regions that had been marked during the preliminary visit to Lebanon by a military delegation, headed by General Tahir Bekiroglu, Commander of the 28th mechanized brigade, located in Ankara. The Turkish peacekeeping troops deployed in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Afghanistan are composed of servicemen of the mentioned elite unit. The core of the Turkish peacekeepers in Lebanon is just from that brigade.

However, even in such a favorable situation Turkey is unable to rule out the risks of the decision that its leadership made on deployment of Turkish peacekeepers in Lebanon. Expected geopolitical advantages may turn to serious domestic and foreign political losses.

Prof. Ruben Safrastyan, Ph.D. is a Professor of International Relations at Acharyan University in Yerevan, Armenia. He's also the Director of the Department of Turkish Studies at Institute of Oriental Studies, Armenian National Academy of Sciences. In the past, he served as a Counselor of the Armenian Embassy in Germany and was the Deputy Director of the Department of Political Analysis for the Office of the President of Armenia.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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