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How to play into Gadhafi's hands

HDN | 3/24/2011 12:00:00 AM | SEMİH İDİZ

It is obvious that the rift over Libya has driven a fresh wedge into the already-icy relations between Turkey and France, due to Nicolas Sarkozy’s strong opposition to Ankara’s EU bid.

The mixed signals Ankara gave on Libya, and the manner in which it wavered on the question of how to prevent Moammar Gadhafi and his forces from unleashing a bloodbath against the opposition in Benghazi, seems to have provided French President Nicolas Sarkozy with an opportunity to try and push Turkey further from the West in general, and Europe in particular.

At least this is the way many analysts are interpreting the situation as it has emerged. Meanwhile, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, administration is finding it very difficult to digest the fact that Turkey was not invited to last Saturday’s summit in Paris, following which military operations against Gadhafi’s forces began immediately.

The French side is explaining this snub by arguing that Ankara made its position on a military intervention against Libya highly apparent, and so there was no need to invite it to this crucial international gathering. The reference is clearly to the strong remarks by Prime Minister Erdoğan in Germany recently, when he referred to a possible intervention by NATO in Libya as “stupidity,” and added that such a thing, which he said Turkey totally rejected, would be “unthinkable.”

Needless to say the French explanation for its snub is not being taken at face value in Ankara, regardless of what Erdoğan may have said. The Turkish side also noted that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was invited to Paris, despite the fact that Berlin – like Ankara – opposed such an intervention.

The image of having been cold-shouldered in this way is obviously not one that is very helpful for the Erdoğan government at a time when elections are around the corner. This is why Paris is now being accused by Ankara with all sorts of ulterior motives, most of which have to do with commercial and oil interests in Libya.

The stupidity of French Interior Minister Claude Guéant, who reportedly said in an interview that President Sarkozy was “leading a crusade” in Libya, has also provided Ankara with fodder against France both at home, and in the Islamic world.

At any rate it is obvious that the rift over Libya has driven a fresh wedge into the already-icy relation between Turkey and France, due to Sarkozy’s strong opposition to Ankara’s EU bid. In the meantime both President Gül, and Prime Minister Erdoğan have openly accused President Sarkozy of “opportunism” in his approach to Libya.

The Erdoğan government is now trying to correct the situation by means of its veto-wielding position in NATO, and one of its conditions for participating in the implementation of the no-fly-zone, according to Security Council Resolution 1973, is that the command of all Libya operations should pass to NATO and not be in French hands.

How this standoff will be resolved was not clear at the time this piece was written.

Ironically if Turkey continues to block NATO from taking on a role in terms of the no-fly-zone, it will end up serving France’s interests. Paris has after all made it clear it wants NATO kept out of this operation because involvement by the alliance would upset the Arabs.

Ankara responds that if Paris does not want to upset the Arabs it should first prevent people like Interior Minister Guéant from using highly charged words like “crusade,” given how the Islamic world reacts to these. At any rate Turkey is not the only country convinced that Sarkozy is only seeking to glorify himself and France by leading this operation. Some EU members appear to be of the same opinion.

Under normal circumstances European leaders should have rallied around Sarkozy in the face of the accusations by Turkey. One would have thought they would want to do this in order to present a united front in the face of a serious international crisis. But like the situation during the break-up of Yugoslavia and two Gulf wars, we see once again a lack of unity in the EU as it faces a serious crisis.

The French news agency AFP, for example, quoted a senior EU diplomat on Wednesday saying, "Europe's common security and foreign policy is in crisis," and adding that "Europe has practically hit rock bottom on Libya."

Deutsche Welle, for its part, reported that “divisions between EU member states are delaying critical decisions on leadership of the Libya campaign, and contributing to the EU's inability to present a united front in almost all aspects of the [Libya] operation.”

In the meantime, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini went so far to say that if NATO did not take over quickly, they would consider closing off access to their bases in the Mediterranean, thus reflecting impatience with the French position of trying to hold on to the leadership of the military operation against Libya.

Italian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Maurizio Massari went further when he said: “France has been the most intransigent … Europe has divided. This isn’t anti-French. We are talking about an important mission in which Europe has to act together to be credible.”

All of this obviously reinforces Ankara’s hand at a time when the French are trying to present Turkey as a “spoiler” on Libya. It seems that there are others in Europe that consider France the real “spoiler,” especially in terms of the EU’s efforts to display a united front on a crucial security and foreign policy issue.

Put another way, we see once again, a “union” that is in fact a “disunion” when the chips are down, and this is bound to tarnish the EU’s image further at time when it is already struggling with an economic crisis that is forcing each member state to consider its national interest first before the collective EU interest.

In the meantime “spoiler Turkey” has decided to participate in the implementation of the arms embargo on Libya, if not the no-fly-zone thus far, by sending war ships to the region, a development which effectively leaves Ankara acting with NATO and poised against the Gadhafi regime.

This in turn is bound to highlight the inconsistency of the AKP in the eyes of the Turkish public, given Prime Minister Erdoğan’s previous remarks about NATO involvement in Libya. Put another way, Libya has proved to be a messy crisis, not just for some European countries, but also Turkey.

It remains to be seen how the EU and NATO can effectively get their acts together and overcome this extremely confusing picture if the Libya operation is to end successfully, rather than remaining divided and undecided on an operation that everyone appears to be approaching from the perspective of their own interests.

It is also obvious that the longer these divisions last, the more Gadhafi will be encouraged in resisting the operation against him. We must remember, after all, that he used one European country against another masterfully in the past as he manipulated their interests to the hilt. The divisions in the West today on Libya could lead to the same if not overcome rapidly.

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