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Turkey's Libya dilemma grows

HDN | 4/11/2011 12:00:00 AM | SEMİH İDİZ

Angry demonstrations in an Arab country against his person is not something Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would have expected a few months ago.

Angry demonstrations in an Arab country against his person is not something Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would have expected a few months ago, given his ever-rising star in the Arab world due mostly to his vitriolic swipes at Israel.

This is why it must have been an unexpected surprise, perhaps even something of a shock, when hundreds of protestors took to the streets in Benghazi last week chanting slogans against him and protesting Turkey’s position on Libya.

Judging by what is coming out of that city – where the provisional National Council is based – many members of the anti-Gadhafi opposition feel that Erdoğan and Turkey are indirectly supporting the Gadhafi regime and prolonging its life. What has led them to this conclusion is not hard to guess, of course.

Erdoğan has been cool to NATO’s intervention in Libya from the outset. His remarks in Germany not so long ago, when he asked angrily, “What business does NATO have in Libya?” are still reverberating. He is also going along with the current NATO operation reluctantly, as his statements and demeanor reveal.

Erdoğan has also spoken out against the suggestion that the badly armed anti-Gadhafi rebels should be supplied with weapons. He argues that it is not clear who these weapons will go to in the general confusion reigning in Libya. There are other NATO members who share this concern, too.

Not surprisingly, however, rebels in Benghazi are angry at Erdoğan over his opposition to supplying them with weapons. Rebel spokesmen were also quoted by the Washington Times last week suggesting that NATO air strikes against Gadhafi forces were being stalled by Turkey, a veto wielding member of the alliance.

Turkish officials are adamant that this is not the case and have issued strong denials. “The commander of NATO determines how to run the operation. As every NATO member knows, when an operation is started, command is given entirely to the NATO commander,” Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selçuk Ünal, said when questioned about the claim.

Other government officials have been quick to point out that Turkey is not only supportive of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which enables the NATO operation against Libya, but is also taking an active part in monitoring the no-fly zone over that country, as well as the arms embargo imposed on it by the same resolution.

This is of course a different tune coming out of Ankara to only a few weeks ago, when Erdoğan had harsh words for the prospect of a NATO involvement in Libya, and underscored Turkey’s strong opposition to this. No doubt the Gadhafi camp has also taken note of this shift of position.  

In other words, while the rebels in Benghazi look on Ankara as being pro-Gadhafi, Gadhafi supporters in Tripoli cannot have much confidence left either in Turkey’s ability to prevent the West from going after their leader. Turks say, “He ended up pleasing neither Jesus, nor Moses.” This saying appears to fit the current situation well.

Erdoğan was quick, of course, to blame outside agitators for the demonstrations in Benghazi against himself and Turkey. “We have noted who is behind this,” he said in a loaded manner, in what many interpreted as a dig at France whose flag was seen during the demonstrations.  The AKP government is still smarting from the snub from France, which refused to invite Turkey to the Paris summit on Libya last month.

France may, as many commentators maintain, have its own political calculations in Libya – calculations which are said to have more than a little to do with next year’s presidential elections – but it is unlikely that the demonstrators in Benghazi needed an “outside prod” to turn on Erdoğan.

They are, after all, fighting for their future and perhaps their lives. That is why Erdoğan’s strong opposition to arming them would have provided sufficient reason on its own for their anger. The coolness felt in Benghazi toward Turkey was also reflected in news reports that a Turkish aid ship had been prevented from entering the port in that city last week.

In the meantime the Gadhafi regime took a step last week that is bound to cool already shaky ties between Tripoli and Ankara. Sending letters to the large number of Turkish contractors who have projects underway in Libya, but have had to flee the violence, it ordered these businessmen to return and complete their jobs, estimated at billions of dollars.

This was seen on the Turkish side as being less than a friendly move, and considered to be a ploy by Tripoli to get out of payments to Turkish businessmen at a time when money is in short supply. Ankara responded quickly and made its displeasure known in a diplomatic note to the Libyan government, pointing out that it is not possible for any businessman to travel to that country under prevailing circumstances.

While all of this leaves Turkey standing between “a rock and a hard place” in Libya, Mr. Erdoğan tried to regain some initiative last week by putting forward a three-point political road map for that country. His plan calls for a cease-fire in the cities surrounded by Gadhafi's forces, a humanitarian corridor to be opened to facilitate the distribution of aid, and negotiations leading to free elections.

It seems highly unlikely at this moment however, that Gadhafi will raise the siege on cities and give up his military advantage. It is equally unlikely that the rebels will negotiate with Tripoli under these circumstances, or accept any solution where Gadhafi remains in power.

It also appears that Mr. Erdoğan’s road map may have competition given reports about a German-led humanitarian initiative and the African Union-led political initiative spearheaded by South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. Meanwhile the situation in Libya itself appears to be grinding to a stalemate.

How the impasse will be overcome is not clear at this stage. What is certain, however, is that from Turkey’s perspective the situation in that country has gotten out of hand in ways that were not foreseen.

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