Dragged into a quagmire in Syria while supporting armed groups and facing a kidnapping crisis in Lebanon, Turkey is by no means a newcomer to adverse winds hitting its post-Ottoman comeback in the Arab street. Turkey’s previous comebacks were mostly on behalf of the West, and therefore the country came to be seen as a Trojan horse. No one would be pleased today to recall the tongue-lashing Turkey received from Egypt when it got involved in British designs over the Suez Canal and the adventures it embarked on as part of the Baghdad Pact to keep the Soviets away from the Middle East. Cartoons in the Rose Al-Yusef magazine in 1951, depicting the Turkish president as the leashed dog of the United States, illustrate how modern Turkey’s first Arab opening hit the wall. The anger toward Turkey stemmed from its involvement in the four-tier leg of the Middle East Command that Britain had established to preserve its presence in the Suez.
I wonder if anyone remembers how Turkey’s plans for a military intervention in Iraq following Gen. Qasim’s coup against King Faisal had backfired in 1958. Also in 1958, Turkey came back from the brink of intervening in Lebanon on the behest of Lebanese President Camille Chamoun. Thankfully, regional and international balances did not allow the move, keeping Turkey away from a beehive that would have plunged it into trouble big time. However, the permission Turkey had granted the United States, a party to the Lebanese civil war, to use the Incirlik Base was already enough to infuriate Muslim quarters in the country.
Embracing Menderes’ legacy
Those are all memories from Prime Minister Adnan Menderes’ era. Under incumbent Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who identifies politically with Menderes, Turkey had a second spring in its relations with the Arabs.
Lebanon held a special place in this new period since Turkey was used to seeing Lebanon as part of the Syrian picture. The extensive Syrian influence over Lebanese politics was pushing Ankara and Beirut apart. Other reasons that added to the Turkey-Lebanon chill were the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) using camps in the Bekaa Valley, and Beirut’s alliance with the Greek-Cypriot administration.
After Turkey and Syria signed the Adana Accord against the PKK on Oct. 20, 1998, relations with Damascus began to normalize, having a positive effect also on Ankara’s ties with Beirut. The real Lebanese salute to Ankara, however, came in 2006 when Ankara vocally criticized Tel Aviv during the 34-day war Israel waged against Lebanon and extended humanitarian assistance to the Lebanese. The same year, Ankara joined the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, sending its first troops to the Middle East in a long while.
From promoting dialogue to taking sides
The negative perceptions of Turkey, the legacy of Ottoman times, dissipated to a large extent as Turkey extended assistance and sought dialogue without discriminating between Sunnis and Shiites. Similarly, Turkey helped hammer out the Doha agreement that ended Lebanon’s political crisis in 2008. It was a significant diplomatic effort that placed Turkey in the category of countries capable of equal dialogue with all sides. As a result, bilateral relations gained momentum. Those were, in fact, revolutionary developments that saw the sides show respect for each other and tear down prejudices.
Reminiscent of Ottoman times, a four-way High Level Cooperation Council was set up in 2010, bringing Turkey together with the countries of what was once the “Damascus Vilayet” (province) — Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. The council, however, fell victim to the Syrian crisis. Similarly, an agreement with Lebanon for the establishment of a bilateral High Level Strategic Cooperation and Coordination Council became obsolete amid regional turmoil.
And soon, an “interventionist” aspect replaced dialogue at the fore of Turkish policies, causing deviations in the “Arab Spring” of the Turks. The propensity to do business along sectarian bonds, something we had become accustomed to in Iraq and Syria, spilled over also to ties with Lebanon.
The tipping point in the changing perceptions came when Lebanon’s political crisis simmered anew, with Turkey’s attention shifting disproportionately to Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and when Erdogan visited Lebanon on Nov. 24, 2010, just a month after then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While Ahmadinejad visited the south to demonstrate support for the Shiite Hezbollah, Erdogan addressed a 20,000-strong crowd in Akkar, in the north, positioning himself as a protector of the Sunnis.
Erdogan’s shunning of Hezbollah while embracing the Sunnis came with a price: The status of “neutrality” — so precious in Middle East diplomacy — was lost. This reality, which no one initially dwelled on, became a determining factor in ensuing developments. Yet, on the eve of his visit, Erdogan had told the Lebanese As-Safir newspaper, “We will not allow a civil war in Lebanon.” And for the Lebanese, it had been a statement as precious as gold.
Impact of the Syrian crisis
As a result of openly taking sides in the Syrian crisis, Turkey reduced itself to a country cooperating only with the Sunni camp in Lebanon’s sectarian schism. The most dramatic shift came in Ankara’s stance vis-a-vis Hezbollah. For some members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Hezbollah — once hailed as a “hero” against Israel — became “Hezb al-Shaitan,” or “party of Satan,” overnight after the group joined the battle at Qusair on the side of the Syrian regime.
The abduction of 11 Lebanese pilgrims in Syria by opposition groups close to Turkey marked the beginning of a much more fragile period in Turkish-Lebanese relations. The ensuing abduction of two Turks in Lebanon in August 2012, aimed at securing the release of the Lebanese hostages, was a plain indication of the risks that Turkey’s interventionist foreign policy carried. Luckily, the problem was soon overcome as the Turkish abductees were shortly released. But as the crisis over the Lebanese hostages dragged on, the Lebanese streets continued to be a minefield for Turkey. Eventually, Turkish pilots Murat Agca and Murat Akpinar were kidnapped in Beirut on Aug. 9, 2013 — again in a bid to secure the release of the hostages.
In sum, the proxy war in Syria has not only blown up Turkish foreign policy in many areas, but has also become a source of nightmares for ordinary Turks. This is history repeating itself. Turkey’s second Arab opening is stumbling in the Syrian sphere of influence, just as the first opening did under Menderes. Venturing into sectarian realms has exposed Turkey to risks which it is incapable of managing.
When Fairouz sang Li Beirut (For Beirut), she sang it for all of Lebanon. Those who believe they could move forward without ever grasping that message are simply wrong.
Fehim Taştekin is a columnist and chief editor of foreign news at the Turkish newspaper Radikal, based in Istanbul. He is the host of a fortnightly program called "Dogu Divanı" on IMC TV. He is an analyst specializing in Turkish foreign policy and Caucasus, Middle East and EU affairs. He was founding editor of Agency Caucasus.
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