Friday, March 25, 2011

Turkish leaders are walking a tight rope in the Libya standoff.

Turkey, NATO's only Muslim member, is wary of the scope of any Western-led military mission in Libya but also feels bound to international obligations despite longstanding ties with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

When Turkey swiftly evacuated its 25,000 workers from the chaos of Libya, Turkish leaders assured Libya that they would return. It is not clear now how or when that could happen. Turkey is grudgingly seen as being dragged into the military conflict in Libya, abandoning bulldozers, cranes and lucrative construction projects worth billions of dollars that were building hospitals, shopping malls and five-star hotels.

Turkish leaders gently urged Gadhafi to meet demands for change from the rebellious opposition before eventually suggesting that he step down. But they have rebuked some Western allies, particularly France, whose planes staged the first air strikes against Libyan targets.

Turkey objected to France taking the initiative and, without naming Paris directly, accused some Western actors of pursuing oil concerns.

"I wish they would look at Libya with a conscientious eye instead of an eye for oil," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan lamented.

While Turkish President Abdullah Gul urged Gadhafi to step down to "deny the opportunity to others to plunder" his country, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe sought to debunk speculation that the allies were after oil-rich Libya's resources.

"People always say that it's oil behind all this - that's not true," he said. "To have consistent, cheap oil, the best thing would have been to change nothing in Libya. It's not oil that pushes us to all this."

The tension compounds already strained ties between Ankara and Paris, which opposes the this predominantly Muslim country of 74 million from having future membership in the European Union.

On Friday, Erdogan welcomed NATO plans to take command of Libya operations, saying it had deprived France of a leadership role. Some European diplomats had suggested earlier that Turkey was blocking NATO from taking over, a charge that Turkish officials had denied.

Turkey has insisted that the rules of engagement in Libya must be restricted to protecting civilians, enforcing the U.N. arms embargo and no-fly zone, and providing humanitarian aid. This would exclude any further air strikes against Gadhafi's ground forces.

Turkey, meanwhile, has contributed four frigates and one submarine to the enforcement of the U.N. arms embargo on Libya. Erdogan did not rule out the possibility of sending peacekeepers to Libya but insisted the Turkish soldiers would not aim guns at fellow Muslims.

"If needed, we will set up humanitarian aid corridors there, those people need food, medicine, water and compassion," said Egemen Bagis, Turkey's chief EU negotiator. "We can't leave our brothers there."

The Turks, including the founder of the modern Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, have fought against the Italian occupation when Libya was under the Ottoman Empire in 1911. One of the frigates Turkey dispatched to the coast off Libya is the TCG Barbaros, named after the legendary Ottoman naval commander, Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha, who dominated the Mediterranean for decades in the 15th century.

In early March, despite the exodus of Turkish workers, Gadhafi stressed that the friendship between Turkey and Libya was solid.

"We are all Ottomans, it is our history. I wish the Turks would not leave but our door to them is always open," Gadhafi told Turkey's TRT television.

Turkish contractors in Libya were involved in 214 building projects worth more than $15 billion before the chaos, according to Turkey's Foreign Trade Minister Zafer Caglayan. The bilateral trade was $2.4 billion in favor of Turkey and the two countries have recently waived travel visas to boost that trade.

The seeds of Turkey's friendly ties with Libya were laid during a U.S. arms embargo following Turkey's invasion of Cyprus in 1974, when Libya provided Turkey with spare parts to operate U.S.-made jets. Since then, Turkish builders have become a mainstay of foreign business in Libya, despite an influx by Chinese, Russians and others later.

However, Turkish-Libyan ties were sometimes prone to diplomatic rifts.

A 1996 visit by late Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan to Libya turned into a diplomatic disaster when Gadhafi criticized Turkey for cracking down on autonomy-seeking Kurdish rebels and having close ties with the West.

A shocked Erbakan said: "We don't have a Kurdish problem, we have a terrorism problem," to save face in front of dozens of Turkish journalists.

When Gadhafi opposed the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya earlier this month, he sought to compare his fight against rebels to Turkey's battle against Kurdish guerrillas, questioning why the United States or Europe did not try to shut down Turkey's air space.

"For years, the Turkish army has battling terrorists. Why is Turkey's air space not shut down? Neither the United States nor Europe are making a decision related to this," Gadhafi said.

Last year, Erdogan received a human rights award, given in the name of Gadhafi, in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Erdogan said the award was a sign of international appreciation of Turkey's efforts for "peace, justice and human rights."

Erdogan's international profile has risen lately with Muslims across the Middle East holding him up as a hero for his tough talk against Israel.

Today, the Turkish embassy in Tripoli serves as an intermediary for the United States, Britain, Italy and Australia. It has also helped secure the release of five journalists working for The New York Times and Britain's Guardian newspaper.

Erdogan proudly announced that some of the journalists "were freed for Turkey's sake."


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