The Turkish parliament’s decision to send troops to Lebanon comes at the end of a sometimes furious debate, countrywide.
Drawing in politicians, academics, media stars and ordinary citizens, the discussion has not only focused on the current Lebanon-Israel tension, but has also homed in on the distant past.
In this argument, both the heroes and the ghosts of Turkey’s forerunner, the Ottoman Empire, have become the battleground.
Recip Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said in a national TV broadcast a few days before the vote: “It would be treason to our history, our future and the high interests or our people to stay away [from Lebanon].”
He was urging his people and his own party to commit Turkish troops to the UN force now being deployed in the battle-scarred eastern Mediterranean country.
Until its final collapse following the first world war, the Ottoman Empire, run largely from Istanbul by ethnic Turks, ruled over Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and much of the rest of the Middle East.
Sedat Laciner, director of the Ankara-based think-tank, the International Strategic Research Organisation (USAK), said: “Historically, Turkey has had a great role in the region.
“Turks governed the region for centuries, so it’s very natural for us to be involved.”
However, this historical role also has its ghosts – and Lebanon is home to some of the most persistent.
About 120,000 Armenians live in Lebanon, with many of them the descendants of those who fled Ottoman territory back in 1915. That was when they claim the Turks launched a genocidal campaign against them. Lebanon’s parliament also recognises these claims, which are denied by Turkey.
The Armenian Catholic primate of Lebanon thus dubbed Turkish troop deployment as “morally unacceptable” last week and Lebanese Armenians have been protesting against Turkish involvement outside UN buildings in Beirut and New York for the past few days.
Armenians oppose presence of
Yet many others are very much in favour of the Turks’ involvement, as Turkey has had long-standing ties with both sides in the current conflict.
Laciner said: “The Israelis, the Lebanese government, the Syrians – even Hezbollah – have all welcomed the idea of Turkish troops.
“Everyone in fact wants Turkish troops there except the Armenians.”
Others are clearly worried, though.
Onur Oymen, deputy head of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), told Aljazeera.net: “Apart from Qatar, no Muslim country has committed troops. Why? Why hasn’t Egypt, for example, or Saudi Arabia? Both big countries with big armed forces?”
Meanwhile, many analysts see the prime minister’s enthusiasm for the deployment as part of a growing change in Turkish foreign policy since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) – which has Islamist roots – came to power in 2002.
Mensur Akgun, of the liberal Istanbul-based think-tank TESEV, said: “This government has quite a different attitude towards the Arab world from its predecessors.
“The AKP is quite realistic and hard headed. Talking about neo-Ottomanism flatters the pride, but in the end doesn’t really amount to much”
The Arab revolt against Ottoman rule during that war was a major blow against Ottoman hopes of victory. The revolt was famously backed by Britain and France, Turkey’s first world war enemies.
Laciner agrees: “This willingness by the AKP to become involved in the Middle East is a departure from traditional policy.
“The first governments of Turkey after the end of the Ottoman Empire deliberately turned away from the Middle East, as they saw it as a place that was backward and tradition-bound.
“They wanted to be Europeans and thus saw contact with the Middle East as basically dangerous for this project. Since the AKP came to power, however, Turkey has mended many of its fences with the Arabs and has realised it cannot turn its back on its history and its geography.”
Relations with Syria have improved considerably in recent years, as have links with Iran, which supplies Turkey with a lot of its natural gas. Turkish companies have also been highly active in neighbouring Iraq. This policy has been widely dubbed “neo-Ottomanism” by the Turkish press.
Yet others see this shift as a natural result of the region’s geopolitics and Turkey’s wider goals.
The respected commentator and analyst Cengiz Candar said: “The Middle East is the number one region these days in global politics.
Some see deployment as crucial
Indeed, Turkey’s efforts to join the EU are seen by many as a major reason for the deployment – along with a desire to please the UN. Here the key connection is Cyprus, with the divided island a long-standing sticking point for Turkish EU membership.
Candar said: “There’s no direct link of course, but Turkey wants the UN to revive its ideas for reunification of the island and can hardly ask them to do that after turning down the UN’s request for Turkey to become involved in Lebanon.”
Yet the strategy has considerable risks.
Oymen said: “We have to keep our distance from what I believe is an attempt to create a buffer zone to the north of Israel.
“The UN resolution says we will have to disarm Hezbollah. This raises the possibility of us having to fight fellow Muslims.”
The government insists, however, that Turkish forces will not have to disarm anyone and its commitment will be largely maritime-based.
Erdogan told his parliamentary group last week: “We will pull our troops out if asked to disarm Hezbollah.”
“Turks governed the region for centuries, so it’s very natural for us to be involved”
Candar said: “Turkey’s historic links are now largely an emotional thing.
“People think the Middle East was always our territory. But the public and the politicians are actually quite ignorant of Turkey’s Middle Eastern history, in fact. And when this emotional link is translated into practical politics, it’s a different matter altogether.”
Akgun agrees: “This is not the imperialism of previous centuries.
“The AKP is quite realistic and hard headed. Talking about neo-Ottomanism flatters the pride, but in the end doesn’t really amount to much.”
In the street, however, it amounts to quite a lot more.
Akif Beykoz, a student at Istanbul University’s languages and literature faculty, said: “Since the end of Ottoman times, the Middle East has been a mess.
“Now the Americans are there, the Israelis are doing what they want. It’s time we had a say.”
|Aljazeera By Jonathan Gorvett in Istanbul|