Turkey as an actor of stability in Lebanon: Responses and scenarios

ISTANBUL

Turkey began to increase its presence in the Levant because of the civil war in Syria, and also had to establish a presence in North Africa in the following years in relation to the developments in Libya. Turkey’s emergence as a permanent military-political power during these two long-standing internal conflicts that seriously jeopardized regional stability and active Turkish support have, to a certain extent, created stability and a conflict-free environment in North Africa and the Levant, the very important shores of the Eastern Mediterranean.

In other words, Turkey, which began to shape developments in Syria in cooperation with the legitimate opposition and in Libya with the legitimate government, managed to ensure that the actors it supported became more effective first on the ground, and then in the respective negotiation processes. This reality on the ground has intensified discussions about the possibility that Turkey can become a factor of stability in a number of other countries, such as Yemen and Libya, which have long been buckling under the region’s chronic problems. In this regard, Turkey’s recent growing interest in Lebanon has led to different kinds of assessments both in the region and in Lebanon.

These different assessments about Turkey’s stability-oriented activism in the abovementioned regions and the likelihood of its influence increasing in Lebanon can be summarized in three main approaches. According to the first one, Turkey’s role in the region, advocated by countries like Qatar, is positive and should be supported.

The second approach is that of Iran, which has been working on its channels of cooperation with Ankara, instead of making confrontational moves, despite the fact that they have long been rivals and Iran is highly uncomfortable about Turkey’s growing regional influence. The third approach is the one adopted by countries that see Turkey’s now permanent regional role in the Eastern Mediterranean as a direct threat to their interests; an approach built on a perception informed by a body of disinformation that the media organs manipulated by these countries/actors have been striving to generate and disseminate.

This short work, based on the arguments developed by the adherents of the third approach in regard to Turkey’s growing presence in Lebanon, will be analyzing the chief objectives of these arguments over the different dimensions of Turkey’s Lebanon policy and how its relations with the religious-sectarian groups in Lebanon might play out.

Greece, the Greek Cypriot Administration (GCA), Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and former colonial power France have been employing a wide range of political, military and media tools in order to restrain Turkey’s growing influence in the region. In particular, France, whose primary interest in the region is reestablishing and consolidating its former colonial influence, has developed multi-dimensional relations with Egypt, the UAE and Israel, whose main adopted target has long been the reversing of the democratization processes brought about by the Arab uprisings, and with Greece and the GCA, which aim to deny Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) their rights in the Eastern Mediterranean through illegal methods.

Therefore, these countries have begun to use the same rhetoric about Turkey’s initiatives in Lebanon as the one they adopted against Turkey’s activities in the countries where it has been an actor of stability.

The media organs of these countries, which have developed almost a common language in this regard, have been engaged in the dissemination of such baseless claims as, “Turkey aims to become the protector of the Sunnis in Lebanon”, “Turkey supports the Muslim Brotherhood”, “Turkey has an Islamic attitude”, “Turkey has been trying to create groups in northern Lebanon loyal to itself” and, even, “Turkey has smuggled weapons into Lebanon”.

Using these baseless claims that even Armenia voices, the actors in question have supported France, one of the primary foreign culprits responsible for the chronic problems in Lebanon, as a power that will hopefully counterbalance Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean in general, and in Lebanon in particular.

Ankara, with its interest in Lebanon growing particularly after it joined the peacekeeping force under the United Nations (UN) following the conflicts between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, opened the Turkish Trauma and Rehabilitation Center in 2010 in Sayda, which is known as a Hezbollah-controlled area, and a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) as well.

Moreover, with the intensification of the activities in Lebanon of such institutions as the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB), the main axis of Turkey’s approach to Lebanon came into greater focus. This benevolent approach became more pronounced after the Beirut Port explosion on Aug.

4 this year, with Vice President Fuat Oktay and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who visited the country right after the explosion, emphasizing in definitive terms during their visit that Turkey did not discriminate between any groups in Lebanon and was following a win-win policy based on maintaining contact with every group in the country to make sure that Lebanon is restructured economically and politically, as well as in all other key areas.

Compared to the French approach to the country, Turkey apparently felt the need to openly state again that the sole purpose of its interest in Lebanon is to contribute to the efforts to reestablish stability, and that it has nothing to do with any colonial aims or any intention to exploit natural resources. Therefore, although Turkey is already shown high levels of sympathy particularly by the Sunni and Turkish-origin communities in northern Lebanon and [the Lebanese] Tripoli, it has also adopted the aim of developing communication with all of the parties involved, as evidenced by the visits to many groups in the country.

In this context, despite its political-military conflict in the Syrian civil war with Turkey, and despite its favorable approach to the terrorist PKK-PYD, the Iran-backed Hezbollah does not seem to oppose the Iran-Turkey cooperation in Syria. Furthermore, Hezbollah has strong ties with Hamas and its relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE are severely problematic, and in this regard, it also seems to have an approach similar to that of Turkey.

Therefore, one might safely conclude that Hezbollah will not be averse to Turkey’s role in Lebanon, hoping that it would help to break the Saudi-Emirati influence in the country and also serve as a new counterweight to Israel. The fact that the Turkish hospital built by Turkey in Sayda is in a Hezbollah-controlled area may also be a sign that Hezbollah does not have a radical attitude towards Turkey.

On the other hand, apart from Hezbollah, important figures in the Lebanese Shiite community such as Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, who was the first secretary general of Hezbollah, made positive remarks about Turkey’s efforts in Syria and Libya.

This is yet another indication that Turkey, with its non-sectarian approach, is on the right track and that major Shiite figures do not take issue with the likelihood of Turkish influence increasing in Lebanon. Thanks to the strong historical and cultural ties dating from the Ottoman period, there is a very fertile ground for developing multifaceted relations between Turkey and Lebanon, but also thanks to the about 50-80 thousand Kavashra Turkmens in the Akkar region in northern Lebanon, communities known as “Mardalli” with members numbering in the vicinity of 20-30 thousand who are originally from the southeastern Turkish province of Mardin, and also the Sunni groups in the country.

Maronite Christians, however, seem to have an overall negative attitude towards Turkey, as evidenced by the anti-Ottoman remarks Lebanese President Michel Aoun made on account of the 100th founding anniversary of Lebanon. Considering that the Maronite groups have traditionally been supported by France, one can easily make sense of this attitude.

But on the other hand, it should also be noted that the Maronite groups do not monolithically have the same attitude. Some of these groups have positive relations with Israel, while others stand close to the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Michel Aoun, and some are in alliance with Hezbollah. In other words, as seen in Lebanon’s sectarian groups, there are pluralistic and different approaches in the Maronite community as well, and this could open the door for Turkey to develop relations with some of the Maronite groups there.

One of the groups with radically negative views on Turkey is the Armenian Lebanese community, although they do not exert much influence on Lebanon’s domestic and foreign politics. One might say that the improvement of the relations between Turkey and this Armenian-Lebanese community is contingent on Turkey’s political relations with Armenia and the attitude of the Armenian diaspora.

The claim that France is “neutral” is a deliberate distortion of the reality

As far as the Druze, another major sectarian group in Lebanon, and particularly the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), which basically leads this community, are concerned, it seems possible for Turkey to develop relations with the PSP within a certain framework, considering that it is an ally of the Future Party of Saad al-Hariri, which, just like Turkey, is strongly opposed to the Bashar Assad regime in Syria.

Therefore, with its strategic importance in terms of the energy reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean and their transfer to the world markets, as well as with its many sectarian-religious communities, Lebanon clearly needs Turkey’s stabilizing role. In Lebanon, where political conflicts between different sects have become a chronic issue owing to the systemic divisions, a stable environment likely to be created with the support of Turkey would be making a positive contribution to the other conflict zones in the Middle East as well.

This being the case, France, with its colonial past, and the actors in question that it has been supporting describing Turkey’s stability-oriented Lebanon initiatives as “neo-Ottoman” and “Sunni-centered” is very ironic, to say the least, not least because France is the chief foreign culprit responsible for the chronic problems the country is still mired in.

To put it more clearly, France, whose Lebanon policy has long been centered on the Christian Maronites in the country, being presented by the aforementioned actors as “neutral” and being “in communication with all of the groups” in the country, whereas Turkey, despite its truly inclusive policies about Lebanon, being accused of being “Sunni-centered” and “acting as an invader” is merely a deliberate distortion of the current as well as historical realities.

With an actual base and strong background in Lebanon’s culture and history, Turkey shares a common ground in various fields with a number of other actors apart from the Sunni and Turkmen communities that already support it and thus has the capacity to play a conciliatory role between the local actors in Lebanon.

Thus, having repeatedly stressed that its Lebanon policy is not sectarian, Turkey is an actor that has been acting on the basis of inclusivity and humanitarian aid toward the rebuilding of the country in every way, and as such, its potential to make positive contributions to Lebanon’s stability, despite all the black propaganda against it, is sufficiently high.

*Translated by Omer Colakoglu

*The writer is a faculty member at Eskisehir Osmangazi University. He is also a specialist at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM)

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.


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