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Turkish Turmoil: Obstruction in Libya, Interference in Syria, Discrimination at Home

3:32 PM, Apr 12, 2011 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Turkey is a member of NATO, and as such might have been expected to participate fully in the military campaign to curb Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s brutal repression of his rebellious subjects. But from the beginning of international talks on Libya, the “soft-Islamist” Ankara government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development  party (AKP) has followed an ambivalent course. Rather than joining in the anti-Qaddafi effort, Erdogan has offered a series of unhelpful “alternatives” to it.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Leading Turkish journalist Semih Idiz noted on April 11, in the English online edition of the Istanbul daily Hurriyet, that Erdogan must have been surprised when Libyans in Benghazi, the rebel center, denounced him and Turkey in loud demonstrations last week. According to the Turkish commentator, liberated Libyans blame Erdogan and Turkey for “indirectly supporting the Qaddafi regime and prolonging its life.” Erdogan has opposed arming the Libyan resistance, adding his voice to those claiming the rebels’ ideology is suspect. Earlier, Idiz observed that the marchers in Benghazi carried French flags and banners praising Nicolas Sarkozy. But video from Euronews showed demonstrators with placards thanking the United States and the U.K., as well, for action against Qaddafi.

At the commencement of the crisis, Erdogan raged at the mere suggestion of NATO involvement in Libya, asking, “What business does NATO have in Libya anyway?” He then took umbrage when Turkey was left off the invitation list for the March 19 summit on Libya called by the French (who also oppose Turkish entry into the European Union). Hurriyet’s Idiz, in a March 24 column, warned that the more Turkey avoided clear and unambiguous integration with NATO on Libya, “the more Qaddafi will be encouraged in resisting the operation against him.”

Turkish officials have rushed to affirm their adherence to NATO policy. Foreign ministry representative Selcuk Unal declared, as reported Monday by Idiz, “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.” This posture came after Turkey threatened to exercise its veto over NATO remedies against Qaddafi if leadership was taken by the French.

Turkey is now participating in enforcement of the “no-fly” zone in Libya. But Erdogan’s government followed up on its former intrigues by proposing a “road map” to peace in Libya that would include a withdrawal of Qaddafi’s forces from their present positions, establishment of humanitarian corridors, and a transition to democracy. Humanitarian assistance from Turkey, however, comes with suspicious associations. While Erdogan suggested that sending arms to Libyan anti-Qaddafi fighters could put weapons in risky hands, an official Turkish aid convoy to Benghazi was paid for by the Turkish authorities, but staffed and provisioned by the Turkish Red Crescent (the equivalent of the Red Cross in Muslim countries), and a familiar player, the I.H.H. (Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms), which led the Turkish Islamist assault on the Israeli naval embargo at Gaza last year. A top I.H.H. official in Turkey, Murat Bayraktar, claimed the organization was the first on the ground distributing aid in Benghazi, on February 22, five days after the Libyan insurrection began.

Concern about Turkey’s convoluted intrigues over Libya stems in part from Erdogan’s previous good relations with Qaddafi. Last December, the Turkish prime minister traveled to Tripoli to receive the ill-named “Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights.” Erdogan used the occasion to call for criminalization of speech critical of Islam, and to repeat his condemnation of Israel for its decision in the Gaza embargo incident, “adding that there is much Turkish investment in the Arab country [Libya] and that ties between the two countries are growing.” When the Libyan uprising began, Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) accused Erdogan of having been induced by the award to keep silent on the conflict.

In the wake of that embarrassing challenge, Erdogan’s contorted attempt to appease all parties in the Libyan emergency may be more understandable. But Turkish political acrobatics are not limited to Libya. In Syria, which borders on Turkey and is undergoing the latest chapter in the series of Arab and Muslim revolutionary ructions, Turkey appears intent on maintaining good relations with the Baathist regime of Bashar Al-Assad. In March, Erdogan called Assad to assure him of Turkey’s support, and last week Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with Assad. The Turkish politician offered Syria assistance in implementing “reforms” as directed by the dictator, and Assad thanked Ankara’s representative for Turkey’s “commitment to Syria’s security and stability.” Whether, like Erdogan’s friendship with Qaddafi, Turkey’s alliance with Syria will unravel under the pressure of internal Syrian events and international reaction remains to be seen.

As its government meanders opportunistically in foreign relations, Turkey will hold national parliamentary elections on June 12, and Erdogan may be concerned to firm up his Islamist ideological base. But reinforcement of AKP control has stimulated mass demonstrations inside Turkey. Last month 60,000 Turkish Alevis (non-Sunni, secularist Muslims oriented toward Sufi spirituality), representing a minority of between seven and 20 million Turkish citizens—between eight and 25 percent of the total population of 78 million, according to differing estimates—massed in the Aegean city of Izmir to demand abolition of the Turkish Diyanet or State Directorate of Religious Affairs, an end to compulsory Sunni religious classes in schools, and cessation of Sunni mosque construction in villages where Alevis, but not Sunnis, reside.

The Alevis also called for legalization of their distinctive houses of worship, known as cemevi. An Alevi leader, Ali Balkiz, charged that Erdogan is headed toward a personal dictatorship “flavored by religious sauce,” and another, Selahattin Ozel, denounced the AKP for a much-heralded “Alevi initiative” outreach effort. According to Ozel, the AKP wishes to perpetuate a second-class status for Alevis, in which their identity is “defined by non-Alevis.” Erdogan’s oscillations between Tripoli, Benghazi and Damascus may be intended to prevent the Arab and Muslim protest movement from crossing his own borders—and may fail.

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