On November 29, 2010, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan received an international human rights award named for Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. The award was a sign of international appreciation of Turkey’s foreign policy and domestic leadership in promoting “peace, justice and human rights.” In his acceptance speech during the award ceremony, Erdogan stated that the prize will further strengthen and support his struggle for human rights for people in the Middle East and all around the world. He explained Turkey’s drive to strive for peace through the Alliance of Civilizations initiative under the United Nations and continue negotiations with the European Union in an attempt to carry universal values to Turkey and the region. As Erdogan noted, “All regional states would benefit from peace, harmony and stability. Everyone must be sure of one thing: Whatever we want for ourselves, we also want for others.”
From a puppet of the EU’s modernization wishes to a mediator and peacekeeper all in one, Turkey has thus far dealt well with the challenges presented by its inherited geographical location between Europe and the Middle East. In just 88 years, Turkey has progressed from the distraught remnant of a fallen empire to a global player in foreign affairs as the Middle East’s intermediary window to the West. Looking forward, not even the instability and violence in Libya has dampened Turkey’s spirit. Instead its recent courage in picking up the weakening reins of Western efforts in the Middle East has ultimately strengthened Turkey’s political clout in international diplomacy—especially as it flexes new muscles in politically unstable Libya.
The North African state is caught in an ongoing, violent civil war between rebels—the Transitional National Council based in Benghazi—seeking to overthrow current Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and pro-Qaddafi forces. The seeds of Turkey’s friendly ties with Libya were sown during a US arms embargo following Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974, when Libya provided Turkey with spare parts to operate US-made jets. Since then, Turkish builders have become a mainstay of foreign business in Libya, despite an influx of Chinese, Russian and other immigrants. Today, Turkey has both an embassy in Tripoli, still up and running, and a functioning consulate in Benghazi, thus serving as an intermediary for the United States, Britain, Italy and Australia, none of whom have active embassies in Libya at the moment. As such, Turkish engagement in Libya has given it an upper hand in international diplomacy, renewed reason to maintain relations with the Middle East, and the welcomed status of a vital partner for the West.
Starting in 1453 and for almost five hundred years afterwards, Istanbul was the seat of power for an empire that maintained accord between Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land. But since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the founding of modern Turkey in 1923, the secular Turkish state has shied away from any involvement with the greater Muslim world, instead orienting its foreign policy toward the West. There is a historic echo in Turkey’s recent “neo-Ottoman” influence in the Middle East, as it is being tapped to provide the troops to keep the peace between Israel and Palestine, Syria and Jordan, and Arab players and the West.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern Turkish state in 1923. Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, he led the Turkish national movement in the Turkish War of Independence and established a provisional government in Ankara. After his military campaigns helped Turkey attain independence, he embarked upon a program of political, economic and cultural reforms. Ataturk formulated six principles, the “Six Arrows” of Kemalism, to shape the domestic and foreign policy of the new Republic of Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman empire—Republicanism, Populism, Secularism, Revolutionism, Nationalism and Statism. Ataturk’s Kemalist doctrine, which brought stability to a frenzied Turkey by transforming the former Ottoman empire into a modern, secular state modeled after the Western European powers, has been the defining ideology in Turkey every since.
Turkish emulation of European countries spurred the removal of religion from government processes and ultimately led to the strict removal of religion from the public sphere (especially in the education system), in an effort to copy laïcité, the French model of secularism. Along with establishing direct government by the assembly with representative democracy and parliamentary sovereignty and adopting the Turkish constitution of 1924, one of the most significant steps in the development of the new Turkish nation-state was Kemal’s abolishment of the Islamic caliphate in 1924. The caliphate was the core political concept for the majority of believers in Sunni Islam, and Kemal feared it would create a rupture in governance with the new republic on one side and an Islamic form of government with the caliph on the other. His removal of the sultanate and caliphate was the first step in his extensive effort to separate governmental and religious affairs—an advancement few other Muslim-majority Middle Eastern nations have not made to this day.
Turkey’s secularism brought it closer to the West and eventually prompted a cycle of European-modeled development. From Ataturk encouraging Turks to abandon traditional garb for modern European attire to his replacing the entire Arabic alphabet with a Roman script for the Turkish language, the Kemalist vision of a western European order dictated both domestic and foreign policies. Turkey’s increased closeness with Western orders paved the way for its 1963 Association Agreement with the European Economic Community (EEC), which later evolved into the modern-day European Union in 1992. Kemalist reforms Turkey towards closer relations with the West and the US. However, Turkey’s desire to be included was not supported by western Europe. 36 years after the Association Agreement, Turkish status as an entry candidate—a starting step on the way to membership––was approved by the members of the European Union. Yet Turkey continued to make changes to keep up with the red ribbon of EU membership that had been pushed farther and farther away. Turkey, like a loyal lapdog of the EU, willingly shirked its Muslim identity and backed away from its Middle Eastern neighbors, all for economic and political union with the western Club.
In hopes of meeting the EU’s growing number of criteria, each turkish prime Minister has built on the economic liberalization reforms of his predecessors and provided greater freedoms for Turkey’s minority ethnic groups. Representatives of the largest ethnic minority, the Kurds, deemed to be a source of instability and terrorism, were even given government positions so that the Turkish ethnic majority would not be blamed, as it has been historically, for stifling free speech. But Turkey’s efforts have been for naught. Turkey has been vying for membership for 48 years. In that time, less economically stable states such as Romania and Bulgaria—both predominantly Christian—have made it into the club.
As Dr. Charles Freilich, an International Security Program Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Governments, explained, the European Union was primarily wary of having a Muslim country in the union. Turkey is well aware of this and has raised the probing question: “Is the EU a Christian club or is it the address of a community of developed civilizations?”
While the EU has had difficulty accepting Turkey’s identity incorporating traits of both East and West, the ex-Ottoman Empire has recently begun to make sense ofits unique position as a Muslim democracy. One of the most conspicuous results: a stark difference in foreign policy from westward orientation to recent eastern engagement. A country previously close to invisible in the Middle East due to its focus on Western relations, Turkey has now begun to increase its foothold in the region. The convergence of three main factors—the failures of the West and Arab players to improve their relations, Turkey’s new embrace of its Muslim population and its re-engagement with its Middle Eastern neighbors—has prompted Ankara to restore some of the regional clout enjoyed by its Ottoman forebears.
First under the late Turgut Özal, who served as prime minister and president in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and more prominently since 2002 under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has once again become more involved in the greater Middle East. This recent “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy—focused upon expanding involvement in the Middle East—is a twist away from the party’s traditional support for Kemalism and drive for recognition by the EU.
One of Turkey’s initiatives of engagement in the Middle East has been the significant increase of its economic investment in the region. In 2009, nearly 20 percent of Turkey’s exports went to the Middle East, some $19.2 billion worth of goods, compared with 12.5 percent in 2004. Mehmet Simsek, Turkey’s minister of finance, told the Financial Times of “concerted efforts” to boost ties with Gulf countries by increasingly investing in infrastructure projects throughout the Middle East, such as building highways, bridges, and airports. Turkey-based contractors have constructed the Arbil International Airport (opened in 2010) and multiple banks in Iraqi Kurdistan in an effort to signify improved relations with the Kurdistan region, especially as it becomes a strategic player in both Iraq and the Middle East.
Since its election in 2002, the AKP has also renewed political relations across the Middle East, establishing new foreign consulates and promoting itself as a mediator in long-standing conflicts. It achieved a breakthrough in May 2010 by bringing together Syria and Israel for their first direct talks in eight years. In 2008, it helped resolve the dangerous presidential standoff in Lebanon. In recent years, Ankara has taken a more active approach toward the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, sent troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, contributed to UN forces in Lebanon, assumed a leadership position in the Organization of Islamic Conference, attended several Arab League conferences; established closer ties with Iran, Iraq, and Syria; and begun to mediate the international debate on Iranian nuclear proliferation. Still, the modern-day turmoil in Libya has proved to be the real test of Turkey’s international diplomacy and clout.
Amidst the chaos in Libya, Turkey has been walking a tightrope between its international obligations as a member of NATO and its regional ties to its neighbors and allies in the Middle East. The Turkish government, which is playing an increasingly important regional role and has the second-largest military within NATO, has been at the center of the discussion about the alliance with Libya. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan publicly clashed with French President Nicolas Sarkozy for staging the first air strikes against Libyan targets and killing innocent civilians. Erdogan has warned that a drawn-out conflict risked turning the country into a “second Iraq” or “another Afghanistan” with devastating repercussions for both Libya and the NATO states leading the intervention.
“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 very fact that Bagis openly addresses Libya as a brother in the midst of EU tensions, despite the Libyan political turmoil, reveals the historical integrity of Turkey’s relationships.
Not only is Turkish backing for Libya a result of Libya’s prior support of Turkey, but it is also a result of Turkey’s renewed engagement in the Middle East. Particularly, they are making huge economic investments in the region. 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 balance was $2.4 billion in favor of Turkey and the two countries have recently waived the requirement for travel visas to boost that trade.
Yet Turkey has been supporting Libya far beyond its bilateral relations. On the international level, Turkey has also contributed four frigates and one submarine to the enforcement of the UN 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.
Especially since Turkey has a more legitimate interest in the region, the Erdogan administration has begun to seek a genuine ceasefire, an end to outside interference and a negotiated political settlement. Thus far, Turkey has insisted that the rules of engagement in Libya must be restricted to protecting civilians, enforcing the UN arms embargo and no-fly zone and providing humanitarian aid, excluding any further NATO air strikes against Qaddafi’s ground forces.
In an exclusive interview with The Guardian, Erdogan said that talks were still under way with Qaddafi’s government and the Transitional National Council. In the meantime, as a member of NATO, Turkey has accepted the task of controlling the air and sea corridor between Benghazi and Crete. On the ground, Turkey has already fulfilled its third agreement with NATO to assume control of the rebel-held Benghazi harbor and airport for the delivery of humanitarian aid. Clearly, the confluence of Turkey’s own stability, geographic location, and newfound engagement with the Middle Eastern region are enabling it to make headway toward striking a balance between Libyan and Western relations and forging a place for itself at the international diplomatic table.
The ex-Ottoman Empire has lived up to its geographic straddle of Europe and Asia by providing a bridge in terms of religion, government structure, economic investment, and military support. However, with Libya potentially devolving into a second Iraq War the time has come for Turkey to test its role as a peacebroker between East and West.
In the past few years, Turkey has reemerged in the headlines without the phrase “European Union.” From Time magazine’s prediction in January 2009 that Turkey would become a “key player in Gaza peace,” to The Economist calling Turkey “The Great Mediator” in August of 2010, Turkey is emerging as a regional power in the Middle East. The strength it developed during its period of EU reforms has given Turkey the status and confidence to oversee Libyan affairs and potentially serve as a mediator between the West and the Middle East for years to come.