Turkey walks gray line in Libya

Turkey is walking down a thin gray line in pursuing a third way to diffuse the conflict between forces loyal to Gaddafi and rebels in Libya from escalating into a major humanitarian crisis. The events unfolding in Libya are far from black and white; rather, they are a mixture of strong undercurrents confounding the already diverging interests of many actors both inside and outside Libya. That is why, many analysts say, Ankara offers the most valuable assets in the medium and long term to stabilize the country, which looks more divided than ever among some 140 tribes.

On one side we see what is perceived as a war mongering camp headed by France’s erratic leader Nicolas Sarkozy, who did not even invite Turkey, which has the largest army in NATO, to the Paris meeting, fearing the Muslim-majority country would object to the rush to bomb. In fact that would have been the case, considering that Turkey has been trying to broker a deal between the rebels’ National Coalition and the embattled Gaddafi regime. Talks had reportedly reached the point of declaring a cease-fire, allowing a graceful exit for Gaddafi with some lingering issues remained to be solved. The abrupt start of the bombing campaign, however, killed the talks on the spot.

It may be argued, as some did, that the onslaught on Benghazi by Gaddafi loyalists was imminent and the bombing did in fact save civilians and rebels from the looming slaughter. That may be the case. But that does not explain the justification for going solo by Western powers for the air raid that not only destroyed the air capability of Libya’s defenses but also vital infrastructure for the country. No question this could have been done under different schemes, such as a NATO umbrella, using well-defined mission parameters empowered by the mandate provided by the UN Security Council resolutions rather than a coalition of the willing led by the US, the UK and France, all the usual suspects in the eyes of millions in the Middle East.

We now know that military contingency planning in NATO was already in the works well ahead of the attack by Western powers. The enforcement of a no-fly zone could very well be managed by NATO rather than a “posse” comprising trigger-happy forces. It evokes a serious image of the colonial era by imperialistic powers in Africa and the Middle East, going after the national treasures of countries. This is a very dangerous game, as we saw the strong reaction in the Muslim world after Claude Guéant, the French interior minister, said French President Sarkozy was “leading a crusade.”

It may not even matter whether the allegations are true or not. If the perception of the West as going after windfall economic payouts, including oil, holds among public opinion, the situation will be untenable for everyone. It will turn the masses in the region against the West, creating the perfect atmosphere for authoritarian regimes to exploit at the expense of the people’s legitimate democratic demands. The external threat of a “crusade” will save the regimes the West is ostensibly trying to get rid of. This could be the self-fulfilling prophecy of our times.

I think the US, bogged down in conflict in two Muslim nations already, was the first to recognize the great danger and pressured Sarkozy to hand over operational control to NATO, as demanded by Turkey, in enforcing UN resolutions. In a meeting to be held in London on Tuesday, the US is expected to go even further in squeezing Sarkozy out to relinquish political control to a much more representative body of coalition forces that include not only Turkey but other Muslim nations as well. Sarkozy will risk France being left out in the cold with solo maneuvers.

Everyone should also recognize that at the end of the game you would need a “go-between” player such as Turkey to make the post-conflict era remain as peaceful as possible. When the dust settles, you will need a mediator to bring all the tribes with competing interests together around the same table so that the reconstruction of the nation can begin. Turkey enjoys the confidence of both sides in the conflict at the moment and has earned their trust as an honest mediator whose primary interest lies in the well-being of all Libyans. The main reason why the US, the UK, Italy and Australia asked Turkey to represent their interests in Libya during this tumultuous period is because of what Turkey can bring to the table.

We have seen that position bearing fruit already during which Turkish diplomats were instrumental in facilitating the release of four New York Times and one Guardian reporter into their custody by Libyan authorities. At the outset of the conflict, Turkey helped thousands of people from a number of countries evacuate from conflict zones using airlifts and passenger ships. Even before the UN resolutions came into play, in coordination with the United Arab Emirates, Turkey had already delivered large amounts of humanitarian relief to stranded residents in Libya. Under NATO command, Turkish frigates and submarines are enforcing an arms embargo in the Mediterranean to keep the conflict from escalating.

Don’t hold your breath. But if Sarkozy is not too ashamed of his great blunder with Turkey, he might even pick up the phone and call the Turkish prime minister to ask for the protection of French national interests in Libya as well. Apart from French national pride preventing him from doing so, Sarkozy could very well be rebuffed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan if he placed the call. It is impossible anyway, since France has already recognized the rebels as the legitimate government representing divided Libya.

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