Turkish Foreign Policy and Unifil mission

010009Thursday, June 25, 2009
Lebanon mission launchpad for Turkey’s foreign-policy agenda
‘Our approach … has a laboratory attribution’

By Cagil Kasapoglu
Special to The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Following the Turkish Parliament’s approval of extending the mission of troops operating as part of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) for another year as of September 5, 2009, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Wednesday stressed the importance of the Middle East for Turkey’s foreign-policy agenda.

Turkey has around 1,000 troops, most of them sailors, in the force.

“Preserving peace in Lebanon is one of Turkey’s responsibilities as part of our country’s historical obligations,” Davutoglu said during his speech to Parliament, adding that the legislative body’s decision should not be seen as having a “solely military value but should be considered as a reflection of Turkey’s stance in the region.

The appointment as foreign minister of of Davutoglu, an expert on Middle Eastern politics, had brought questions and concerns about whether Turkey will lean its foreign policy toward the Middle East and abandon its desire for the European Union. However, Davutoglu stressed at a press conference held in Istanbul last week that Turkey could not prioritize its relations with the East or the West.

While the European accession process carries on with high hopes on EU bid progress during Sweden presidency, Turkey takes one more step toward Middle Eastern peacekeeping activities by extending its troops’ mission within the UNIFIL.

“Our approach to Lebanon has a laboratory attribution,” Davutoglu told Parliament, adding that Turkey’s ties with Lebanon have a direct influence on one of Turkey’s foreign-policy goals of being a global and regional actor for peacekeeping missions.

“Relations between Turkey and Lebanon can be seen as an outset of Turkey’s foreign policy for the Middle East,” he said.

Davutoglu said that as a member of the UN Security Council, Turkey would carry on its peacebuilding activities “while closely watching each and every political and strategic development in the region.”

“Our basic goal is to place Turkey among major global and regional actors that make significant contributions,” he stressed during his speech to the Parliament.

“Turkey’s main foreign-policy aim is to ensure ‘peace at home, peace in the world,'” Davutoglu added.

Turkey’s participation in the UN mission as the first Muslim country to contribute to UNIFIL is seen as one of the fundamental principles of Turkish foreign policy and a reflection of Turkey’s stance toward the Middle East.

According to Serdar Kilic, Turkey’s ambassador to Lebanon, preservation of Lebanon’s security and stability is of utmost importance for Turkish foreign policy and Turkey’s contribution to UNIFIL constitutes the military dimension of this policy.

“We are determined to contribute to UNIFIL as long as the need is there. The recent decision of the Turkish Parliament is a solid testimony in this regard,” Kilic told The Daily Star.

Prominent Turkish researcher Orhan Oytun from the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies based in Ankara told The Daily Star that Turkey’s rapprochement in Middle Eastern issue dates back to early years of this decade with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s active role in foreign policy. However, he stressed that it should be seen as a collaborated policy together with Turkey’s EU bid.

Turkey’s role in the Middle East is not only limited to Lebanon, Turkish officials have recently made several visits to countries such as Syria and Israel in order to consolidate bilateral ties and promote peace building in the Middle East.

Turkey also hosted in 2008 indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel.

“Turkish foreign policy on the Middle East also has a significant contribution to Turkey’s goals on European accession. The rising sympathy for Turkey in the Middle East is an opening gate for Europe as well,” Orhan said during a telephone interview.

He added that the presence of Turkish troops in southern Lebanon offers an opportunity to the locals, in particular the Shiite community to know more about Turks and their culture, as they did not have a very positive image during the Ottoman Empire’s rule.

“Turkey’s image is strengthened by the Turkish military and civil development projects in south Lebanon where a lack of knowledge about Turkey has caused the locals to remain ignorant about the cultural similarities we share,” Orhan said.

“Turkey’s unbiased stance toward each country in the Middle East creates a significant sympathy from different ethnic and religious backgrounds in the region, while granting the Turkish government a role of ‘balancer’ in the region,” he added.

Turkey is seen as a global and regional actor, actively working for the political and social stability in the Middle East,” Orhan said.

According to former UNIFIL spokesman Timur Goksel, who is currently based in Beirut, the Turkish Parliament’s decision to extend the peacekeepers’ mission within UNIFIL was “a very positive initiative that has to be seen as a great humanitarian gesture from the Turkish government.”

“There is significant sympathy toward Turkish troops for their reconstruction projects in the south of Lebanon. If the decision had not been approved by the Parliament, and they had to leave the country, then it would have been a serious problem,” Goksel told The Daily Star, without elaborating.

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