Turkey Backtracks to Spite Sarkozy

Turkey bitterly opposed the intervention in Libya, but may have to modify its policy or allow France to get the credit.

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Amiel Ungar, | updated: 00:06

Abdullah Gul
Abdullah Gul


The top  two Turkish leaders: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and President Abdullah Gül launched acerbic attacks against France and its president Nicolas Sarkozy, giving vent to Turkey's dismay over the unfolding of events in Libya. Speaking in Istanbul, Erdogan disparagingly referred to the French: "I wish that those who only see oil, gold mines and underground treasures when they look in [Libya's] direction, would see the region through glasses of conscience from now on." President Gül criticized hidden agendas,denying that the intervention was prompted by pure motivations, such as the liberation of the Libyan people.

Turkey, with good reason, views France as the ringleader of opposition within the European Union to Turkish accession. The French president has referred to Turkey as properly belonging in the Middle East and not in Europe. The last thing that Nicholas Sarkozy needs, with the National Front breathing down his electoral neck, is to have the European Union admit a large Moslem country.

The Turkish government has had cozy relations with the Qaddafi regime as well, including extensive business ties. Turkey therefore opposed the intervention but thereby played into the hands of the French president. Both France and Turkey are members of NATO, an organization that runs by consensus. As long as Ankara remained unalterably opposed to the intervention in Libya, it was hard to perform a handover via which the United States would relinquish its leadership to NATO. The Turkish presence would guarantee paralysis and discord.

This suited the French president, who would like to see France and himself as the leaders of this intervention, having taken a diplomatic chance by recognizing the insurgents as the sole legitimate regime in Libya. In an ironic reversal of the war in Iraq, it is now France who prefers a "coalition of the willing", that should exercise political and strategic control over the intervention, rather than NATO. The French came up with the ingenious explanation that NATO epitomized Western power and therefore would be ill received by Arab countries.

As long as Turkey was implacably hostile to the intervention, France had its way and even managed to exclude Turkey from a conference with African and Arab countries on Libya that was held in Paris. The leader of the Republican People's party, Turkey's main opposition, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, ridiculed the ruling Justice and Development party by saying "The western world by-passed Turkey and directly contacted the Arab League and African Union. Turkey, which is supposedly a play-maker, cannot even be a walk-on."

Turkey is fortunate that the impasse over NATO leadership is untenable to Barack Obama who seeks to minimize the US role. The way to square the circle was to have NATO engage the Turks and find some face-saving solution. NATO, ironically, sent as its emissary the current commander of the US European command and NATO's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, James G. Stavridis. As the name suggests, Stavridis is of Greek extraction and according to the Turkish paper Hurriyet, his grandfather was a Greek teacher in Izmir but was expelled in the forced transfer of the Greek population that followed the post First World War  Greco-Turkish war .

Turkey may receive assurances that a ground invasion or subsequent occupation will be ruled out. A sign of a possible accommodation was British Foreign Secretary William Hague's inviting the Turks to attend a London Conference on Libya scheduled for March 29.