Some Turks see Lebanon UN force chance to revive glories

ANKARA — Some Turks see participating in the Lebanon peacekeeping force as a chance to reassert Turkish influence in the region, decades after their Ottoman Empire ruled across southeastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

But others see a more dangerous outcome if they send troops to help enforce a ceasefire between Israel and Hizbollah fighters: A Mideast quagmire that could engage Turkish troops in hostile fire with fellow Muslims.

“Turkey having a military presence beyond its borders would be a prestigious development,” said Turhan Comez, a legislator from the ruling Justice and Development Party.

“However, such a risk taken under these unstable conditions will draw Turkey into the line of fire, and I don’t even want to think of the consequences,” he added.

The government asked parliament late Friday to approve sending troops to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Hizbollah fighters that ended 34 days of fighting last month. Lawmakers are expected to vote on the resolution Tuesday — the day UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who has called for Muslim participation in the UN force, is to arrive in Ankara for talks with Turkish leaders. The government has yet to determine the number of peacekeepers it would send, but it was expected to range between 500-1,000.

Europe, the US and Israel are eager to see peacekeepers from Turkey — NATO’s only Muslim member and one of the few Muslim nations with ties to Israel — in the hope it could avert the impression the UN force is primarily Christian and European.

And Ankara, nostalgic for the former glory of the Ottoman Empire, has hankered for a key role in a country it ruled for centuries.

The Ottoman Turks — who began conquering nearby lands with the decline of the Arab empire in the 14th century — added Lebanon and Syria to their domain in 1516. By the 19th century, however, the Ottoman Empire was unable to stop Western interest in the oil-rich Middle East and regional desires for independence. After World War I, France and Britain divided what remained of the empire into protectorates: Today’s Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. Since then, however, the region has fallen into turmoil — and the Islamic-rooted Turkish government believes it could play a role in returning stability to the region.

“Turkey has an obligation as a regional power and the old guardian of the Middle East to exert its positive influence on developments,” editor in chief Ilnur Cevik wrote in The New Anatolian.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he is responding to Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora’s request for Turkey’s help monitoring the truce. He assured Turks the soldiers would only be protecting peace and helping with humanitarian aid, not disarming Hizbollah fighters.

“It would be treason to our history, our future and the high interests of our people to stay away,” Erdogan told the nation in a televised address Thursday, playing on the emotional outpouring of support in Turkey for the Lebanese people.

“Let’s not forget: If we shut our doors, we can’t escape the flames that are surrounding us,” he said. “If you stay away, you become spectators to the killings of innocent people and to your own future.” The government is also aware that responding to the international call for help could boost Ankara’s efforts to join the European Union.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso highlighted Turkey’s “strategic role” in the UN force Wednesday, praising the “significant reforms” Ankara has made on democracy and the economy, according to Turkey’s state-owned Anatolia news agency.

But some analysts question the consequences of Turkish participation.

“No good can come of this deployment for Turkey,” said Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. “There is no real peace between Hizbollah and Israel. Does Turkey really want to be in the middle of it?” Rubin said joining the UN mission would have little meaning other than being “a triumph for Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism.” He also warned that any confrontation with Hizbollah could pit Turkey against Iran, a key backer of Hizbollah with which it now has cordial relations.

“Such an unwanted development would amount to an undeclared war against Iran,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst with the Economic Policy Research Institute in Ankara.

And then there is the potential for fierce opposition at home.

Many Turks fear their soldiers could end up facing hostile fire with fellow Muslims. President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who serves in a figurehead role but has enormous influence in the country, has already spoken out against such a mission.

“It is not our responsibility to protect the interests of other countries,” he said last week. Lebanon’s Armenians, who make up about 4 per cent of the country’s population, have also come out against Turkish participation — a reminder that some in the region have not completely shed bitter memories of Ottoman rule.

Armenians accuse the Ottoman Turks of killing 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in 1915 in what they call a campaign of genocide. But Turkey vehemently denies any systematic genocide, insists the number of dead is significantly inflated and says most died from disease and hunger when they fled or were deported to Syria and Lebanon during World War I.

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