While the public has been busy watching a huge evacuation effort, the largest ever undertaken by the Turkish government, of Turkish citizens from Libya, during which more than 20,000 Turks are being repatriated in short period of time, Turkish policy makers have been silently working on a carefully drafted plan for a post-Gaddafi era in the oil-rich North African country.
Apart from the pressing humanitarian concerns for Turkish workers living in the Libya, Ankara is visibly on edge about the possible failure of the Libyan state, which would throw the country into chaos and civil war, thereby damaging Turkish economic and political interests in Libya.
Amid calls for foreign intervention to oust the embattled leader of Libya, policy makers in Ankara have been feeling nervous about a possible hijacking of the civil unrest by outsiders and the risk of a wave of home-grown protest movements appearing to be foreign-instigated plots.
“This is why the Turkish prime minister had to come out and say that NATO has no business getting involved in Libyan affairs,” says foreign policy expert Mehmet Seyfettin Erol of Gazi University in Ankara. “Turks are concerned that the new wave of unrest may be spun into just another master design devised by Western powers. If that perception were to take a hold in the public view, the resistance against the authoritarian regime would quickly dissipate,” he warned. Erol stressed that any outside intervention may play into Muammar Gaddafi’s hands.
During a visit to Germany last week Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan firmly objected to any NATO intervention in the Libyan crisis while also strongly criticizing European countries for their “double standard” approach towards the developments in North Africa. “What has NATO got to do with Libya? NATO’s intervention in Libya is out of the question. We are against such a thing,” Erdoğan said in a speech delivered at a meeting organized by the Turkish-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry (TD-IHK) in Hanover.
Earlier, NATO’s top-decision making body, the North Atlantic Council, had said the organization would not intervene in the Libyan crisis but would continue to monitor the situation closely. However, as the standoff between opposition forces and forces loyal to Gaddafi in Libya drags on, the possibility of a UN-sanctioned international intervention on behalf of the Libyan people has risen considerably. Although the opposition in Libya is not unified to make such a call at the moment, and there are strong disagreements among its ranks, a plea for international help may come sooner rather than later when Gaddafi pushes back harder and the opposition runs out of tools to force him out.
Turkey is concerned that the situation in this North African country will deteriorate further to create a major humanitarian crisis that might trigger international intervention by a coalition of governments led by the United States and other Western powers. Whether that move would be sanctioned by the UN remains to be seen, but there are strong indications that Russia and China would veto such a resolution at the UN Security Council. “Turkey does not want to see the humiliation of the Libyan people, and this is our paramount concern at the moment,” Selim Yenel, deputy undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry, told Sunday’s Zaman.
Yenel also dismissed criticism that Turkey had shied away from criticizing Gaddafi. “Turkish foreign policy is based on the rule of law, justice, human rights and universal values. At the same time, we have concerns for the large Turkish expat community in Libya. We have to be very careful in our approach and not risk any reprisals against our citizens or the harming of our interests. We are looking ahead and thinking about what we can do to help the Libyan people,” he explained.
For Turkish diplomats, uncertainty in Libya looks increasingly like a dangerous game on a tightrope where they don’t want to risk inviting the wrath of the Libyan leader, who might exact revenge on the remaining Turkish citizens, but they also do not want to alienate the Libyan people, who have shown appreciation for the support by Turkey. Erdoğan spoke with Gaddafi on several occasions during the mass evacuations, and diplomats in Ankara say it is important to keep the channels open until the situation eases on the ground.
According to Erol, Ankara is also concerned that a divided Libya would present pitfalls for Turkish initiatives in North Africa. “Turkey has invested significantly in Libyan infrastructure, and Turkish contractors and developers have left a large amount of heavy machinery there with the hope of eventually returning once the country has stabilized. Anyone looking at long-term policy analysis would advise the government of Turkey to use as much caution as possible,” he said.
With billions of dollars of outstanding contract payments at stake, Turkey, unlike some countries, did not announce a freeze of Libyan assets nor did it revoke the diplomatic status of the ambassador of Libya in Ankara. Foreign Trade Minister Zafer Çağlayan said last week that Turkish contractors have no intention of pulling out from Libya but have simply paused operations for security reasons. “We have completed $27 billion worth of business deals in Libya. In the last five years alone, our contractors have won tenders to the value of $15.5 billion. These have created employment opportunities for 25,000 Turkish workers.”
Although the government has not adopted any unilateral sanctions against Libya, neither has it objected to a resolution that recommended the suspension of Libya from the 47-member Human Rights Council. The 192 UN member states voted on the council’s recommendation to suspend Libya’s membership on the UN’s top human rights body for committing “gross and systematic violations of human rights.” This was the first time any country’s membership privileges have been revoked at the council, which was formed in 2006 to promote human rights across the globe.
The UN Security Council also imposed a set of sanctions on Gaddafi, his family and top associates including an arms embargo, a travel ban and the freezing of assets during a weekend emergency meeting. It also agreed to refer the case to the International Criminal Court in The Hague -- a permanent war crimes tribunal -- to investigate and prosecute possible crimes against humanity. Turkey, as a member of the UN, has to abide by the Security Council resolutions.
Though the international decisions could provide some breathing space for the Turkish government, it is also under domestic pressure from the Turkish public, which maintains a strong positive perception of Libyans and still remember how the Libyan people helped them during World War I and provided needed parts for its military during an arms embargo imposed by the US after the Cyprus intervention of 1974. The Turkish prime minister has publicly denounced imposing sanctions against Libya, warning that the Libyan people would be the ones to suffer the most from that decision, not Gaddafi’s regime.
It seems that the popular revolts that toppled the long-time leaders in Tunisia and in Egypt and triggered mass protest rallies across the Middle East and North Africa continue to be testing the waters in Ankara. While the volatile situation in Libya has shown how perplexing one problem might be, Turkish diplomats have mobilized to do their best to find a way out of the turmoil with the least possible damage to Turkish national interests. No matter happens, however, all signs indicate Turkey is preparing itself for a post-Gaddafi era.