Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Turkey-Lebanon Relations in the Light of Hariri’s Visit to Ankara

The parliamentary elections in Lebanon had taken place in June 2009. The March 14 Alliance, which is led by Saad Hariri, had won the elections. However, due to Lebanon’s sui generis political and social structure, the government was not established until after 5 months it was established under the leadership of Hariri. Hariri had won the previous elections as well, however he was left in the background due to his lack of experience. This term, he assumed the position and made one of his first official visits as the Prime Minister to Turkey. As a matter of fact, the priority that he has given to Turkey shows the level that Turkey-Lebanon relations had achieved in a short time. That is because there is not a noteworthy level of relations between Turkey and Lebanon in Turkey’s history until the last ten years.

Turkey-Lebanon relations have been developing since the beginning of the 2000s. The factors that hindered the rapprochement of the two countries, and made possible the developments in the last ten years are as follows:

1. Lebanon has been, for a great deal of time, under political-military domination of Syria and Israel. Israel had invaded South Lebanon in 1982 and kept its presence in the region until its unilateral withdrawal in 2000. Syria had directly intervened in the Lebanese Civil War in 1976, which had started in 1975, and deployed its troops to Lebanon. Syria’s military presence was legitimized in 1989 Taif Accords. Lebanon remained under Syrian military and political tutelage until the mid 2000s. This situation hindered the development of Turkey-Lebanon relations. A new era started in Turkey-Lebanon relations after the withdrawal of Israel in 2000 and the end of Syrian presence in 2005 after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri.

2. The Syrian domination in Lebanon and tense relations between Turkey and Syria in the 1990s affected Turkey-Lebanon relations in a negative way. The main cause of Turkey-Syria tension was the issue of Syria’s support to the PKK. At that time the PKK kept many of its training camps in the Valley of Bekaa in Lebanon. Therefore, Lebanon posed an indirect security threat to Turkey.

3. Turkey-Syria rapprochement, which started in 1999, directly influenced Turkey-Lebanon relations. Syria has always been a significant actor in Lebanon. If Turkey-Syria relations were tense as in the past, it would not be possible for Turkey to be influential in the Lebanese politics. Political groups in Lebanon hold Turkey in high regard because they think Turkey has an influence on Syria. They believe that Turkey is able to convince Syria and they want Turkey to use its leverage on Syria about issues regarding Lebanon.

4. Turkey, due to its own preference and the regional circumstances, was not directly involved in Middle Eastern problems. Consistent with this approach, Turkey was indifferent to Lebanon. From 1999 and onwards, major changes in regional circumstances and Turkey’s policy toward the Middle East were important factors that led to the development of Turkey-Lebanon relations. After the AKP government was installed in 2002, a new approach became dominant in Turkey’s perspective toward Middle East, which remarked common history and culture and sought closer cooperation. Turkey has developed the understanding that not only the Northern Iraq issue, all regional problems would eventually affect its security in a negative way; therefore it should play a role in regional problems in an impartial and neutral manner. As a result Turkey has developed a close interest in Lebanon.

5. In Lebanon the need for the role Turkey can play has increased and domestic dynamics in Lebanon required Turkey to be more active. Due to factors such as Lebanon’s diverse social and political structure, the weakness of the Lebanese identity, and the fragility of the central government, Lebanon was open to foreign influences. The end of Israel’s invasion and Syria’s dominance exposed this situation. The regional polarization in the Middle East after the Iraqi war has extended to Lebanon. On the one hand, there are Shiite groups backed by Iran and Syria; and on the other the Sunnis backed by Saudi Arabia. Turkey, consistent with its Middle Eastern policy, did not take sides in this polarization within Lebanon. However, Turkey is pursuing an active neutrality policy rather than being pacifist. Lebanese political groups receive support from Iran and Saudi Arabia; however they are aware that neither of those countries contributes to the stability within Lebanon. Turkey, due to its power and sui generis approach, is regarded as an equilibrating factor among many conflicting parties in Lebanon. Many factions, albeit some exceptions, want Turkey to adopt an active role and this has given impetus to the rapprochement.

6. Sectarian factions in Lebanon, which differ on many issues, agree solely on the hatred toward Israel. The setback in Turkey-Israel relations in the recent years has affected the way that Turkey is being perceived in a positive way. The Davos incident, in this sense has played a critical role.

Turkey-Lebanon relations has shown a fast pace in recent years. This process has even hastened after Israel-Lebanon War. Turkey’s political support and economic aid during the war and its aftermath are considered important in Lebanon. Turkey initiated many school and hospital projects in Lebanon. These supports are given regardless of sectarian differences. Besides Sunni cities such as Tripoli and Saida, Turkey has realized many projects in Sur, where the Shiite people live, through Turkish Military force under the umbrella of United Nations. Aside from technical support, Turkey’s policy toward Lebanon is considered beneficial to stability and conflict resolution. In this framework, Turkey contributed a great deal of effort into the Doha Agreement in which government and presidential crisis was resolved. It is known that Turkey has played an important role in Hariri’s historical Syria visit. All those factors make Turkey a part of the solution, rather than instability and problem.

Another factor that has contributed to the development of Turkey-Lebanon relations is Turkey’s utilization of soft power elements. In this sense, Turkey has become a center of attraction, due to its secular and democratic political structure and open economic structure, which do not rest upon ethnic or sectarian discrimination. Turkish TV series, which are aired on Lebanese TV channels help increase Turkey’s soft power potential in Lebanon. TV series made possible the establishment of inter-societal dialogue and abolishment of wrong images. Turkey receives more tourists from Lebanon and Turkish products are being preferred thanks to the positive effect of the TV series.

The general framework in which Turkey-Lebanon relations have developed is as provided above. The last link in the process is Saad Hariri’s visit to Turkey, during which the agreement to abolish visa requirements. Above all, the fact that one of Hariri’s first official visits as the Prime Minister was to Turkey, shows the importance of Turkey for Lebanon. The visit shows that the Lebanese government wants Turkey to play an increasing role in Lebanon. Besides, many agreements were signed during the visit. Five memorandums of understanding have been signed over issues such as health, agriculture, military cooperation, transport and education. One of the agreements is over the issue of starting ferryboat cruises between Mersin and Beirut. Moreover, Turkey has promised Lebanon energy support in order to meet Lebanon’s energy needs. At the press conference after the negotiations Prime Minister Erdoğan remarked that “the trade volume between the two countries reached $ 900 million, and a free trade agreement will be signed as soon as possible.” The abolishment of visa requirements will hasten the rapprochement between the two societies. All those evaluations suggest that, in the period ahead, Turkey-Lebanon relations that encompass political, social, economical domains and health and military dimensions will develop and deepen.

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