Turkey initially opposed military action in Libya and for weeks continued dialogue with Libyan leader Gadhafi. In a major policy shift last week, Ankara cut its ties with Tripoli. What lies behind this policy about-face?
Putting itself on the map: Turkey wants to play a key role in Libya
Foreign ministers from leading NATO members and several regional countries are set to speak with Libya's opposition and discuss plans for a “post-Gadhafi Libya” in Istanbul on Friday, in a meeting hosted by the Turkish government.
Turkey's hosting of the International Contact Group meeting marks the country's ambition to have a larger say in the future of Libya. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited the rebel stronghold of Benghazi on July 3 and toured regional capitals ahead of the Istanbul meeting. Davutoglu aims to contribute to a solution, putting an end to clashes before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in August.
“Turkey's plan is ready,” senior Turkish diplomat Selim Yenel told Deutsche Welle, without giving further details. “Some main topics of the Istanbul meeting will be the current situation, perspectives for a post-Gadhafi era and financial support to the Benghazi group.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Benghazi
Ankara's plan aims for an immediate cease-fire and a deal between Tripoli and Benghazi that include full access to humanitarian assistance and the Libyan military's withdrawal from cities. But Turkey's policy shift in the last three months has put into question the outcome of Ankara's efforts.
Caught between Tripoli and Benghazi
The Turkish government initially opposed military action against Libya, blaming in particular France for pursuing a hidden agenda to take control of the country's rich oil reserves. Ankara adopted a "wait-and-see" approach and refrained from isolating Tripoli, but at the same time maintained low-level contacts with the rebel opposition.
Uluç Özülker, Turkey's former ambassador to Libya, says economic interests and the special characteristics of Turkey-Libya ties prevented Ankara from taking a stronger position against Gadhafi at the early stages of the crisis.
“At the beginning of the crisis, Turkey had to protect Turkish businesses and Turkish workers there. Ankara had to evacuate thousands of Turkish citizens from Libya,” said Özülker. “A second factor for Turkey's hesitancy was its experience. Turkey knew the strength of Gadhafi and doubted whether the rebels would gather countrywide support. And thirdly, Turkey and Libya historically have had very strong ties. People of both countries see each other as brothers. Under these conditions, Turkey had to wait and see before taking a clear side.”
Before the crisis, Libya was one of Turkey's leading economic partners. Turkish companies were involved in construction projects worth $15 billion (10.5 billion euros), and around 25.000 Turks were working in the country.
Turkey decided to support NATO operation
Weeks of attempts to come to a solution with Gadhafi ultimately bore no fruit. Turkey's support for the NATO operation broke off the dialogue with Tripoli, while the hesitant approach towards Benghazi led to much frustration among the Libyan rebels.
Ankara felt excluded from the developments that would shape the future of Libya and last week made a U-turn, recognizing Benghazi and putting its full weight behind the rebels and announcing $300 million in support for the National Transitional Council.
Turkish officials say the closer engagement with Benghazi aims at reaching peace and stability in the country, with economic interests being a secondary issue. Yenel dismisses claims that Turkey and some Western powers are competing for the future of the country and its economic resources.
“Turkey is pursuing a more active foreign policy. But it would be wrong to describe it as neo-Ottomanism. We have never had such a dream”, Yenel told Deutsche Welle. “We are not in competition with anybody. We really want to see Libya in stability. What is important is the end of the military conflict, with Libya gaining stability and prosperity.”
Economic and political challenges
Tousands of Turkish workers had to be evacuated from Libya
Turkish companies and workers were forced to pull out of Libya when the conflict began, but in a post-conflict reconstruction process they expect to once again become the leading contractors, particularly in the construction sector.
Foreign Minister Davutoglu's recent visit to Benghazi and the revival of economic and trade talks with the rebel-led council has raised the hopes of Turkish contractors and businessmen. The National Transitional Council's finance and oil ministers joined Davutoglu on his private plane back to Ankara and carried out talks with their Turkish counterparts.
Former ambassador Özülker said it's difficult to attain a comprehensive political solution in Libya in the short term, adding that Turkish businessmen will face more and more challenges. However, he believes the Turkish government's move to closer ties with Benghazi was definitely a move in the right direction. “Sooner or later Libya will get out of this current situation. Particularly in the construction sector, Turkish companies will retake their position. Turkish construction companies are indispensable in Libya”, said Özülker.
“However, in terms of high technology-driven sectors, it is highly likely that Turkish companies will face more and more difficulties, due to the influence by the US, France or the United Kingdom,” he said. “From an economic and political perspective, Turkey's recent engagement with Benghazi is a right step. Ankara has been late in that, but it is definitely a right step”
Autor: Ayhan Simsek
Editor: Martin Kuebler/Blagorodna Grigorova