Source Link: Stratfor
A struggle between France and Turkey over NATO control of the no-fly zone in Libya is only a part of Ankara’s broader strategy, which is to demonstrate its capability and willingness to shape geopolitical events in a changing region. Turkey seems to be enjoying U.S. support for this strategy, with Libya emerging as the first area of coordination between the two countries since unrest began in North Africa and the Middle East. The United States will no doubt need its help elsewhere.
The United States has made it clear it will soon recede to a supporting role in the Libyan operation, and the question of who will be in charge of the no-fly zone (NFZ) has created some disagreement among coalition forces. Indeed, a struggle is now brewing between France and Turkey over NFZ command and control, with the former favoring a broader “coalition of the willing” and the latter advocating a NATO command structure.
Turkey is doing more than just trying to undermine France’s leading role in the Libyan operation. Ankara’s broader strategy is to demonstrate its own capability and willingness to shape geopolitical events in a changing region in which it has vested economic and political interests. Turkey seems to be enjoying U.S. support in this strategy, with Libya emerging as the first area of coordination between the two countries since unrest began in North Africa and the Middle East.
On March 23, Turkey offered to send four frigates, a submarine and a support ship on a NATO mission to enforce a U.N. arms embargo against Libya, which would make it the biggest contributor to the naval operation. Turkey had decided to change its tone following Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Feb. 28 comment that NATO had “nothing to do in Libya.” Turkey also had been sidelined by France at the conference in Paris on March 19 and thus had little say in approving or implementing the Libya operation. On March 24, American, British, French and Turkish foreign ministers agreed to give NATO the mandate to administer the NFZ and U.N. embargo, but the decision on whether airstrikes will be conducted under NATO command will be decided in few days.
Even before the airstrikes began, Turkey had tried to position itself as a player in Libya. Erdogan had several telephone conversations with embattled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and publicly called for him on March 14 to name a president. Turkish politicians repeated that Turkey would not “point a gun at the Libyan people” and accused intervening countries of pursuing “oil interests.” On March 18, a Libyan government spokesman said that Libya had asked Turkish and Maltese authorities to help implement and supervise the cease-fire that Gadhafi had announced. Then on March 23, Turkish President Abdullah Gul called for Gadhafi to step down to prevent further bloodshed and accused the European nations of pursuing ulterior motives in Libya, a rhetorical move that would help Turkey enhance its image as a leader of the Muslim world.
Turkey is emboldened, in part, by U.S. support of its growing role in Libya. Four captured journalists from The New York Times were released on March 21 following negotiations between Turkish and Libyan authorities. The next day, White House spokesman Mark Toner confirmed the Turkish-American coordination in Libya by saying that Turkey will represent U.S. diplomatic interests in Libya. Confident of U.S. backing and its ability to push its demands, Turkey announced on March 23 that it was ready to mediate between Gadhafi and opposition forces. But it is still unclear whether Turkey has that much leverage in Libya, especially when France is likely to try to block its further moves.
Cooperation between Turkey and the United States is unlikely to be limited to Libya. As North African and Middle Eastern countries deal with domestic unrest, the United States needs Turkey — an emerging power in the region — to help contain the instability that could result from government transitions in these countries. Turkey’s clout in Libya remains to be seen, but its involvement there will serve as a test of its ability to influence events in the region.
Turkey’s role is likely to be more influential in the Persian Gulf, where Ankara is becoming more involved in the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia over Bahrain. On March 14, Saudi forces intervened in Bahrain as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council Peninsula Shield Force. Since then, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been trying to assess each other’s capabilities and intentions, with the Saudis demanding the removal of Iranian assets from Bahrain before it withdraws its troops. Turkey, which has tried to prove that it can communicate with Iran, is attempting to facilitate dialogue between the Arabs and the Persians. This effort intensified during recent visits by Saudi and Bahraini foreign ministers to Turkey, which were followed by a March 21 phone conversation between Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi. But Iran has reason to distrust Turkey, since the interests of the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are aligned in wanting to contain Iranian influence.
Turkey and the United States will have more opportunities to cooperate in the region, particularly in Iraq on the eve of the American withdrawal. Turkey has both the ability to talk with the Iranians and the ability to balance Tehran’s influence in Iraq. And with political dynamics in flux throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the interests of Ankara and of Washington will be converging again. The question remains whether Turkey is fully capable of taking on these roles, but Libya appears to be the first step in that direction.