Turkey caught between desire to help Lebanon, strong opposition to sending peacekeepers

ISTANBUL — Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO and a country with close ties to both Israel and Arab states, seems to many in Europe and the United States to be an ideal contributor to the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon.

But the war in Lebanon and the graphic images of fellow Muslims being killed by Israeli bombs has led to an emotional outpouring in Turkey towards the Lebanese and has put the government in a bind: Should Turkey send peacekeepers and realise Ankara’s desire to be a major player — or heed the growing public chorus opposed to sending troops who could face danger and could be seen as backing Israel? Turkey has dithered in its decision on whether to contribute troops to the expanded UN force in southern Lebanon. Military officers and Turkish diplomats say they want details on exactly what the force’s mandate will be, where Turkish peacekeepers could be deployed and under what circumstances soldiers could open fire.

Turkish officials also have said privately that they want other countries to make major contributions first so Turks aren’t the only key contingent on the ground. And they want to make sure that the tenuous ceasefire in the area holds.

But with the European Union pledging 6,900 troops — the core of the proposed 15,000-member force to monitor the     ceasefire between Israel and Hizbollah fighters — the pressure is on EU aspirant Turkey to pledge soldiers as well.

“We’re located in the most troublesome geography,” said lawmaker Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat of the governing Justice and Development Party. “Can we have a luxury of saying: ‘I am not participating?’ “ The EU and UN are pushing for Muslim participation so the force isn’t overwhelmingly made up of troops from Christian countries. But Israel has balked at the participation of Muslim nations that do not recognise the Jewish state, and on Saturday, said it spoke to several countries about joining the force, particularly Turkey.

“If Turkey decides to send a contingent, we would welcome that,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev said in Jerusalem.

Turkish legislators are expected to debate the UN peacekeeping mission for Lebanon at a Cabinet meeting Monday, though no decision is anticipated. Some officials say Turkey is likely to wait until UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s visit September 6 before committing to the force.

“There will be no rush,” the Hurriyet newspaper quoted lawmaker Mehmet Elkatmis as saying. “It will be debated in all aspects.” Analysts note that Turkey rebuffed the United States just before the Iraq invasion and refused to allow US troops to use Turkey as a base — souring relations with Washington and leaving Ankara with little influence in shaping events in neighbouring Iraq.

“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.

But Lebanon has become an emotional issue in Turkey.

During the fighting, Turkish media was flooded with images of suffering Lebanese civilians. Thousands have rallied in Istanbul to show their support for Lebanese civilians under Israeli attack.

That pressure comes as the governing party, feeling slighted by an EU that is questioning whether it wants Turkey, is increasingly reaching out to its Muslim neighbours in the Middle East.

On the streets of Istanbul, activists from the governing party have been passing out leaflets showing a Lebanese soldier holding a dead child pulled from the rubble of a home bombed by Israeli jets, and urging them to donate to aid Lebanese.

“We have to mobilise all our energy and means to end the grief of the Palestinian and Lebanese people,” the flyers quoted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as saying. It added that Turks could even send text messages from their cellphones to a hotline to donate 5 lira ($3.50).

Hurriyet reported Sunday that Turkey has slashed the number of troops that it would consider sending from 1,000 to 200 in light of the strong domestic opposition.

And President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who may hold a ceremonial post but wields considerable influence in the country, has come out strongly against it.

“I am opposed to sending soldiers to Lebanon,” he told journalists on Friday. “It is not our responsibility to protect the interests of other countries.” “While other more powerful states don’t send troops, they pat our backs and want troops,” he said, perhaps referring to nations such as the United States, Germany and the Netherlands, which already have said they will not contribute soldiers to the UN force.

Added Sezer: “If Turkey is a major country, then that image won’t depend on whether or not we send troops.”

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