What is Erdogan’s End Game in Lebanon?

Thursday, October 15, 2020
Opinion By Jean AbiNader

The last year has seen a significant uptick in the Erdogan’s playmaking in the Mediterranean. From west to east, through hard and soft diplomacy, he has stirred up quite a brew blending historic Turkish ambitions with his profound conviction that now is Turkey’s time to reassert its regional influence. While there has been a great deal of attention paid to the “hard diplomacy” tactics in Libya and along the border with Syria, to a growing presence in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, and to procuring/testing weapons systems, little has been written about Erdogan’s soft power projection in the region.

Turkey’s financial prospects have been buoyed by the discovery of natural gas in the Black Sea. Erdogan’s provocative energy exploration agreement with Libya’s GNA and actions in the Eastern Mediterranean challenging both Greece and Cyprus have given indigestion to the EU. He is seeking to expand trade ties across North Africa, opening port facilities to China, and increasing his country’s LNG storage capacity. Gas pipeline diplomacy is also on the agenda and plays a role in Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan.

So with all of these contentious issues, why is Turkey growing its presence in Lebanon at a time when it has an ongoing conflict with Syria? The top priority appears to be to have its own intelligence sources in the country, so Turkey has a presence in UNIFIL in the south and is providing social and humanitarian relief efforts in the Tripoli and Akkar regions, carried out by TIKA, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency. Most of its activities are in northern Lebanon, the Sunni center of the country, where there is still a jihadist presence.

Rather than big splash projects that might draw a reaction, it is focusing on rural humanitarian relief such as extending expertise and supplies to households to build poultry and beekeeping businesses. After the Beirut explosions, it started repairing mosque windows and donated 400 tons of wheat. A Turkish hospital is to be inaugurated soon in the city of Sidon. Its foreign ministry has also made a point of stressing solutions that exclude the West, particularly France’s recent initiative, as Erdogan and Macron are feuding over Turkey’s role in Libya and Azerbaijan as well as its conflict with Greece over energy exploration.

Growing Turkish outreach has drawn its share of critics, especially since there are no natural political allies in the country in the major political parties. Since its coloration is more Muslim Brotherhood than secular, it does not readily align with the urban Sunni centers in Lebanon. The Carnegie Middle East Center noted that “These claims of a Turkish role or conspiracies in Lebanon are difficult to substantiate, as Ankara, unlike Iran and Saudi Arabia, hasn’t actively pursued a political agenda in the country.” It is working to build stronger relations through cultural ties with the small Turkic ethnic communities that exist by “providing scholarships, engaging in cultural activities, and granting citizenship to thousands of Lebanese.”

It has rehabilitated the Ottoman-era Tripoli train station and opened cultural centers where thousands of people are learning Turkish. This has raised the stakes for Lebanon’s Armenian community as “thousands of pro-Turkish protesters have shown up at their rallies waving Turkish flags and chanting threatening slogans, often calling for another genocide.”

The end game of all of these activities is hinted at in an analysis by the Middle East Monitor that opines that the Mediterranean provides a theater for Turkey to act as a lever between East and West, building relationships and alliances that will upset or at least delay the objectives of the US, EU, and Russia in the region. Erdogan is not content to be in either camp and would rather carve his own path forward that will give him the power to curb actions that he believes run counter to Turkey’s interests.

Given that he has now refashioned the political system in Turkey to his desire to remain on center stage for decades and restore a central role to the country in the future of the region, Erdogan’s forays into Lebanon can be seen as a small bet with large payoffs as the influence of the GCC and the EU /US declines, and it can build on existing ties and sentiment to develop alternatives that fit his vision of the new Turkey. It remains to be seen if Erdogan can figure out how to outflank Iran, the other serious contender for regional hegemon…

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.