How Turkey Can Help End the Conflict in Libya


It's easy to rag on Turkey.

It was NATO's biggest naysayer when the organization took over the air campaign against Col. Moammar Gaddafi, and Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdo?an is still talking to Gaddafi and his sons. Recent news reports remind us that Turkey is making a good bit of cash off arms sales to foreign governments in the Middle East, including a few despots whose people have made it very clear they'd like to be rid of. Turkey strikes the West as a country playing its cards very close to its chest -- clamoring to be seen as a part of Europe when circumstances suit it, and then turning around and making nuclear materials deals with Iran when the West's back is turned.

Yet Turkey's position makes it the ideal candidate to help solve the Libya issue. Turkey is uniquely situated to make offers that Gaddafi won't dismiss out of hand and that the West can live with.

Therefore, it's understandable that some may get a bit nervous when the Turkish model is proposed as Tunisia's future. As writers on this site have pointed out, the Turkish model isn't ideal for applying to the Arab Spring's nascent democracies. The Tunisian and Egyptian militaries lack an Atatürk, for one thing -- a single unifying figure whose vision and absolute rule can propel a developing state past division and compromise, like Mustafa Kemal did for the young Turkish Republic in the 1920s and 1930s. Not being left alone as long as Turkey was won't help the Arab Spring's new states much either.

Still, the Turkish model keeps cropping up, and detractors feel they have reason to worry. Turkey looks like a country playing both sides of the field -- one whose loyalty is in question when push comes to shove and Western boots hit the ground, as they inevitably will. "Why keep engaging with Turkey at all?" the argument goes.

Well, for one thing, the West doesn't have much of a choice. Take the Gaddafi situation -- Libya is not going to settle down until Gaddafi is gone, and unless the rumored rebel groups inside Tripoli manage to assassinate him, this civil war that the West (rightly) inserted itself into is going to continue for quite a while. Someone needs to offer Gaddafi (and his sons) an exit strategy. But the African Union is too afraid of looking hypocritical to offer Libya's "Brother Leader" anything other than full immunity, and Gaddafi probably will not trust any of the overtures that leaks suggest the U.S. has been making. However, were Erdo?an to make an offer to Gaddafi, there's a chance he would at least consider it. Such a move wouldn't make Turkey's PM popular with the Libyan rebels, but it would place Erdo?an in the good graces of other Middle Eastern autocrats looking for an ally through which to communicate to the West.

While that may make Western leaders a bit queasy, it's overall a good thing. The West's intervention in Libya has other Middle Eastern leaders nervous that they're next -- Obama has already removed his tacit support for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. What Western leaders need right now is an ally in the Middle East that can talk to both sides, and Erdo?an has positioned Turkey to fill that niche. The West shouldn't shy away from this opportunity, nor abandon the Turks in their multi-pronged diplomacy.

After all, what Turkey is going to do next isn't hard to predict. Turkey will take whatever actions it sees as most advantageous for itself. The West's job is ensuring those actions are advantageous for the West too.

Photo Credit: quinn.anya