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January 25, 2013

Turkey Reinforces 'Hands Off' Policy on Mali

by Dorian Jones

The Turkish foreign ministry has criticized the ongoing French operation in Mali. The public criticism comes as Turkey is increasingly seeing West Africa as a region of interest economically and diplomatically.

Ankara has been increasing voicing concerns regarding the intervention by French forces against an Islamic insurgency in Mali.

Northern Mali fell under rebel control after a March military coup in Bamako triggered a Tuareg-led rebel offensive that seized the north and split the West African nation in two.

Turkish foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal questions the timing and whether it offers a solution to the situation.

"We wish to see the situation in Mali to change to a better perspective in the framework of the political will of its people, such as a democratic elections and a free parliament. In that sense we are also not favorable to unilateral action before trying other political methods or other avenues," said Unal.

The Turkish foreign ministry points out the United Nations Security Council resolution on Mali sanctioned only an African led intervention. Ankara's ambivalence over France's military intervention is part of a growing rivalry between Paris and Ankara over West Africa, according to Semih Idiz, a diplomatic columnist for the Turkish daily Taraf.

"I think this reflects some of the competition between Turkey and France. Prime Minister Erdogan just a few days before the Mali story broke out was in Niger, blasting at the former colonial power and trying to say that Turkey will not be like that," said Idiz. "There is a scramble for Africa and Turkey is very much part of this. It has opened quite a large number of embassies across Africa. So its clear that Turkey does see itself as a potent power."

In the past few years Turkey has opened 31 embassies across Africa, including one in Mali in 2010. The Turkish government has declared the continent as an economic priority. Since its initiation of the policy back in 2003 it has more than quadrupled its exports to the continent to more than $10 billion. And, earlier this month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Gabon, Niger and Senegal. Previously, he headed to Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia and held talks in the Republic of South Africa regarding Turkey's Africa opening.

Turkish foreign Ministry spokesman Unal says it will pursue its concerns over the situation in Mali through the Organization of Islamic Conference, the OIC."

"We discussed possible steps to be taken by OIC on Mali; I expect that the issue of Mali will be one of the agenda items to be discussed in the next OIC summit in Cairo," he said.

Observers point out that with Mali's neighbors supporting France's intervention, Ankara may not find too much support among West African members. But diplomatic columnist Idiz says Ankara is likely to find backing from Arab nations at February's OIC summit.

"Turkish ambivalence is probably not too different to some Arab countries because of the Islamic dimension in all this," said Idiz. "Given that Mali is a predominantly Islamic country that there is a western intervention all of these factor in to the Islamic sensibilities given, this antipathy in the Islamic world to western countries intervening in Islamic countries, so that is part of it."

Analysts say Ankara's ambivalence over France's intervention is likely to raise eyebrows among its western allies, all of who are strongly supporting it. But in Turkey's pro government media the question is increasingly being posed why those allies can back an intervention in Mali against an Islamic insurgency, but fail to do so in Syria.