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Turkey Wary of Fellow NATO Member France's 'Prominent Role' in Libya

Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (file photo)
Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (file photo)

Turkey's prime minister has criticized the severity of the ongoing military operation in Libya, as proposals are being made to transfer control of the operation to NATO. There are questions about whether Turkey, as a NATO member, would accept such a move. Analysts say Ankara's stance could well be influenced by tensions with France.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan used his weekly address to his parliamentary deputies to slam the Western-led air strikes in Libya, and he questioned their stated humanitarian motive.

He said the operation is being perceived by Libya and others as oil- and profit-oriented and as an intervention by the West. He said Turkey will not be on the side that points a gun towards Libya.

Mr. Erdogan has been deeply skeptical of any intervention since the beginning of the popular uprising against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Until the last few days, he refused to join his Western allies in calling on Mr. Gadhafi to stand down. Such a stance plays well in Turkey, which remains deeply suspicious of Western military intervention in Muslim countries, according to diplomatic correspondent Semih Idiz of the Turkish daily Milliyet.

"He [Erodgan] is trying to balance his own public opinion in an election year, and he is trying to balance the commitment Turkey has to the various organizations it is a member of or wants to be a member of. So this is a subtle balancing act that he is maintaining, but the bottom line will be if Turkey can come out and say clearly no in NATO," Idiz said.

Mr. Erdogan, in his Tuesday address, seemed to hint that Turkey could use its veto as a NATO member to stop the alliance from taking control of the Libyan military operation. He said only the United Nations should lead such an operation.

Turkish Foreign Ministry official Selim Yenel, the deputy undersecretary for bilateral affairs and public diplomacy, says NATO leadership of military actions in Libya would give Ankara a say in how the operation proceeds. Yenel says this is the reason French President Nicolas Sarkozy did not invite Turkey to last week's Paris summit, which preceded the air strikes on Libya.

"Well, we were rather surprised and taken aback by the decision. I guess the French thought that we would prevent them from proceeding. The French had opposed the planning at NATO so we don't know what the coalition is doing. We are not in the loop, we have been left out. So that's why we believe that NATO should take charge of it," Yenel said.

Diplomatic correspondent Idiz says France's leadership in the strikes has particularly irked Ankara, adding a chill to relations already strained over President Sarkozy's vocal opposition to Turkey's EU membership bid.

"Given the personnel animosity that Erdogan and Sarkozy feel for each other, I don't think there is much love lost between the two capitals at the moment. I do also think there is a brinkmanship, one-upmanship going on between the two capitals. France seems to have passed Turkey in the race over Libya, and Ankara is clearly smarting from this," Idiz said.

But professor of international relations Cengiz Aktar, at Bahcesehir University, warns such rivalry risks losing sight of what is really important.

"Erdogan gives [the] impression he is against the international intervention because he is angry with Sarkozy. This can't be serious. In international relations, this sort of anger does not count. What counts is the interest of [the] country or the safety and security of human beings," Aktar said.

It is not the first time Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Sarkozy have opposed each other. But with the crisis in Libya deepening, some analysts say the consequences of this rivalry could have far reaching consequences.