By Pierre-Axel Thüring
There is little debate about Turkish president Recep Tayiip Erdogan’s ambition to become a key regional player. In partnership with Qatar, Turkey has entered a number of unstable areas in a difficult search for regional leadership. If Turkish foreign policy in Syria and Libya is frequently discussed, what about Lebanon? Lebanon has always been the prey of former controlling powers (Turkey and France), invaders (Israel and Syria) and regional rivalries (Saudi Arabia and Iran). The point of this article is to state that, although still moderate, several factors illustrate the growing interest of Turkey in the Land of Cedars, notably in the North.
Different resentments and biases make it difficult to form a clear and honest assessment of the degree of the Turkish influence today. According to Vice President Fuat Oktay, Ankara has no secret agenda in Lebanon: neither interest in natural resources, nor colonial legacy. The Turks are officially leading a win-win policy in order to promote peace and stability in the region. This policy is based on a ‘common ground’ inherited from the Ottoman Empire, while being quite ironically opposed by Fuat Oktay to a “mindset of colonialism” pursued by certain countries such as France. A contrary discourse can be found in several Western or anti-Erdogan media, accusing the Turkish leader of seeking more weight at the grassroots level. President Erdogan is criticized for trying to galvanize crowds in conservative Muslim areas, especially in the North in Tripoli and in the Akkar. Moreover, several rumours are circulating. Turkey is said to be supplying arms to loyalists in northern Lebanon and bringing cash to finance mobilisations. Faced with these two discourses, what about the facts?
Turkish action in Lebanon is first of all community based. On one hand, it calls for Sunni Muslim solidarity. Investments are mainly in Sunni Muslim areas and Ankara largely publicises its support for Palestinian refugees, notably those in Lebanese camps. On the other, it relies on groups of Turkmen and Turkish origin. In 2010, Erdogan came to visit Turkmen communities in the Akkar. The authorities even claimed to offer Turkish nationality to any Lebanese with Turkish or Turkmen roots, with a number of naturalizations estimated at 9600 until 2019.
Ankara and Beirut have also developed cooperation in several fields. Turkey is economically active to the point that it is one of Lebanon main trading partners. Several contracts make it a privileged interlocutor concerning energies such as electricity. Lebanon thus offers outlets for national production. It represents a major strategic interest in the context of economic crisis and regional rivalry in gas exploitation. Turkish presence is also a military one through its participation since 2006 in the UN mission on the border with Israel. Nevertheless, the Turks are better known in Lebanon for their humanitarian and cultural support. Indeed, since 2014, a whole development program has been developed through the state-run Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA). The agency has distinguished itself by the creation of a hospital in Sidon and more recently by the assistance provided following the explosion in the Port of Beirut. Through the creation of schools and cultural centres, through financing the restoration of Ottoman monuments in Tripoli and through series and films, Turkey is gradually developing its cultural influence in Lebanon.
Finally, the Turkish political clout is relatively moderate and works primarily on personal relationships. Although the government is said to have relations with the Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood party, there is no real proof of this. On the contrary, Ankara seems to be more open to dialogue with the widest possible political spectrum, though focusing mostly on Sunni politicians. This includes Faisal Karami, Najib Mikati and Ashraf Rifi. Ties are particularly notable between the families of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and President Erdogan, as well as between the head of the Turkish intelligence agency Hakan Fidan and the head of the Lebanese ‘General Security Directorate’ Abbas Ibrahim.
This multi-faceted influence, growing although limited, generates many national and regional reactions.
The most virulent is surely that of the Armenian community. In June 2020, an ethnic Armenian host called Erdogan on TV ‘an obnoxious Ottoman’, causing a demonstration in front of the TV station’s offices as well as many insults on the social networks, mainly from Arabs with Turkish origins. If the Ottoman legacy necessarily affects the vision of Syriacs and Armenian Christians on Turkey, it also has an impact on those remembering the massacres of Arab nationalists by the Ottomans in Beirut and Damascus in 1915 and 1916.
European reactions to Turkish foreign policy in Lebanon are to be seen in the context of great rivalry in Eastern Mediterranean. The explosion at the Port of Beirut has led to a verbal joust between France and Turkey. Visiting Beirut, French President Emmanuel Macron insisted on avoiding Lebanon ending up ‘in the hands of the vileness of the regional powers’. It is surely no coincidence that, in early December, the French, German and American ambassadors jointly organized a visit to Tripoli. Nevertheless, for internal reasons, the Turkish president lately seems more open to burying the hatchet with France and the European Union. It remains to be seen how long this posture will last, and its consequences for Lebanon.
The Sunnite position is enshrined in the competition for leadership in the region. With the flow of Palestinian and then Syrian migrants, the Sunnis have seen their political weight increase in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries initially presented themselves as the great patrons of this community. However, due to the economic and social quagmire and the growing Iranian hold, the Saudis have slightly disengaged. The fear of the Lebanese Sunni political elite for a disinterest could lead them to turn more to Ankara. Interestingly, this might not be seen in a bad light by Riyad and Abu Dhabi, since the latest moves on the international scene have shown a rapprochement between the Gulf countries and Qatar, and therefore Turkey.
Last but not least, the perception of Hezbollah is unsure. If some criticisms emerge in Lebanon towards Hezbollah as responsible for the sanitary and economic crisis, but also for the explosion of the Port, the ‘Party of God’ remains a central player in Lebanese political life. It leaves little room for a political vacuum. What’s more, after clashes between the Turks and Hezbollah in Syria, Ankara lost the support it previously earned among Hezbollah supporters by having harsh words about Israel. According to Fadi Assaf, founder of Middle East Strategic Perspectives, the Shia group sees the rise of Turkish clout from a good eye only if it competes and even breaks the Saudi/Egypt/UAE power in Lebanon. On the contrary, a smart cooperation of influence between them could try to compete Hezbollah.
To conclude, without fantasizing about it, the Turkish weight in Lebanon is growing in very diverse spheres, in particular in Northern Lebanon. Due to the instability of the country, this policy may represent a risk if it becomes more pronounced. Nevertheless, the redefinition of the Turkish role in Lebanon relies both on the Lebanese national context (Lebanon is not Syria or Libya) and on international developments, in particular the new US foreign policy.
Pierre-Axel Thüring is a MA student in International Peace & Security at the War Studies Department. Having studied in Lebanon and Jordan, his research interests are particularly focused on the MENA region. He is currently writing his dissertation on the Turkish intervention in the Syrian Civil War.