On September 4, in an emergency session of the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TBMM), lawmakers approved the government's plan to deploy troops to Lebanon, officially joining the expanded UN peacekeeping mission now taking shape. Despite widespread disagreement from opposition parties, the government got the votes it needed, with MPs voting 340-192 in favour of the plan.
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul has stated that Turkey's contribution to the expanded UN force, known as the UN Interim Force in Lebanon II (UNIFIL II), would not exceed 1000 troops. According to the government, a seven-person team of Turkish military planners left for Lebanon on September 9 to organise operational details for the mission, while another team is set to head to the UN in New York to discuss technical issues.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived in Ankara on September 5 on the last leg of an 11-day regional tour to drum up support for the UN mission. Annan hailed the TBMM's decision to deploy troops as a "sign of international solidarity".
"The role of Turkey in the region", Annan added, "is going to be crucial. You are a regional player and I could tell you that both sides were extremely happy to hear that you are going to be deploying troops to assist in the efforts."
Turkey is the first predominantly Muslim country to join the mission. Turkey is the only Muslim member of NATO and one of the few Muslim nations with close ties to Israel, though these have been somewhat strained since the onset of the war in Iraq.
Despite the recent chill in relations, in many parts of the Middle East, Turkey is viewed as a less than honest broker in the Hizbullah-Israeli conflict, due to its long-standing diplomatic and military ties with the Jewish state. This perception has been furthered by comments made by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which has been pushing hard for Turkish involvement in the mission.
The issue of deploying troops to Lebanon sparked fierce debate in Turkey, with Turkish unions, professional groups and left-wing organisations taking to the streets of the capital in protest. While the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) backed the move, many opposed joining a force widely seen as serving US and Israeli interests.
AKP has also come under intense fire for deploying troops abroad at a time when the country has suffered a series of ongoing attacks from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and its offshoot, the Kurdistan Liberation Hawks (TAK). Several opposition leaders have criticised the plan, demanding instead that the government first deal with the scourge of domestic terrorism before sending troops to help keep the peace in Lebanon.
The US, Israel and Lebanon, which have all pushed for Turkey's involvement in the mission, are keen to dispel the notion that UNIFIL II mission will largely be made up of peacekeepers from Christian countries. AKP's support for joining the mission is widely believed to be part of its bid to raise Turkey's profile in the Middle East, and provides a golden opportunity for the country to score points with the EU during its accession process.
But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan must tread carefully, however, because if Turkish troops come into direct conflict with Hizbullah forces, it could seriously dent the popularity of his party among its conservative and religious base. The government went ahead with the TBMM vote after receiving personal assurances from Annan that the force would have no duty to disarm the Shiite militia.
In a joint press conference held during his visit to the Turkish capital, Annan told reporters, "The mandate is clear. The troops are not there to disarm Hizbullah. They are there to work with the government of Lebanon and the Lebanese Army to extend its authority throughout the territory."
As it stands now, Turkish troops have been tasked with the missions of patrolling Lebanon's eastern Mediterranean coast, providing humanitarian assistance to the civilian population and helping to train the Lebanese military. Erdogan and Gul have pledged to withdraw Turkish forces from the country if they are asked to disarm Hizbullah.
The contingent also faces one other difficulty. Lebanon has a small but vocal Armenian population and there were noisy protests against stationing Turkish troops on Lebanese soil even before the advance teams' arrival.