On August 16, in talks with Lebanese officials in Beirut, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul adopted an open but cautious stance toward deployment of Turkish troops to Lebanon as part of the expected 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission.
During his visit to the Lebanese capital, Gul met with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh, speaker of parliament Nabih Berri and majority leader in parliament Saad Hariri. He also met with French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar and Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri.
Following the meeting, Gul told reporters that the Turkish government had not yet finalised its decision. "If Turkish soldiers do come here, their job will be to protect the peace, and to aid the people of the country in providing emergency needs they might have. We will not enter into any clashes in Lebanon. We will act only on the wishes of the Lebanese government, the Lebanese people and various other Lebanese groups. We also place importance on the idea of other Muslim countries participating in this peace force."
Gul remarks were widely interpreted as meaning Turkey would not join the peacekeeping force unless Hizbullah accepted the mission's mandate from the UN. "This should be a peacekeeping force under a UN umbrella. It should not be given any other responsibility. It should not be seen as a force against the Lebanese people," the foreign minister added. Lebanon was just the first stop in Gul's tour of the region, which will see him visit Israel and Syria over the next couple of days to discuss the situation.
Though initially rather vocal about its willingness to join the force, the Turkish government has backed off recently, stressing that the ambiguities in UN Resolution 1701 should first be resolved, preferably in a second UN resolution which would spell out the mandate and the composition of the peacekeeping force. On August 14, the government released a statement following a meeting with government leaders, diplomats and top military brass, indicating that it was waiting for a second resolution "to bring more clarity" to the situation. It went on to add that, "Turkey will consider its possible contributions to finding a permanent solution to the problem in light of developments."
The Turks are not the only ones to hold off on committing their troops - French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie recently said on French television that France, which is expected to lead the mission and contribute the largest number of troops, was also waiting for a clear mandate from the UN. "Today, it's not 'How many troops and when?', it's 'To do what and how?'"
The UN resolution adopted on August 11 called for a ceasefire between Israel and Hizbullah and authorised the expansion of the current UN mission on the ground in Lebanon, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), to 15,000 troops. The sticky issue of disarming Hizbullah, however, has yet to be resolved. US and Israel have been pushing for a "robust" peacekeeping force and a strong UN mandate, which, if necessary, would allow troops to disarm Hizbullah by force. Ankara has been deeply reluctant to accept such a role, for fear of coming into conflict with Hizbullah militarily, and would prefer deployment to follow the signing of a comprehensive cease-fire agreement.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stressed that if Turkish troops are deployed, their mission would follow "the Afghan model", largely devoted to helping civilians and aiding in the reconstruction effort. If Turkey does join the UN force, military analysts believe it will contribute around 1500 troops, which will likely be deployed in the 25 km buffer zone between the Israeli-Lebanese border and the Litani River.
Turkey is being widely courted to join the mission due to its substantial experience in peacekeeping missions ranging from Kosovo to Afghanistan, as well as its significant military capabilities. Also, crucially, Israel and Lebanon share the perception that Turkey, a member of both NATO and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, is an 'honest broker' in the dispute, enjoying good ties with both Israel and a number of Arab states in the region.
Not everyone at home is on board with the mission, however, and opposition leader Deniz Baykal of the Republican People's Party (CHP) has warned that Turkey should stay out of the conflict. "We should not become a party to this conflict. Turkey may become involved in the ring of fire in the Middle East." Baykal made a point of drawing the distinction between peace-making and peacekeeping missions, noting that the situation in Lebanon was as yet not ready for the latter.
Even within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) itself, there is hardly a consensus on the mission. On August 14, AKP Balikesir Deputy Turan Comez stated that the government should avoid making any rash decisions. "In these conditions, Turkey might be dragged into a conflict with devastating consequences. Therefore it would be wrong for Turkey to be a part of such a force without the consensus of all those involved."
Other domestic critics are concerned that the mission comes at a particularly bad time for the Turkish military, which is currently engaged in operations against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in south-eastern Turkey. Suat Kiniklioglu, director of the German Marshall Fund's Ankara office, told Reuters that Turkey has enough on its plate already, without taking on additional responsibilities in Lebanon. He asked "Why should Turkish soldiers become a potential target in Lebanon when we have a serious security situation here at home?"
Roughly 250,000 Turkish troops are currently stationed in the southeast, and the military has been rattling the sabre about PKK incursions from the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq, threatening to launch cross-border "hot pursuit" missions against the PKK if the Iraqi government and US forces do not crack down on the group.
Despite hesitance on the part of some actors, there are many in Turkey keen to see the country regain some of the regional influence it lost due to its non-involvement in the Iraq War.