August 11, 2006

August 11, 2006 | Commentary on Middle East

Turkey: The best choice to lead a Lebanon force

With the UN Security Council pondering a resolution to send an international force to stabilize southern Lebanon and disarm Hezbollah, it is time to tap into Turkey's large military power and exceptional geopolitical role in the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey is uniquely positioned to lead a robust multinational force that can assume control over southern Lebanon and gradually hand it over to the Lebanese Army. European countries like France, Ireland, Italy and Spain have shown some inclination to contribute troops to a 20,000-strong force. But their commitment has been understandably halfhearted. France already has 11,000 troops deployed worldwide. And no European country would like seeing its troops caught in crossfire between Hezbollah and Israel.

If a main criterion for the force structure is toughness, professionalism, as well as religious affiliation, Turkey rather than France would be the most fitting nation to take the lead.

Turkey is a bridge between the West and the Muslim world. As such, it can strike the best balance among the conflicting interests of all parties involved in the Lebanon crisis. Turkey maintains cordial relations with both Hezbollah's patrons, Iran and Syria, as well as with Israel. The presence of Muslim soldiers in south Lebanon, albeit Sunni soldiers, would be more acceptable to Hezbollah than those of any other Western force.

Since the Korean War, Turkey, a NATO member, has been an important player in several international conflicts, particularly those involving Muslims. Turkey took part in the 1991 Gulf War as well as peacekeeping missions in Somalia, Bosnia and the West Bank. Turkey also participates in the NATO peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. In all these deployments Turkish soldiers have done a superb job. They are also likely to interact well with Muslim soldiers from Asian countries, like Indonesia, that have already expressed interest in sending troops.

Turkey's relations with Israel are particularly useful. Despite the recent cancellation of a large contract with Israel Aircraft Industry to upgrade its aging F-4 fighter-bomber fleet, the Turkish and Israeli militaries have a track record of mutual respect and cooperation. Israelis will not endanger lives of Turkish soldiers in Lebanon. Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, stated last week that "Turkish forces are welcome."

There are other reasons why Turkey should take the lead. With more than one million personnel, Turkey's armed forces are the second largest standing force in NATO after America's. Turkey has three times more deployable troops than France.

When it comes to guerrilla warfare, the Turks have one of the most effective militaries in the world. With years of experience fighting the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Worker's Party, the well-trained Turkish military is fully equipped to eventually disarm Hezbollah. Unlike the last multinational force deployed in 1983 in Lebanon, which dissolved after 241 U.S. marines were killed in a Hezbollah bombing, a determined Turkish-led force is not likely to flinch.

Politically, stepping to the plate would be a smart thing for Turkey to do. Turkey would get a chance not only to enhance its prestige in the region, but also to strengthen its relations with the West and improve its chances of eventually joining the European Union.

A leading Turkish role in Lebanon could significantly improve U.S.-Turkish relations, which have been in decline since Ankara's refusal in 2003 to allow the 4th U.S. Armored Division to transit its territory to enter Iraq. (The Turks, for their part, are resentful of U.S. policies in the Middle East. In a recent poll, 69 percent of Turks said they disliked America).

For now, Turkey is ambivalent about its role in the Lebanon crisis. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said recently that Turkey is willing to consider undertaking the command of a prospective international force, but only under a UN mandate and after the introduction of a cease-fire.

Such a cease-fire may now be achievable; if a multinational force is formed, a Turkish general should assume command over it. But a Turkish decision to act as a peacemaker in Lebanon should be rewarded accordingly. If Turkey succeeds in calming Lebanon, it should be granted points toward its EU accession and a seat at the table of the great powers working toward peace and security in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.

Gal Luft is the director of the Institute for Analysis of Global Security, Washington.  Ariel Cohen is research fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation and author of "Eurasia in Balance" (Ashgate, 2005) and "Russia-Kazakhstan Energy Cooperation" (GMB Publishing, 2006).

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the International Herald Tribune