2014-07-22

Turkey extends participation in UN's Lebanon mission

Ankara decides to maintain troop deployment despite regional turmoil.

By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 22/07/14

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The Turkish parliament recently extended the country's support for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) peacekeeping mission for an additional year starting in September.

  • UN peacekeepers on guard in Lebanon. The Turkish parliament recently extended Turkey's participation in the mission for one additional year. [AFP]

    UN peacekeepers on guard in Lebanon. The Turkish parliament recently extended Turkey's participation in the mission for one additional year. [AFP]

  • Turkey has supported the UN mission in Lebanon since 2006. During the Israeli invasion, Turkey helped evacuate foreign civilians, including these Swedish nationals. [AFP]

    Turkey has supported the UN mission in Lebanon since 2006. During the Israeli invasion, Turkey helped evacuate foreign civilians, including these Swedish nationals. [AFP]

It was the eighth time parliament voted to continue the mission since September 2006, when Turkey joined the mission.

In a bid to maintain peace and security along the Lebanon-Israel border, UNIFIL was established in 1978. Its territorial purview and number of personnel were both increased following the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. Currently, there are 10,247 peacekeepers from 37 different countries under the command of UNIFIL, with Turkey contributing 54 troops.

UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti said the Turkish contingent has given an enormous contribution to the mission, both with naval support and engineering expertise.

"Most of the major engineering work has now been implemented and finalised thanks to the work of TURKCOY [Turkey's Engineering Construction Company], which has also implemented several civil military co-ordination projects including the renovation of schools and provided medical check-ups for locals in the UNIFIL area of operation," Tenenti told SES Türkiye.

"Now, Turkey is greatly contributing to the work of the UNIFIL Maritime Task Force with one ship working along Lebanese territorial water in assisting the Lebanese navy in preventing the unauthorised entry of arms or related material by sea into Lebanon," he added.

Oytun Orhan, an expert on Lebanon-Turkey relations at the Ankara-based Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, said Turkey's initial contribution to UNFIL had a significant impact.

"At the time when the clashes between Israel-Hezbollah had began, Turkey, as a Muslim country which is also a significant member of NATO with its strong military forces, was playing a mediating role between the conflicting parties keeping its equal distance to all Arab countries and Israel," Orhan told SES Türkiye.

He added that deepening political and sectarian conflict in the region has complicated Turkey's position.

"At the point we've reached, Turkey has become a party to the polarisation in the region, and this changing political posture started to influence the security of the mission located there. Keeping only a naval force under the mission bears no risk for Turkey," Orhan added.

Last August, Turkish Airlines pilots Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca were kidnapped in Beirut by armed militants. They were freed in mid-October as part of a deal to release nine Lebanese Shia pilgrims held captive in Syria.

Ankara withdrew most of its peacekeeping forces following the incident. TURKCOY's team of 280 soldiers was pulled out by September. The unit was helping build helicopter pads, electricity lines, underground communication lines, water lines, and buildings. Currently, a frigate of Turkish Naval Forces continues its mission under UNIFIL's command.

Orhan said he paid field visits to UNIFIL mission two times, and observed the close relations that Turkish land troops had established with regional communities, especially Shias.

"They were building schools, they were granting electric generators as a gift to the local people, they were organising sportive events and they were conducting mutual visits during the religious holidays. Turkish peacekeeping troops under UNIFIL have been an important bridge between Shia society and Turkey to shape perceptions in a positive way, while it was also considered as a deterrent to preserve peace," Orhan said.

According to Orhan, the presence of Turkish naval forces under UNIFIL helps Turkey as it seeks election as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Nurettin Canikli, Justice and Development Party deputy and head of Turkey-Lebanon inter-parliamentary friendship group, did not return messages to SES Türkiye seeking comment.

Ahmet K. Han, Middle East expert from Istanbul's Kadir Has University, said Turkey's continued participation in UNIFIL shows its willingness to stay engaged in the eastern Mediterranean as it faces foreign policy challenges elsewhere.

"The recent developments in Turkey's foreign policy regarding Middle East, starting with the kidnapping of Turkish pilots then the abduction of consulate staff in Mosul, means that its presence abroad does not bring a meaningful value to the regional dynamics," Han told SES Türkiye.

Han added that it would be unwise to completely pull out from a UN peacekeeping mission, especially those which operate under smooth conditions.

"The naval forces which are still operating under the UNIFIL command are therefore seen as a component for foreign policy prestige," he said.

The criticism was rejected by Mustafa Kemal Topcu, a former Turkish Army officer and an expert on defence management. He said Turkey's contribution to UNIFIL, although restricted in the course of time, is of great significance to raising the country's posture.

"It should be seen as a positive contribution in terms of gaining more negotiating power in regional and global issues, playing a more efficient role in its immediate neighbourhood and participating actively in the decision-making processes in the region," Topcu told SES Türkiye.

Topcu added that the UNIFIL mission offers Turkey a low-risk way to participate in regional affairs amid rising turmoil in Syria, Iraq, and Israel.

"The presence of Turkish naval forces under UNIFIL command does not face any risk as they are formally not involved in activities like tackling militants or opposition forces in the region, or their demilitarisation," Topcu said.

How does Turkey's participation in UNIFIL impact its regional role? Share your thoughts below.

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