Turkey reluctantly joins Libya military action

Turkey’s parliament approved sending a naval force off the coast of Libya as the Islamist-rooted government reluctantly moved to join military action in the conflict-torn country, despite anger at Western-led air raids.

Following harsh criticism of the strikes, the government asked parliament to approve the dispatch of military forces, pledging a submarine, four frigates and an auxiliary ship to a NATO patrol mission to enforce a UN arms embargo against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.

It obtained a one-year authorization for deployment as part of “multidimensional contributions to international efforts aimed at restoring stability and security in Libya,” according to the motion parliament approved March 24.

The vote was held in a closed session by a show of hands, with some opposition deputies also lending support to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), parliamentary sources said.

Analysts said the government, influenced by Islamist sympathies, fell out of pace with NATO allies while resisting military action against Libya, even though its participation was “inevitable.”

“Turkey was confused and was late. … Joining the game was inevitable. It could not have stood against its NATO allies,” foreign policy commentator Semih Idiz said.

Turkey, NATO’s sole predominantly Muslim member and a key regional player, has slammed the air strikes, led by France, Britain and the U.S., ruling out any combat mission and vowing to “never point a gun at the Libyan people.”

But with the approval of the naval mission, “Turkey will have effectively joined the military operation: If the soldiers are fired on, they will respond,” Idiz said.

Turkey’s navy chief said two Turkish vessels were already at sea in the Mediterranean and the remaining four others had left their ports March 23, heading to the operation zone.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said after a conference call on March 24 with his U.S., British and French counterparts that NATO would take over command of the international coalition’s operations in Libya.

“The coalition formed after a meeting in Paris is going to give up its mission as soon as possible and hand over the entire operation to NATO with its single command structure,” Davutoglu said, according to the Anatolia news agency.

“In effect, Turkey’s demands and concerns have been met,” he added.

Shortly before the parliament vote, NATO’s top operational commander, U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, met behind closed doors with Turkey’s army chief following talks with the foreign minister.

France’s leadership in the air strikes and its failure to invite Turkey to March 19′s summit in Paris preceding the raids has irked Ankara, adding pressure to bilateral ties already strained over President Nicolas Sarkozy’s vocal opposition to Turkey’s EU membership bid.

Under the AKP, Turkey has sought a leadership role in the Muslim world, championing particularly the Palestinian cause and harshly criticizing Israel.

Erdogan has slammed the strikes, arguing “we have seen in the past that such operations are of no use and that on the contrary, they increase the loss of life, transform into occupation and seriously harm the countries’ unity.”

“The operation against Libya is confusing … minds, and unfortunately you hear extremely inappropriate descriptions such as ‘a crusade’ that raise doubts,” he said.

President Abdullah Gul grumbled that “some, who until yesterday were closest to the dictators and sought to take advantage of them … display an excessive behavior today and raise suspicions of ulterior motives.”

Pointing to the AKP’s quest for a third straight term in power in elections in June, Idiz warned against inflammatory rhetoric.

Erdogan “should be careful,” he said. “The average Turk sees the intervention in Libya as a new attack by Westerners against a Muslim country, similar to those in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

In the earlier stages of the turmoil, Ankara made quiet efforts to persuade Gadhafi to cede power, hoping for a less turbulent outcome like in Tunisia and Egypt.

“Ankara mishandled the crisis, and its policies were contradictory: it opposed foreign intervention but now it is sending a naval force. … It has finally accepted the rules of the game,” said Cengiz Aktar, an international relations expert.

Burak Akinci, AFP