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LEBANON, TURKEY: Erdogan to visit Beirut to forge peace, make deals

November 23, 2010 |  8:56 am

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Last month the greeting was "Khosh amadid," Persian for welcome when Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Beirut to assert his political influence in the country.

This month, it's "Merhaba," Turkish for welcome in honor of the Turkish premier, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is scheduled to arrive in Beirut this week in a move that further illustrates how tiny Lebanon is at the whim of foreign powers. 

Erdogan's s visit is likely aimed at attempting to calm the severe political tensions stemming from a United Nations-backed tribunal into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri. Turkey will likely use its role as a political and economic regional heavyweight to strengthen ties between the two countries, analysts say.

"It's extremely important for Turkey to maintain stability in Lebanon," Mensur Akgun, head of the foreign policy program at the Istanbul-based independent think tank Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, or TESEV, told Babylon & Beyond. "They will do whatever they can do to calm parties."

Billboards showing Erdogan with the Turkish flag as backdrop have been mounted in Beirut's city center, an echo of the scene when Ahmadinejad was welcomed to Lebanon.

The Turkish premier is expected to arrive in Beirut on Wednesday and speak to the press that night, according to the press office of Lebanon's current Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Erdogan's visit comes days ahead of Hariri's scheduled trip to Iran on Saturday.

Turkish leaders might be able to lend a helping hand to troubled Lebanon by mediating with Iran and Syria, amid reports that the U.N.-backed tribunal will likely indict members of Iran- and Syria-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, an event that's feared could threaten national security.

"Essentially, Turkey feels it is able to help the Lebanese authorities by establishing political stability in the region by levering on the one hand with Iran and on the other hand with Syria, two countries that have influence on domestic dynamisms in Lebanon," Sinan Ulgen of the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) in Istanbul and a former diplomat in the Turkish foreign service told Babylon & Beyond. "The Turkish are pressuring Iran and Syria so that once the verdict is made public, Hezbollah will try not to create instability in the country."

However, analysts say it's unlikely that Turkey will move away from its traditional role as mediator and that Erdogan would take an official stand on the tribunal. The court has been marred with controversy, accused of incompetence and dismissed by Hezbollah as an "Israeli project."

On Tuesday, a report by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. apparently based on extensive leaks from within the tribunal linked Hezbollah and one of the ex-premier's top security officials deputies to the assassination, further complicating efforts to resolve the current political stalemate.

Turkey is also throwing weight around in the region across the political and sectarian spectrum, successfully engaging in talks with Shiite Iran and Sunni Egypt, among others.

It's a much needed skill in politically divided and fragile Lebanon.

"It can really breach the Sunni-Shiite divides in the Middle East. That I think is the value Turkey is bringing to the table," Ulgen said.

Of course, the famously capitalist Erdogan and Hariri will also try to drum up business for Turkish and Lebanese companies. According to Oussama Safa, head of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, his visit will probably focus on strengthening economic and commercial ties between Turkey and Lebanon, boosted earlier this year when Hariri went to Turkey on an official visit to promote closer cooperation between the two countries.

 "This is a continuation of Hariri making more approaches," Safa said. "I don’t see the visit as a political one but for business and culture. It's very good for Turkey and very good for Lebanon."

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: A billboard in downtown Beirut shows Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the Turkish flag as backdrop and says "Welcome" in Turkish and Arabic. Credit: Alexandra Sandels / Los Angeles Times