Turkey is slowly trying to fill the void in Lebanon’s neglected north

Rumors have been flying recently about Ankara’s plans for Lebanon. In the north of the country, Turkey is stepping up its initiatives but does not seem to be able to take up a leading role — yet

Turkey is slowly trying to fill the void in Lebanon’s neglected north

A billboard welcomes Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Akkar during his 2010 visit. (Michel Hallak)

In the small Akkar village of Kouachra, some 38 kilometers north of Tripoli and with a population of 4,000 people, no Turkish flags are seen flying. No walls or poles are adorned with pictures of the “ra’ees,” Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“We take out the paraphernalia only on Oct. 29 to celebrate [Turkey’s] Republic Day, and on July 15 to mark the occasion of the [2016] botched coup,” says Hakam al-Hussein, the deputy mayor of the border town close to Syria.

Here, almost everyone speaks Turkish. This tribal population, which chose to remain in Akkar and the Bekaa areas with the fall of the Ottoman Empire a century ago, returned to its roots only 30 years ago.

“Our ties with Turkey are unshakable because of our Turkmen origins,” Hussein says.

In 2010, the people of Kouachra warmly welcomed Erdoğan, then prime minister, who pledged to invest in the development of this remote area. In recent years, Ankara has carried out a project providing access to drinking water and built a village hall.

These ties between the two countries have allowed many young Lebanese to go to Turkey to study and some to obtain citizenship, rekindling a sense of nostalgia for the Ottoman era in these parts of Lebanon that remain a low priority for authorities.

“In the north of Lebanon as in Saida, people love Turkey. There is a natural connection with the Sunnis there, who are extremely hospitable to us,” a Turkish diplomat says on condition of anonymity.

Rumors about Turkey’s growing influence in Lebanon have been circulating for several months now.

The withdrawal of Saudi Arabia, traditionally the most influential Sunni power in the Land of Cedars, makes way for other candidates to take up this role. Ankara is gaining ground without claiming to replace its Saudi rival — for now.

“It is known that nature abhors a vacuum. We will be there to fill it,” says the Turkish diplomat confidently.

This desire to weigh in on the Lebanese scene is part of a broader policy extending from Iraq to Libya via Syria. It is an imperial project of regional expansionism driven by the rhetoric of neo-Ottomanism and ultranationalism.

Jana Jabbour, an expert on Turkish affairs and a teacher at Saint Joseph University in Beirut and Sciences Po in Paris, believes that Turkish ambition in the region is evident. “As a regional power, Turkey has an interest in broadening its influence in Lebanon through humanitarian diplomacy,” she explains.

To do this, Ankara mobilizes development aid in a bid to get as close as possible to the population through its Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) and the Turkish Red Crescent.

“Turks uphold a discourse of rapprochement, explaining that they are not imperialists or Western colonizers. [Turkey presents] itself as a developing country like Lebanon, and that aid is offered unconditionally in the name of the brotherhood between the two,” adds Jabbour.

In an effort to strengthen its foothold in Lebanon, Turkey has managed to forge ties with the Sunni community across the country, funding various projects. A new hospital in Saida is slated to open its doors in the coming weeks.

Yet assessing the amount of aid or the value of projects launched by Turkey is no easy feat. Turkey has been keeping things in the dark, especially in recent months in light of accusations of interference in domestic affairs.

L’Orient-Le Jour tried to contact TIKA for comment but the agency declined to give an interview.

“We do not interfere in any way in domestic affairs,” says the aforementioned Turkish diplomat in response to the accusations.

‘Tripoli is completely marginalized’

A few days after the Aug. 4 Beirut port blast, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that Erdoğan had instructed him to grant citizenship to any Lebanese Turkmen or Lebanese of Turkish origin.

“We have lost hope in our country and we are left with no other choice but to pack our bags and leave. Who will receive us other than Turkey?” says a 50-year-old Sunni woman from Beirut, on her way out of the Turkish Embassy in Rabieh, where many Lebanese flock each day in hopes of obtaining a residence permit.

Some 9,600 Lebanese were naturalized last year, out of around 18,000 applications for citizenship. L’Orient-Le Jour, however, was unable to obtain confirmation of an increase in applications for 2020.

The Turkish soft power is at work, particularly in Sunni areas. In Tripoli, residents are not shy about their admiration for Erdoğan and Turkey, and their nostalgia for the Ottoman era is palpable.

“This feeling further strengthens [Tripolitans’] attachment to Turkey, especially since the city of Tripoli was a regional capital until the end of the 19th century during the Ottoman occupation. Today, however, it is completely marginalized,” explains Souhaib Jawhar, a journalist who closely follows the Turkish issue.

Turkish authorities are not reluctant to invest in the restoration of the many monuments and buildings dating from the Ottoman era in the northern city. The large clock tower in the Al-Tell square was a gift from Sultan Abdul-Hamid II to the city in 1901. The clock was given a face-lift in 2018, five years after the launch of the project.

The office of the Turkish presidency has reportedly ordered a tally of all archaeological and historical sites from the Ottoman era in Tripoli. Some projects in the city are facilitated by two members of the Tripoli city council, both of whom hold Turkish nationality and are active in Lebanese-Turkish friendship associations.

These associations were set up by former Lebanese students who graduated in Turkey and “who want to help strengthen ties between the two countries and maintain good relations with the embassy,” according to Jabbour. “They help organize all cultural events and conferences serving the Turkish propaganda,” she adds.

Looking for local partners

In terms of visibility, the Turkish president is every bit as good as the area’s Sunni politicians whose pictures adorn walls and facades, even outside of election periods. Toward Souk al-Arid or Beddawi, no one is surprised to see the face of the Turkish president with a laudatory slogan. Every time an attack is made on Turks or their president, hordes of mopeds sporting the Turkish flag roam the streets.

At the height of the uprising that broke out in October 2019, voices were raised across the country over the large number of people in Tripoli participating in the protests, claiming that the Turkish intelligence services had a hand in this.

“It was absurd to hear these claims because we were funding the protests ourselves,” says Faouzi Ferry, a professor at the University of Balamand and a political activist from Tripoli.

“Quite frankly, we are looking for Turks, but they are nowhere to be found!” he added.

Turkey’s influence in the northern areas of the country and in Saida, however, does not mean that money from Ankara is flowing freely. “Turks definitely support us, but not that much. Look at this concrete building for instance. This is a school project that started in 2005 and came to a halt the same year. This year, we were sent stocks of wheat twice and that was it,” says Kouachra’s deputy mayor.

Far from political affiliations, these poor Sunni areas are ready to receive a helping hand from any country, even Iran. Turkey, for its part, denies claims that it is providing aid to Sunni communities only.

“After the Beirut port explosion, we provided support for Christian neighborhoods and the southern suburbs,” the Turkish diplomat says, referencing the largely Shiite neighborhoods to Beirut's south.

Traditionally, Ankara maintains good relations with all Lebanese political parties. But in the Sunni court, it is naturally most inclined toward the Future Movement. Turkey is ready to accept Saad Hariri, abandoned by his Saudi godfather, with open arms.

The prime minister-designate appears to have a rather good relationship with Ankara, but will probably never make it his main interlocutor. Doing so would mean turning his back on Saudi Arabia, whose relations with Turkey are tense. Also, any overtures to Ankara would send the wrong message to Paris, Hariri’s current main supporter, which is also at loggerheads with Turkey.

“The Turks have tried to explore other options among [Lebanese] Sunni leaders, notably with former [Justice] Minister Ashraf Rifi. They even tried to approach Bahaa Hariri, the brother of Saad Hariri,” Jabbour says.

Bahaa Hariri’s press office, however, says that “this statement is baseless. There has not been any approach attempt, not on the part of Turkey nor on Bahaa Hariri’s part.”

Turkey’s political investment is more subtle than it appears and, in fact, it raises the concerns of various parties, particularly in the Armenian community in Lebanon. Armenia has just lost part of Nagorno-Karabakh after a short war with Azerbaijan, which is backed by Ankara.

Tensions with France

If Turkish foreign policy raises concerns for both Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two rivals on Lebanese ground, it is with France that relations seem most strained.

In mid-August, Erdoğan accused French President Emmanuel Macron of “colonialism” during the latter’s visit to the ravaged Beirut port. Erdoğan also strongly criticized the French initiative, which placed Paris at the heart of the Lebanese political game.

In response to L’Orient-Le Jour’s request for an interview, one of Tripoli’s dignitaries and an active member in Lebanese-Turkish friendship associations sent an article published last month on French intelligence agents seeking to determine the size of Turkish aid to Lebanon.

“Why don’t you write about the French influence in Lebanon instead?” asks an adviser to Tripoli MP Fayssal Karame, who is said to be close to Ankara.

In his seaside chalet, the MP and son of the late Prime Minister Omar Karame brushes aside rumors about Turkey’s hold on the country and more specifically on the city of Tripoli.

“Certainly, the Ottoman era has left its marks on Tripoli, but I can assure you that [the Turks] are not seeking to get their hands on the city,” he says, stressing, however, that he is in favor of developing relations with Turkey, with which he is trying to cooperate on a humanitarian level to stem the coronavirus pandemic.

The MP paid a visit to Turkey two weeks ago, his second trip in the space of two weeks, to meet with local authorities and associations in the hope of securing the necessary funds to carry out projects in Tripoli.

All eyes are now on the port of Tripoli, where activity has doubled since the Aug. 4 explosion that heavily damaged the Beirut port.

The port of the country’s second-largest city is hoping to expand its infrastructure, and some fear that Turkey will toss its hat in the ring to execute this. Trade from Turkey through the port of Tripoli has increased since the closure of the Turkish-Syrian border due to the war raging in Syria.

Antoine Amatoury, the director of the northern port’s container terminal, which is managed by the private company Gulftainer Lebanon, shrugged off the pseudo-influence and ambitions attributed to Ankara in the harbor.

“Managing the port of Tripoli has nothing to do with politics. I manage it with Rodolphe Saade and Najib Mikati, and we have no political affiliations or any link with Turkey,” Amatoury says, referring to the chair of logistics giant CMA CGM and the Tripolitan MP and former prime minister.

This article was originally published in French in LOrient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.

In the small Akkar village of Kouachra, some 38 kilometers north of Tripoli and with a population of 4,000 people, no Turkish flags are seen flying. No walls or poles are adorned with pictures of the “ra’ees,” Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.“We take out the paraphernalia only on Oct. 29 to celebrate [Turkey’s] Republic Day, and on July 15 to mark the occasion of the [2016] botched coup,” says...