As Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi threatens the increased use of his air force against his own civilian population, it is becoming clear that regional and international opinion is moving in favor of supporting the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya. Despite its business interests in Libya, Turkey should recognize the broader values at stake, reverse its opposition, and play a leading role in implementing a no fly zone.
Col. Gadhafi has clearly lost whatever shreds of legitimacy he had with the majority of his own people; however, through sheer military brutality he might be able to put down these popular uprisings, like Saddam did in southern Iraq after 1991, or the Soviets did in Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. His air force is his only military advantage over his people. If he uses it more widely against civilian populations, it will become an unavoidable moral imperative to help save the Libyan people from such massacre.
The League of Arab States, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Organization of Islamic Conference have indicated that they would be in favor a no-fly zone. And United Nations Security Council members are discussing the outlines of a potential resolution. Turkey has, so far, said that it was not in favor of such a no-fly zone.
I have written many times in recent months and years how Turkey has inspired many in the region as a model of democratic change; how it has also provided an example of responsible foreign policy in an otherwise polarized region. And how it has emphasized that we in the region should play a larger role in managing our own affairs, rather than leaving them to Western or other external intervention.
Now is the time for Turkey to build on its leadership role in the region, and recognize that helping to save large sections of the civilian population in Libya from the vengeful attacks of a spent and deranged leader, and to help the Libyans bring stability and democracy to Libya is not only a moral imperative but serves the interests of stability and democratization that Turkey has been exemplifying for years. And it is correct for Ankara to recognize that being a regional power entails responsibilities as well as advantages.
One can understand that in the first days of the Libyan uprising, Turkey was concerned about evacuating the 20,000-25,000 Turks that worked in Libya. We also know that Turkish companies have over $10 billion of contracts in Libya. And we know that the Turkish leadership is in the run-up to parliamentary elections in June.
But this is a time to put principle and long-term strategic interests of stability and regional democratization above business and other narrow interests. People in the region have always accused the West of putting economic interests above principle; Turkey has come too far in helping build a new paradigm of democratization and regional order in the Middle East to fall under the same misperception.
And if a no-fly zone becomes a necessity to protect the Libyan people, we in the region should not wash our hands of it and ask the West to come do the work for us. At the very least, a no-fly zone should be implemented in full partnership: this should include full Turkish participation, as well as at least some participation from Egypt and Tunisia – the two countries that have unleashed the tide of democratization in the Arab world.
Building a democratic and stable Middle East will take regional leadership. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Abdullah Gül, and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have talked about Turkey’s leadership role in a changing region. Now is the time to put words into action.