Is Turkey moving into northern Lebanon?

BEHIND THE LINES: First signs emerge that Sunni Islamist Ankara is seeking to fill the vacuum

Members of Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) help a local Lebanese rescue team on August 5 at the site of the blast in Beirut’s port area. (photo credit: IHH/HANDOUT/ VIA REUTERS)
Members of Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) help a local Lebanese rescue team on August 5 at the site of the blast in Beirut’s port area.
(photo credit: IHH/HANDOUT/ VIA REUTERS)
According to a report on the pro-Saudi Al Arabiya website published on August 19, officials in Lebanon are concerned at increased indications of Turkish efforts to build strength and influence in the country. The report quoted two sources in Lebanese intelligence, who mentioned recent Turkish efforts to bring weapons into northern Lebanon. “We are pretty worried about what’s going on. The Turks are sending an incredible amount of weapons into the north,” the website quoted its source as saying.
These reports await confirmation, and Al Arabiya is of course a media source linked to Saudi Arabia – a state rival of Turkey’s. But the evidence for a broader Turkish effort to build influence and allies in Lebanon in recent months is considerable, and solid. As are the indications of a Turkish-controlled infrastructure emerging in Sunni northern Lebanon. Both fit with the broader pattern both of Turkish behavior and of broader regional realities.
In terms of the former, Turkey is actively involved using both its own forces and proxies in the two fragmented Arab countries to Lebanon’s east – Syria and Iraq. The deployments in both countries already have the look of the long term about them, with clearly defined areas of control. Turkey is also active in Libya, where its backing of Fayez Sarraj’s government almost certainly prevented the fall of Tripoli to the forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar earlier this year.
To these areas add Turkey’s aggressive naval stance in the Eastern Mediterranean, and its active backing of Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank and of Islamist organizations in Jerusalem. All these add up to a strategy in which Ankara is seeking to emerge as the main strategic beneficiary of the chaos and fragmentation that has gripped much of the region over the last decade.
Regarding broader regional realities, Iraq, Syria, Libya – and Lebanon – today are geographical spaces rather than states in the sense traditionally understood. Within these spaces, rival regional and global powers are competing for ascendancy. Turkey is a central player in the first three countries named. It would be surprising if it were not active in the fourth.
Other regional players are paying close attention to Turkey’s belligerent stance. The Times this week reported Mossad head Yossi Cohen as telling Arab intelligence chiefs that “Iranian power is fragile... but the real threat is from Turkey.”
In the countries mentioned above, Turkey seeks to leverage both its Sunni Islamist credentials to appeal to Sunni Arab populations, and where relevant its Turkic ethnicity to appeal to Turkic remnant populations in the Levant. Available evidence suggests that in Lebanon, a similar pattern is being followed. Turkey has been working slowly and assiduously, via NGOs and government relief organizations such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency – TIKA – (also active in Jerusalem), to establish its foothold in the country.
A recent article by Mohanad Hage Ali at the Carnegie Middle East Center noted the arrest on July 4 of two Turkish and two Syrian citizens on a flight to Lebanon from Turkey. The four attempted to smuggle $4 million into the country. Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi claimed that the money was intended to finance street-level protests against the Lebanese government.
Turkey’s activities appear to be taking place at the grassroots level, and to be centered around the northern city of Tripoli, an urban center for the Lebanese Sunni population. It is a conservative, religious place and a stronghold of Sunni political Islam. As such, the area is a natural focus for Turkey. The Akkar Governorate, home to Lebanon’s tiny Turkmen minority, is also an area of interest.
 A July 12 article by Nahla Nasir al-Din on the Asas website of former Lebanese interior minister Nohad Machnouk, accused Turkey of seeking to “occupy Tripoli,” and included details of alleged Turkish activities in these areas. The article contains a welter of detail on alleged Turkish activities in northern Lebanon.
It named Gen. Ashraf Rifi, former head of the Internal Security Forces and former justice minister, as a collaborator with Turkish intelligence in Ankara’s efforts in this area. Nasir al-Din also names Bahaa Hariri, eldest son of murdered prime minister Rafik Hariri, as engaged in the Turkish intelligence’s project to create a network of grassroots religious and political organizations among Lebanese Sunnis in Tripoli. The purpose of the network would be for it to act as a tool for the advancement of Turkish influence in Lebanon, available to be mobilized and brought to the streets at the appropriate time.
Nasir al-Din further claimed that direct links are maintained in Beirut between representatives of the ruling Turkish party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the local Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood party, Jamaa Islamiya.
A July 13 article by Firas al-Shoufi in the pro-Hezbollah Al Akhbar newspaper summed up the situation in the following terms: “Turkish activity in Lebanon takes many forms, all leading in one direction, which is to strengthen Turkish influence among the Sunni Muslims in Lebanon, specifically in the north, and to confront the already eroding Saudi-Emirati influence in the war of leadership of the ‘Sunni world’ raging between Saudi Arabia and its allies on the one hand, and Turkey and its allies on the other hand.”
Shoufi named specific social welfare projects undertaken by TIKA in the Tripoli and Akkar areas, such as “opening roads, digging wells for drinking and irrigation water and providing food aid.” He further notes that “General-Director of the Sûreté Générale [Lebanon’s main internal security organization] Maj.- Gen. Abbas Ibrahim made a series of observations about the Turkish performance during a meeting of the Supreme Council of Defense, on the basis of the need for the Lebanese state to monitor what foreign parties do inside Lebanon. Ibrahim also contacted the Turkish ambassador in Beirut, Hakan Cakil, and asked him about Turkey’s relationship with groups carrying flags and engaging in social activism in the north, who carry out actions that threaten security and block roads.’
Shoufi’s identification of the Turks moving into a vacuum left by the relative absence of the Saudis and Emiratis is of particular note. All the evidence cited in the various Arabic outlets cited above should be treated with some caution. It is not yet possible to draw a definitive picture of the details of Turkish activity in northern Lebanon. But the very fact that the issue appears able to raise the joint concerns of channels affiliated with or supportive of Saudi Arabia (Al Arabiya) and Iran/Hezbollah (Al Akhbar) indicates that something does appear to be going on.
The fragile Lebanese sectarian balance has been shattered over the last decade by the entry of around one million overwhelmingly Sunni Syrian refugees. Their presence has reversed the previous sense of an inexorable rise of the Shia to ascendancy in Lebanon. Until now, however, no force has proven able to harness the potential Sunni power in Lebanon to its cause. The Saudi-supported March 14 Movement was vanquished on the streets of West Beirut by Hezbollah and Amal in May-June 2008. The Gulf Arabs appeared to have more or less conceded the country to the Iranians, content to allow Iran and its local franchise to deal with a collapsing economy and infrastructure.
As of now, however, the first signs are emerging that Sunni Islamist Turkey is seeking to fill the vacuum, and to recruit the Lebanese Sunni street to its banner. Something is happening in northern Lebanon.