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April 15, 2017

Turkish Foreign Policy Under the AKP Rule: The Limited Role of Turkey in Lebanon


During the last decade, Turkish foreign policy exhibited a heightened interest in the Middle East thereby inaugurating a sharp departure from a long foreign policy tradition which relegated the region to the backwater. The conspicuous examples of this shift are Turkey’s keen interest in the popular uprising in Tunisia and Egypt where it had particular political horses in the race, and its dramatic entry into the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars. Couched in a neo-Ottoman discourse, Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East sought to insert the country into the vortex of the region. Lebanon is one of the Middle Eastern countries which is feeling the heat of Turkish revivalist energy in the region. Due to a host of factors, which partly have to do with confessional dynamics, Turkey’s impact on Lebanon is very modest and varies from one religious group to another.


After the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) secured a firm hold of the helm in Turkey, the country’s foreign policy reality underwent a fundamental metamorphosis. The minimal interest the secular elite had in the Middle East was replaced by a very keen focus which shot the region up in the Turkish foreign policy priorities. Turkey assumed, or sought to assume, a leading role in major issues in the region. Similarly Turkey has been adulated as a paragon of a really existing Islamic democracy by Arab elites and the common person in the street who desired for an alternative to corrupt oppressive regimes. Political salvation was sought on the road to Ankara. This animation with the Turkish model became intensive during and in the wake of the Arab Spring.

The architect of the new foreign policy shift which firmly placed the Middle East in the heart of Turkish priorities is the country’s former foreign minister and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. In Davutoglu’s foreign policy formulation Turkey tried to diversify its external strategic possibilities by breaking out from its singular engagement with the West. It stops being exclusively concerned in its internal problems and on becoming a member of the European Union (EU) and started taking proactive measures to spread its influence in various regions as the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Middle East.

When the occasion calls Turkish foreign policy initiatives in the Middle East took a markedly aggressive character. Of course, the nature, zeal and intensity with which it engaged in the region differs from one place to another. While the nature of its involvement in Palestine assumed a humanitarian character, its engagement in Iraq and Syria have taken a security and military nature. The intensity of its engagement and the level of its reception also vary.

In Lebanon, Turkish influence has not made a significant traction due to the sharp sectarian differences that results in viewing Turkey through differing and contradictory lenses. Additionally, the already powerful presence of other regional actors in Lebanon like Iran, Saudi Arabia, France, Syria and many others makes Ankara’s influence in Beirut relatively weak. These factors however have not disheartened Turkey from jostling for influence in Lebanon especially on the cultural arena.

This paper explores the pre-2002 Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East in general and Lebanon in particular and contrasts it with the new foreign policy formulations as articulated by Davutoğlu. Additionally, it discusses Lebanon’s complicated internal dynamics and tease out its bearing on how Turkey is perceived in the country. Moreover, the paper examines Turkish cultural activities in Lebanon mainly among Lebanese Turkmens and the Sunni community as a soft strategy of spreading its influence. The economic impact of Turkish engagement in Lebanon will also be discussed in passing.

  • Turkey’s Pre-2002 Foreign Policy

Since the establishment of the Republic in 1923, Turkey pursued a cautious foreign policy with limited goals and aspirations. The newly secular westernized country aimed to become member of the European community, to preserve its security from a troubled Middle Eastern region and to cut ties with the old Ottoman territories and its foreign policies traditions.

The motto of the Founder of the Turkish republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk “Peace at Home, Peace in the World”, emphasized non-interventionism of Turkey in other countries in a violent manner and aimed instead to promote peace, security and cooperation. Despite this seemingly isolationist and idealistic goal, Atatürk was “a practical man of action, a realist with a vision”[1]. During his period in office (1923-1938), Turkey carried a Western-directed foreign policy in a conjunction with the establishment of cultural ties with the West. The aims of the founder of the Republic were cutting ties with the East and to achieve complete independence from any foreign power[2].

After Atatürk’s death, İsmet İnönü (1938-1950) “guided Turkey through the dangers of World War II and the early Cold War”[3] with a balanced and careful foreign policy. İnönü saved the country from the devastating consequences of the war by realistically balancing his country’s foreign policy between the two fighting groups. When the Cold War started, “Turkish leaders again confronted an uneasy task of attempting to balance relations between two competing powers; [The US and the URSS]”[4]. The era of the bi-polar world forced small powers to declare their positions and allies; Turkey choose to ally itself with the West.

The dangers of the Cold War compelled Ankara to become a member in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952, Baghdad Pact in 1955, and an associate member of the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the EU, since 1963. The alliance with the West set the frame within which Turkish foreign policy was drawn. Ankara took part in the Korean War (1950-1954), invaded Cyprus in 1974, and attacked Kurdish militias in Iraq numerous times. During the second half of the 20th century, Turkey focused mainly on becoming part of the EU and solving its problems with European countries like Greece, Cyprus and others.

During these decades, Turkey was at the beck and call of Western powers and acted according to their bidding. It intervened in many issues near and far alongside its Western allies. During this period Turkish foreign policy was running on an ad hoc basis and lacked a strategic integrated formulations.

1.1. Turkish Middle Eastern Policy

Even though Ankara has historically paid close attention to regional developments, its foreign policy was largely framed by its preference for non-intervention and neutrality in the areas which until the First World War constituted part of the Ottoman Empire[5]. Until the meteoric rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2002, Turkish authorities were solely absorbed in their domestic affairs.

The pre-2002 Turkish Foreign policy approach towards the Middle East was shaped by the security imperatives and issues pertaining to the Turkish identity. “Turkish rulers are sensitive toward the possibility that the dangers stemming from the Middle East might threaten Turkey’s security. In this context, they want to be sure that one of the regional countries will not increase its strength to the extent that it will dominate the other”[6]. In light of this, keeping the balance of power of which weakening any aspirant regional power-wannabe from disturbing regional stability constituted primary goal for Turkey’s foreign policy in the region. On the other hand, Turkey aimed:

“To avoid taking side in local clashes in the Middle East. Turkish rulers are careful in not involving in regional problems. They also pay attention to not antagonizing the Middle Eastern countries while cooperating with the West in security area […] While trying to keep itself away from the region, Turkey is affected by the fear that it will not be seen as a Western country by other states if it is too much occupied with the region”[7].

Despite the general detachment it showed to Middle Eastern affairs, Turkey’s foreign policy attitudes towards the region was not cast in stone. It exhibited variations in response to domestic and regional vicissitudes. The domestic and regional threats coming from the active Kurdish militias in Iraq, Syria and Iran, and the new challenges and opportunities after the end of the Cold War made Ankara’s foreign policy “more active and multi-directional”[8]. The Gulf War in 1990 “left an enduring legacy in Turkish policy. Subsequent events have confirmed Turkish perceptions of the region as a source of risk, but the tendency since 1990, and especially since the mid-1990s, have been toward continued activism coupled with greater independence and attention to sovereignty issues”[9].

In the post-Cold War period, Turkey pursued multiple engagements with Middle Eastern countries. Its rapprochement with Israel intensified and reached its peak in 1997 to chagrin of many anti-Israel countries. Turkey entered Northern Iraq and attacked the area some 24 times between 1983 and 2008[10]. Its pressure on Syria to stop assisting the Kurdish militants became so intensive that it led in 1998 to the expelling of Turkey’s longtime foe; leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Öcalan, from Syrian territories.

1.2. Turkish – Lebanese pre-2002 Relations

For Turkey, Lebanon occupied the lower rung in its foreign policy ladder. Lebanon held no particular attraction to it. Like in other Middle Eastern countries, the only reason that sustained Turkish interest in Lebanon was security.

When Turkey joined the pro-Western defense alliance, Baghdad Pact, in 1955 (with Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and the United Kingdom as members), the Soviets, Syria and Egypt responded to this “containment plan” by creating the United Arab Republic (A unified union between Syria and Egypt and supported by the Soviet Union) in 1958. Lebanon was dragged into the geo-political game of the Cold War when American marines were deployed on its shores following intensifying clashes between pro-Baghdad and pro-United Arab Republic forces in 1958. Lebanon was a member of the Baghdad Pact in all but name.

The similar position both Turkey and Lebanon held vis-à-vis the United States and the anti-communist ideology they embraced were not enough to pull them to a greater diplomatic relations. The main reason for this was Turkey’s lack of interest in Lebanon and its preoccupation with its gripping internal problems. Lebanon itself was enmeshed in fracturing civil war beginning from 1975.

Only one year after the start of the Lebanese civil war, a terrorist attack took the life of the Turkish first secretary in Beirut, Oktar Cirit. The attack on the Turkish diplomat was followed by the declaration of the establishment of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA)[11] – terrorist group operating in Lebanon[12]. During the Lebanese civil war, many anti-Turkish organizations flourished, especially ASALA and the PKK. The latter was backed by Syria and even had training bases in the Bekaa valley east of Lebanon[13].

The Syrian and Israeli occupation of Lebanon made it almost impossible for any other regional power to effectively influence Lebanese developments. The powerful Syrian presence in Lebanon prevented any serious development in the Turkish-Lebanese relations. Until the Syrian retreat from Lebanon in 2005, the dynamics of the Syrian-Turkish relations impacted the trajectory of the Turkish-Lebanese relations[14].


  • Turkey’s New Foreign Policy: The Impact on Lebanon’s Diverse Society

In 2001 Ahmet Davutoğlu published his book “Stratejik Derinlik: Türkiye’nin Uluslararası Konumu” (Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position) and laid out a new blue print for Turkish foreign policy. Davutoğlu is an engaging, bookish character with a formidable knowledge of history[15], and had the chance to implement practically his theoretical views on Turkey’s role and “Strategic Depth” when he served as a chief advisor to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkish Foreign Minister, and Prime Minister between 2003 and 2016. Davutoğlu’s vision for a new Turkish foreign policy emanates from his particular conception of the past and present of Turkey’s identity and its role. He argues that Turkey:

“Had a quite narrow-minded vision in the 20th century; back then, Ankara governments were not aware of being the successor of Ottoman heritage, and therefore, they could not appreciate Turkey’s potential historical and geopolitical depth. The initial condition for appreciating this potential is getting free from the prejudices against the Middle East, and, mounting a campaign for economic and cultural cooperation with the region. However, there is a precondition to viable change; Turkey has to stop conceiving itself as an ordinary actor in the region and acknowledge its Ottoman heritage. In fact, […] this approach is not an option, but a necessity for Turkey. Because, if Turkey does not take an active role in the Middle East, then the Middle East will be active in Turkey”[16].

Davutoğlu new foreign policy architecture, or his doctrine of “Strategic Depth”, is premised on his notion of Turkey’s two presumed strategic pillars, namely its historical and geographical depths[17]. He believes that the geographical depth of Turkey is rooted in its location at the intersection of Asia and Europe and its close proximity to Africa. Turkey enjoys a pride of location in a twin strategic seas— Mediterranean and Black Seas. This fact invests in the country a high geopolitical premium and place it at the vortex of multiple geopolitical dynamics[18].

On the other hand, Turkey’s historical depth stems from the fact that it is the historical and cultural heir of the Ottoman Empire, which was one of the long-lasting world empires with indelible impacts over a huge expanse of territories.  Being the center and sole heir of this culturally rich empire makes Turkey the center of attraction and positioned it to exercise influence over many countries in the Middle East and the Balkans[19]. In light of this, Davutoğlu wants Turkey to no longer be a peripheral and marginal country. Instead of assuming a call boy role for big powers and playing a limited role by being part of axes, enmities and coalitions, like other marginal countries, he wants it to play a robust role in the global geopolitical game. He wants Turkey to be a central country with an equal distance from the rest of the world and taking a proactive role in all regional and international issues.

Central to graduating itself into a salient regional power, Davutoğlu proposes that Turkey adopts a foreign policy called “Zero problem with neighbors” aimed at minimizing security threats, averting hostility towards Turkey, and opening opportunities for Ankara to expand its power and regional clout. To achieve this, Turkey needs to mobilize its historical and cultural weapons to win hearts and minds by underlying common Ottoman heritage.

To achieve its ‘zero problems with neighbors’ goal, Turkey abandoned its old beaten foreign policy road of isolationism and began revamping its economic, political and cultural relations with most of the neighboring countries; and launched reconciliation initiatives[20] and negotiations with regional countries and entities[21]. Additionally, in the wake of the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006, Turkey committed 1,000 troops to the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to insure peace and security on the Lebanese-Israeli borders[22].

The ‘zero problems with neighbors’ has meant a dual dynamics of revitalized Turkish presence in the Middle East and a general respect for the status quo. Turkey showed no appetite to radically reconfigure the geopolitical landscape in the region. It thawed relations with old foes, avoided open confrontation and took the role of a mediator in many instances. The AKP aimed through the “Zero Problem with neighbors” policy to turn the uncertain security environment around Turkey’s borders into a field of peace, stability and prosperity even if this meant to deal with the most ferocious dictators of the Middle East[23].

This was true until the start of the “Arab Spring” in 2011, when Turkey found itself in a changing region and stuck between dictatorial elites and popular demand for widening democratic horizon; and between oppressive “secular” pro-West regimes and partly religious and largely democratic aspirations of the ordinary people in the street. According to Davutoğlu:

“The Arab Spring […] presented us all with difficult decisions: We either could maintain ties with these oppressive rulers, or we could support the popular uprisings to secure basic democratic rights. More significantly, the uprisings also posed a challenge to the conceptual foundations of our new foreign policy […]. Those criticizing Turkey’s foreign policy, however, fail to understand how our policy toward the Arab Spring was formulated. It was through a balanced consideration of our foreign-policy principles, and an acknowledgment of the fact that “zero problems with neighbors” made sense only when it was considered in conjunction with other principles”[24].

Davutoğlu adds that:

“Turkey balanced the “zero problems” principle with our belief in achieving a balance between security and freedom, which formed the core of our policy toward the Arab Spring. Our key principles, together with the “zero problems” policy […] continue to guide our foreign policy in our neighborhood. When some Arab regimes ignored such calls [peaceful and gradual political transformation], we did not hesitate to support the people’s legitimate struggle […]. Today, the “zero problems” vision means that we cannot make a decision that will alienate us from the hearts and minds of our region’s people”[25].

The “Zero Problem with neighbors” policy is not completely torn asunder by the “Arab Spring”. Tarık Oğuzlu, a professor in the department of International Relations in Antalya International University, argues that it only experienced some changes in response to reality. It has become more sophisticated by taking into account the normative and humanitarian aspects that are becoming more present in Turkey’s foreign policy. He names this policy: “Zero Problem with neighbors – version 2.0”[26]. In congruence with increasing pro-Sunni ethos in the country, Turkey’s post-Arab spring foreign policy tended to gravitate around Sunni fraternity. The AKP steered the state towards forming an axis of alliance with Qatar and providing support to Sunni opposition groups in Syria fighting against an Alawite regime that enjoys the backing of Iran and Hezbollah – Iran’s Shi’a arm in Lebanon[27].

  • The Complex Lebanese Situation

On the 1st and the 2nd of December 2016, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu paid a working visit to Lebanon after nearly five years since the last visit from Turkey to Lebanon at Foreign Minister Level. The Turkish diplomat met with the newly elected Lebanese President Michel Aoun and other Lebanese high officials. Çavuşoğlu expressed his country’s appreciation for Lebanon’s sacrifices in hosting refugees fleeing from war-torn Syria[28].

Lebanon is hosting approximately 1.2 million (registered) refugees from Syria which amounts to around one in five people in the country[29]. The refugee problem is presenting Lebanon with heavy logistical and political challenges. The coming of over a million refugees is too heavy for the fragile body-politics of the country and threatens upsetting its sensitive demographic balance.

Lebanon is divided among 18 confessional denominations each with its own sense of distinct history, identity, political consciousness, ideological orientation and future aspirations, mostly construed in contradistinction to other groups. Lebanon is a country of minorities and “otherness”. This diversity makes it susceptible to instability and robs it the possibility of broad political consensus[30]. This social and political fracture has been aggravated by economic failure induced by the long-drawn civil war (1975-1990), Syrian military presence in most of the Lebanese territories (1976-2005), and Israeli military occupation of the south of Lebanon (1978-2000). Additionally, many regional and international powers exercise a great deal of influence in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia and Qatar normally backs Sunnis, Iran and Syria backs Shi’a, and France, United States and Egypt vie for influence among Christians and Muslims. The scramble leaves a limited space for Turkey to exercise political influence and power on the Lebanese political and social scene.

Historical, social and political realities in Lebanon work against Turkey’s attempt to ensure its influence in the country. The presence of the powerful Hezbollah in Lebanon who always attacks Turkey verbally for its intervention in Syria and the region[31]; the existence of an Armenian – Lebanese minority that always broadcast negative publicity about Turkey; and the negative  collective memory of Lebanese about the Ottoman Empire conspire to create a bad publicity and stereotype for Turkey in Lebanon.

  • How do Lebanese Perceive Turkey?

On the 29th of September 2012, a tiny Lebanese political party composed of Orthodox Christians that goes by the name “Al-Machreq Party” organized a sit-in in Beirut to denounce the Turkish “Fetih 1453” movie calling it “offensive to Orthodox Christians”. The Lebanese authorities were obliged to ban the movie from its theaters amid uproar among Orthodox Christian community in Lebanon[32].

This was not an isolated single event staged by a fringe group but a small manifestation of the deep-seated animosity towards, hatred of, stereotype and negative perception of Turkey among Lebanese society. Of course, the perception about Turkey is not the same across the board as Veysel Ayhan argues in his paper “Turkey-Lebanon Relations: Perceptions of Turkey among the Religious and Sectarian Factions in Lebanon” published in August 2009. The perception is not completely negative and the prospect of Turkey gaining traction in Lebanon is not absolutely bleak. There are already positive indicators on which Turkey can bank. Ayhan notes that the relations between Turkey and Lebanon developed rapidly in the post-2005 period. And unlike Iran or Israel, there is a belief that Turkey is pursuing a more impartial foreign policy towards internal problems in Lebanon[33]. Some of the Sunni elites indicate that Turkey, as a large Muslim country, has the ability and historical clout to help solve the problems of Lebanese Muslim groups. On the flip side, Shi’as, Maronites, Armenians and other Christian groups don’t have very positive views towards turkey[34].

Some of these negative views have deep roots and ranges from the political to the artistic and the educational. Here below are some of them:

  • The presence of a culturally dynamic and political visible Armenians community in Lebanon who is mostly living in the crowded suburbs of Eastern Beirut since the 1915 tragedy makes it hard for Turkey to breach the wall of suspicion among Lebanese Christian society. This is due to negative propaganda broadcasted by the Armenian minority in the Lebanese society, and to the activities that they practice which range from verbal attacks towards Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, to marches in the memory of the Armenians who died in 1915[35], to boycott campaigns against Turkish goods[36], etc.
  • Lebanese history books taught in schools play a significant role in promoting negative perception about Turkey. Most of the content of the books praise the leading role of Lebanese rebels against the “Ottoman occupation” (1516-1918), labeling the Turks as occupiers who came for Lebanese land and mountains. The books focus on the identity of Lebanese historical figures and their struggle against the Ottomans and on blaming the latter for the 1916 famine that hit Mount-Lebanon and killed one third of its inhabitants who were mostly Maronites and Druze[37]. These historical facts figuring large in the Lebanese history textbooks create a negative view towards Turkey and the Turks.
  • The Lebanese traditional art saw its success during the 1960s where many movies, theater plays and songs had cultural impact on many generations to come. The Rahbani Brothers who are the most famous Lebanese playwrights and music composers offered a sustained critique of “Ottoman colonialism”[38] in their work, while the iconic singer Fairuz sang many songs and appeared in many movies which contained harsh criticism towards the Ottomans, and labeling them as oppressors who were looking for bribes and forcing Lebanese to work for free[39].

If these reasons makes it hard for Turkey to influence Christians and Druze on a cultural and social level, the involvement of Turkey and the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah in the Syrian war on opposite sides made it even harder for Turkey to influence Lebanese Shi’a. During the last 4 years, it has become almost regular for the Al-Manar Tv to mount attacks on Turkey’s alleged negative role in the Syrian war and the Middle East. The Hezbollah affiliated station went even far by praising the Kurdish struggle against “Turkish dictatorship” and allowing air to the opponents of the ruling AKP like Selahattin Demirtaş[40]. Moreover, Shiite militant groups close to Hezbollah kidnapped two Turkish pilots in 2013, and claimed Turkey as responsible for the abduction of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in Syria[41] forcing Turkey to make efforts to get its pilots back through the mediation of Hezbollah.

The above mentioned factors curtail Turkey’s ability to exercise influence among Lebanese Christians, Druze and Shi’a. Saying that however, Turkish efforts to break the ice is steadily bearing fruits. Its influence among the Sunni is showing a piecemeal growth.

  • Influencing Lebanon’s Sunni Community

After the failed 15 July Coup attempt in Turkey, many Lebanese took to the streets to show “solidarity with Turkish people, government and President”. The protests took place mainly in the Lebanese cities with big Sunni population like Tripoli, Sidon and Akkar[42]. Moreover, many Lebanese officials and Sunni party leaders condemned the attempt[43]. This Sunni sympathy towards Turkey, the AKP and Turkish President is the function of Turkish aid to the Lebanese Sunnis.

In 2010, Erdoğan paid a working trip to Lebanon after few weeks of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visit to Beirut. The regional rivalry between Turkey and Iran was felt in Lebanon’s streets. Billboards showing Erdoğan with the Turkish flag and the sentence “Hoşgeldiniz” (Welcome) as backdrop have been mounted in Lebanese streets, an echo of the scene when Ahmadinejad was welcomed with the Persian “Khosh amadid” sentence. The Iranian President declared his total support for Shiite Hezbollah and met mainly with Shiite figures. On the contrary, Erdoğan met with Sunni figures and was welcomed in cities with Sunni dominance.

During that visit Erdoğan inaugurated many facilities in various Lebanese cities and villages built by the Turkish embassy in Beirut or by Turkish organizations, such as the Yunus Emre Turkish Cultural Center in Beirut, and Lebanon Coordination Office of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency – TİKA, etc. A chunk of the Turkish assistance was expended on Lebanese regions where Sunnis and Turkmen constitutes a majority of the inhabitants. Lebanon has a few thousand Turkmen[44] who have progressively lost their sharp cultural and linguistic marker through a relentless process of Arabization; and who live in precarious economic condition. As an ethnographic field research titled “Turkey – Lebanon Friendship Bridge: The Turkish Presence and the Ottoman Heritage in Lebanon” exhibits, Turkey shows significant attention towards the Lebanese Turkmen by teaching them Turkish language, granting them scholarships to study in Turkey, providing medical amenities, food and clothing, and building schools, hospitals, water wells, sports playgrounds, gardens, mosques and other sort of facilities[45].

Lebanese Turkmens actively responded to the supportive Turkish gestures and sought to maximize the benefit this accrue by establishing civil society organizations. There is a large number of associations working for Lebanese Turkmen and for boosting Turkey-Lebanon friendship[46]. All these associations work to improve the conditions of Lebanese Turkmen, to preserve Turkmen culture and language, to develop Turkey-Lebanon relations, to increase social interaction between the two countries and to enhance Turkey’s image in Lebanon[47]. It is important to mention that most of the Turkish economic, social and cultural aid packages are given to Lebanese Sunnis and Turkmen and the majority of the heads of these civil society organizations are Lebanese Sunnis and Turkmen.

Despite best efforts, Turkish influence among Lebanese Sunni community is still modest mainly because of the significant presence that Saudi Arabia maintains in the country. The latter is considered as the main ally of the Lebanese Sunnis in their competition against the Iran backed Shi’as. This polarized political space, where local rival lock horn with the cheering support from main regional bulwarks, leaves little room for Turkey to exercise a substantial political role and influence. However, Ankara have an important and well established relationship with the current Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri who owns a big share in the Oger Telecom company (Dubai) which owns Oger Türk that in turn owns 55% of shares in the important Türk Telekom[48] communication company[49]. This economic relationship between the main Lebanese Sunni Leader and Turkey did not evolve into a strong political relationship where Turkey can influence Lebanon in an equal measure as other regional powers. But, in the highly volatile region, nothing is cast in stone. If Ankara persists on its efforts, it stands a good chance to make a slow but progressively effective diplomatic inroads into the Lebanese body-politic.

  • State to State “Growing” Relations

Apart from religious groups and sects, other forms of relations between Turkey and Lebanon are worth examining. The two states tried to increase cooperation between each other but the persistent Lebanese government crisis halted the application of many agreements. The two countries established the Turkey-Lebanon Joint Economic Committee in accordance with the Agreement on Commercial, Industrial, Technical and Scientific Cooperation which was signed in 1991. The third and last meeting of the Committee was held on 5-6 May 2009, in Beirut. Additionally, the Turkey-Lebanon Land Transport Joint Commission held its last meeting on 26-27 February 2013, in Ankara. And the Turkish-Lebanese Business Council was signed on the 14th of November 2002 in Beirut between the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB) and the Lebanese Economic Forum. The last meeting of the Council was held on 15-16 June 2004 in Beirut while the last meeting of Turkey-Lebanon Business Forum was held on 19 April 2010 in the Lebanese capital under the presidency of Rifat Hisarcıklıoğlu; the president of TOBB[50].

The bilateral state-to-state cooperation boosted trade between the two countries but not to a great extent as it is shown in the following table. The numbers mentioned here are retrieved from the Lebanese Ministry of Economy website[51], an investment report published by Blom Bank[52] and the official website of Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜIK)[53]:

Year Turkish exports to Lebanon in $M Turkish imports from Lebanon in $M
2007 405 110
2008 699 207
2009 653 105
2010 684 231
2011 840 270
2012 966 157
2013 677 119
2014 1.161 204

On another note, Turkey and Lebanon lifted the visa requirements in 2010 thereby boosting the numbers of Lebanese visiting Turkey for tourism or trade. The number of Lebanese visiting Turkey doubled between 2009 and 2010[54] and kept on rising each year:

Year 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013[55] 2014 2015[56]
Number of Lebanese visiting Turkey (in thousands) 36 45.5 53.9 71.7 134.5 137.1 144.5 144 161.2 197.5

Compared to the millions of tourists coming to Turkey every year from other countries, the numbers of Lebanese visitors seems to be tinny, but Lebanese visitors to Turkey are more than that of Jordan, Algeria and Uzbekistan per example.

On another hand, the number of Turks visiting Lebanon is so small. Turkey’s ambassador to Beirut Çağatay Erciyes declared on his Twitter account on the 3rd of April 2017 that the number of Turks who visited Lebanon in 2106 is around 20 thousands. This is due to the continuous Lebanese security crises, the hostility showed by some Lebanese towards the Turks and to the kidnapping of 2 pilots by a Shiite group related to Hezbollah after intercepting a bus carrying Turkish Airlines personnel near Beirut’s airport as mentioned earlier.


Compared to the period prior to the emergence of the Justice and Development Party to power, the Lebanese – Turkish relations is registering significant improvement. Turkey has become an influential regional actor in the Middle East after Ahmet Davutoğlu developed a new roadmap for Turkish foreign policy that focuses on increasing the influence of Turkey in the Middle East. So far, Ankara has succeeded in winning friends, and of course, in creating strong enemies. Either way, it is making a great stride.

In Lebanon, Turkey faced a different kind of challenge in its quest to influence the Lebanese body-politic. Many reasons play against the interest of Turkey. The turbulent waters of Lebanese diversity makes diplomatic sailing difficult. Lebanon has been crowded with regional and international powers vying for sphere of influence. The Lebanese history; the hostility shown by Shiite Hezbollah towards Turkey due to its intervention in Syria alongside a motley of Sunni groups against the Alawite Syrian regime; the Armenian minority propaganda and the critical Lebanese traditional art create a negative attitude towards Turkey. Due to these factors, Ankara found itself a mediocre actor in Beirut.

However everything is not doom and gloom for Turkish effort to establish a diplomatic, political and cultural foothold in Lebanon. Unlike the Christians, Armenians and Shi’ites, Turkey has gained some cultural influence among Lebanese Sunnis and Lebanese Turkmen community through provision of different social, cultural and economic assistance. On the economic level, figures show many improvements in the Turkish – Lebanese relations albeit in a very limited manner. So Turkey faces enormous challenges to establish itself influence on Lebanon to the extent comparable to other regional powers. But, still all roads to Beirut are not closed.

[1] Andrew Mango, Atatürk: the Biography of the founder of Modern Turkey, Overlook Press, 2000, p. 396.

[2] Sylvia Kedourie, Seventy-five Years of the Turkish Republic, Franck Cass, London, 2000, pp. 176-177.

[3] John M. Vanderlippe, The Politics of Turkish Democracy, İsmet İnönü and the Formation of the Multi-Party System, 1938-1950, State University of New York press, New York, 2005, p. 189.

[4] Ibid, p . 126.

[5] Aaron Stein, Turkey’s New Foreign Policy: Davutoglu, the AKP and the Pursuit of Regional Order, Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, London, 2014, p. 10.

[6] Nasuh Uslu, Turkish Foreign Policy in the Post-cold War Period, Nova Science Publishers, New York, 2004, p. 97.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Paula Sandrin, Turkish Foreign Policy after the End of Cold War: From Securitising to Desecuritising Actor, The London School of Economics and Political Science, 2009, p. 2.

[9] F. Stephen Larrabee & Ian O. Lesser, Turkish Foreign Policy in an Age of Uncertainty, Rand – National Security Research Division, Santa Monica, 2003, p. 135.

[10] Ümit Özdağ, Türk Ordusu’nun Kuzey Irak Operasyonları, Pegasus Yayınları, Istanbul, 2008, s. 18.

[11] Yasin Atlıoğlu, Türkiye’nin Lübnan Politikası, Bilge Adamlar Stratejik Araştırmalar Merkezi (BILGESAM), 24 Nisan 2009. Adresinden erişildi:

[12] ASALA was a Marxist Armenian terrorist group founded by Hagop Hagopian in Beirut in 1975 and trained by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) Palestinian faction. The Armenian clandestine group assassinated many Turkish civilians and diplomats between 1976 and 1984. See: Olivier Roy, La Turquie aujourd’hui un pays Européen?, Universalis, France, 2004, pp. 161-163.

[13] Alexander I. Gray and Ibrahim Al-Marashi, Peace and Conflict: Europe and Beyond, University of Deusto Press, Spain, 2006, p. 108.

[14] Ortadoğu Stratejik Araştırmalar Merkezi (ORSAM), Başbakan Erdoğan’ın Beyrut Ziyareti Işığında: Türkiye-Lübnan ilişkileri, Cilt 2, S. 24, Aralık 2010, s. 9.

[15] The Economist, The Davutoglu effect: All change for foreign policy, October 21, 2010. Retrieved from:

[16] Nuri Yeşilyurt and Atay Akdevelioğlu, Turkey’s Middle East Policy under the JDP Rule, The Turkish Yearbook of International Relations, Vol. 40, 2009, pp. 40-41.

[17] Riva Kastotyano, Turkey between Nationalism and Globalization, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London, 2013, p. 171.

[18] Ibid, p. 172.

[19] Ebru Canan-Sokullu, Debating Security in Turkey: Challenges and Changes in the Twenty-First Century, Lexington Books, Maryland, 2013, pp. 63-64.

[20] Turkey made reconciliation initiatives with Armenia, Iraq, Iran, Greece, Cyprus and The Kurds of the autonomous region of northern Iraq.

[21] Turkey conducted peace negotiations between Syria and Israel, Northern Cyprus and its South, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Palestinian Fateh and Hamas movements, and others.

[22] Stephen J. Flanagan and Samuel J. Brannen, Turkey’s Evolving Dynamics: Strategic Choices for U.S. – Turkey Relations, Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), Washington, March 2009, p. 55.

[23] Hakan Yavuz, The Emergence of a New Turkey: Democracy and the AK Parti, The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 2006, p. 292.

[24] Ahmet Davutoğlu, Zero Problems in a New Era, Foreign Policy, March 21, 2013. Retrieved from:

[25] Ibid.

[26] Tarık Oğuzlu, The ‘Arab Spring’ and the Rise of the 2.0 Version of Turkey’s ‘zero problems with neighbors’ Policy, Center for Strategic Research of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey (SAM), February 2012, N°1, p.3.

[27] Cengiz Çandar, Untangling the AKP’s Kurdish Opening and its Middle East Policies, Middle East Centre (LSE), Vol. 5, April 2016, p. 46.

[28] Burcu Arık, Turkey, Lebanon call for immediate Syria ceasefire, Anadolu agency, December 2, 2016. Retrieved from:

[29] Amnesty International, Syria’s refugee crisis in numbers, September 4, 2015. Retrieved from:

[30] The power is constitutionally divided according to religious groups. The parliament is divided equally between Christians and Muslims (64 for each) and proportionally between the sects of each religion (Since the Taif Agreement the seats are divided among Muslim sects as following: 27 for Sunnis, 27 for Shi’as, 8 for Druze, 2 for Alawites. As for Christian seats they are divided as following: 34 for Maronites, 14 for Orthodox, 8 for Catholics, 6 for Armenians, 1 for evangelist and 1 for any other Christian minority). The division is equal too between Christians and Muslims in the Cabinet and the high ranking administrative positions.  Moreover, the Lebanese custom is that the President of the Republic is always a Maronite, Prime minister is a Sunni, the Speaker of the House is a Shi’a, and the deputies of the Prime Minister and deputy Speaker are Orthodox.

[31] Al-Akhbar, Nasrallah: Saudi Arabia, Turkey have failed in Syria, September 23, 2013. Retrieved from:

[32] The Daily Star, Lebanon bans ‘Fetih 1453’ from theaters, October 8, 2012. Retrieved from:

[33] Veysel Ayhan, Türkiye-Lübnan İlişkileri: Lübnanlı Dinsel ve Mezhepsel Grupların Türkiye Algılaması, Ortadoğu Stratejik Araştırmalar Merkezi (ORSAM), S. 5, Ağustos 2009, s. 17.

[34] İsmail Duman, How can Turkey play an active role in Lebanon’s stability?, World Bulletin, January 5, 2011. Retrieved from:

[35] The Daily Star, Lebanese-Armenians mark genocide centennial with mass rally, April 24, 2015. Retrieved from:

[36] Yeghig Tashjian, The Armenian Genocide: Solidarity vs. Denial, NOW Lebanon, April 26, 2016. Retrieved from:

[37] William Harris, Lebanon: A History, 600 – 2011, Oxford University Press, New York, 2012, pp. 173-178.

[38] Terri Ginsberg and Chris Lippard, Historical Dictionary of Middle Eastern Cinema, The Scarecrow Pres Inc, Lanham, 2010, p. 330.

[39] Some of these movies are: Seferberlik (1967), The Guardian’s Daughter (1968). And theater plays like: The Return of the Soldiers (1962), The Days of Fakhreddine (1966), Summer of 840 (1988) and many others.

[40] Time Turk, Demirtaş’tan Lübnan Hizbullahı’na övgüler, June 15, 2015. Adresinden erişildi:

[41] Al Jazeera, Turkish pilots kidnapped in Lebanon, August 10, 2013. Retrieved from:

[42] Naharnet, Lebanese Supporters of Erdogan Take to Streets in North, Bekaa, Sidon, July 17, 2016. Retrieved from:

[43] The Daily Star, Lebanese leaders condemn coup, voice support for Erdogan, 18 July, 2016. Retrieved from:

[44] Less than 1% of the Lebanese population.

[45] Oytun Orhan, Turkey – Lebanon Friendship Bridge: The Turkish Presence and the Ottoman Heritage in Lebanon, Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), No. 199, June 2015, pp. 10-16.

[46] Lebanese Turkmen Association (Qawashra), Lebanon Turkish Fraternity Association (Qawashra), Lebanon Turkish Culture Association (Aydamun), Duris Social Solidarity Association (Duris), Lebanese Turkish Association (Tripoli), Uli Al Nuha (Tripoli), Lebanese Turkish Friendship Association (Tripoli), Lebanon Turkmani Association (Tripoli), Association for Developing Lebanon-Turkey Relations (Tripoli), Jil Mustakbel (Beirut), Lebanon Turkish Forum (Beirut), Lebanon Turkish Youth Association (Beirut), Saida Lebanese Turkish Friendship Association (Saida).

[47] Ibid, p. 28.

[48] The Chairman of Türk Telekom is Mohammed Hariri; the cousin of Saad Hariri.

[49] Ercan Ersoy and Matthew Martin, Hariris Said in Sale Talks to Avoid Default on Turkey Loan, Bloomberg, October 27, 2016. Retrieved from:

[50] Republic of Turkey – Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Turkey-Lebanon Economic and Trade Relations. Retrieved from:

[51] Lebanese Republic – Ministry of Economy & Trade, Turkey – Lebanon Trade Statistics. Retrieved from:

[52] Marwan Mikhael, Lebanon and Turkey: Overview of Trade and Investment Relations, BlomInvest Bank, September 14, 2013. Retrieved from:

[53] Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜIK). Retrieved from:

[54] Ahmet Icduygu, Turkey and International Migration 2012-13, Migration Research center at Koç University (MiReKoç), November 2013, p. 45.

[55] Republic of Turkey – Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Role of Public-Private Partnership for the Development of Tourism Sector, November 2014, p. 56.

[56] Emniyet Genel Müdürlüğü, Giriş Yapan Yabancı ve Vatandaşlar. Adresinden erişildi:

Joe Hammoura
Joe Hammoura
Joe Hammoura is a specialist in Middle Eastern and Turkish affairs and is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in International Relations at Kocaeli University in Turkey. He holds a Masters in International Relations with Honors from the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik – Lebanon (2015), and a BA in Political and Administrative Sciences from the Lebanese University (2008). His work focuses on the internal Turkish policies, foreign affairs and its direct and indirect implications on the Middle East. He is a fellow researcher in Turkish Affairs in the Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies (MEIRSS) based in Lebanon. Additionally he writes in different magazines, newspapers and websites about Middle Eastern affairs.