TURKEY'S mildly Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, thinks he can take credit for the wave of protests sweeping the Arab world. “Which country were they inspired by?” he asked the Turkish parliament recently. He answered his own question: Turkey, with its “advanced democracy”. The country's mix of secularism, free elections and European Union-tailored reforms has certainly raised its profile in its former Ottoman dominions. (Mr Erdoğan’s salvoes against Israel have gone down well too.) The prime minister was among the first world leaders to tell Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, to step down.
So why has Turkey been so reluctant to back western efforts to stop Libya’s dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, from slaughtering his own people? The question has been burning in western capitals ever since Turkey balked at plans to erect a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians.
When the uprising in Libya erupted last month, Mr Erdoğan swiftly opposed any foreign intervention. He described the idea of NATO intervention as "absurd". He called on Colonel Qaddafi to resign but mistrusted Western motives, suggesting that Europeans and Americans were more interested in guzzling Libyan oil than saving Libyan lives. Their "real plan", whispered conspiratorially minded members of his ruling Justice and Development (AK) party, was nothing less than an “imperial carve-up” of the country.
So it came as something of a shock last week when Turkey declared that it would provide four frigates, one submarine and an extra warship to help enforce the no-fly zone and prevent the flow of weapons to Libya. The government has put a brave face on this U-turn, insisting that it had only moved when the military operation was taken out of French hands and placed under the command of NATO, where Turkey, a key member, wields veto power.
The line is disingenuous, as other coalition members, such as Italy, had also been demanding that NATO take the lead. It seems more likely that Turkey feared being left out altogether, as it had been from the conference in Paris where the decision to attack Colonel Qaddafi's forces was agreed. Moroever, the Arab League had already voted on March 12th to support a no-fly zone, thereby giving “Muslim cover” to the operation. Above all, American arm-twisting is said to have won the day.
Libya has thrown AK’s much-vaunted Middle East policy into disarray and further strained ties with America and the EU. As Semih Idiz, a columnist for the daily Milliyet, observes [link in Turkish], AK’s approach has been based on friendly relations with existing leaders, no matter how brutish. And although Turkey was quick to scent Mr Mubarak’s defeat, Colonel Qaddafi's future is less clear. Mr Erdoğan warns of a protracted and bloody civil war that could make Libya "a second Iraq." He has suggested that Colonel Qaddafi could yet be involved in a peaceful transition of power, which Turkey could help mediate.
Turkey’s attempts to sit on the fence may be partly explained by self-interest. Some 20,000 Turkish citizens worked in in Libya (they are now mostly repatriated). The country has around $15 billion worth of outstanding contracts which may be scrapped if the rebels prevail.
Yet an even bigger challenge is being posed by neighbouring Syria, where nationwide protests have left scores of civilians dead. Mr Erdoğan is a big friend to Syria’s strongman leader, Bashar Assad, and has urged him to ease his iron grip. Should the violence spread to Syria’s Kurdish-dominated north, thousands might cross the border into Turkey, already home to 14m or so restive Kurds. Mr Erdoğan’s pious base have been incensed by the slaughter of their fellow Sunni Muslims at the hands of Mr Assad’s forces. When it comes to Syria, sitting on the fence may not be an option.