Turkey may be moving into northern Lebanon - analyst

Turkey’s regional influence may be spreading to Lebanon in a pattern of using its “Sunni Islamist credentials” and Turkic ethnicity to appeal to specifics demographics of the Lebanese population, Middle East analyst Jonathan Spyer wrote in an op-ed published in the Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

Lebanon is a small eastern Mediterranean country plagued with sectarian strife among the its 18 officially recognised religious sects, many of which have politicised and find support from sometimes competing foreign backers.

After the Iran-backed Hezbollah, a group with wide support from the Lebanese Shiite community, won the majority in general elections, Sunni Arab Gulf countries “appeared to have more or less conceded” Lebanon to Tehran, according to Spyer, a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

Ankara seeks to fill the vacuum left by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies by leveraging both “its Sunni Islamist credentials to appeal to Sunni Arab populations, and, where relevant, its Turkic ethnicity to appeal to Turkic remnant populations” in Lebanon – a pattern seen in Syria, Iraq and Libya, where Turkey is a central player, he said.

Spyer said Turkey’s activities appear to be taking place at the grassroots level and focused around the northern city of Tripoli, an urban centre for the Lebanese Sunni population, and the Akkar governorate, home to Lebanon’s tiny Turkmen minority.

“Turkey has been working slowly and assiduously, via NGOs and government relief organisations such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency – TİKA – (also active in Jerusalem), to establish its foothold in the country,” the expert wrote.

TİKA has undertaken social welfare projects in Tripoli and Akkar areas, such as opening roads, digging wells for drinking and irrigation water and providing food aid, he said, citing pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al Akhbar in a July 13 article.

Spyer cited Lebanese news website Asas as reporting that billionaire Bahaa Hariri, eldest son of assassinated Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and brother of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, was engaged in a project by Turkish intelligence to create a network of grassroots religious and political organisations among Lebanese Sunnis in Tripoli.

Spyer also cited various reports of Turkey’s increasing involvement in Lebanon, such as Lebanese intelligence sources telling Al Arabiya of the “incredible amount” of Turkish arms flowing into northern Lebanon.

On July 4, Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi announced that two Turks and two Syrians had been arrested as they attempted to smuggle $4 million dollars into Lebanon on a flight from Turkey, according to Lebanese broadcaster Elnashra TV on its website. The minister had said that the money was meant to finance street-level protests against the Lebanese government.

“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 mobilised and brought to the streets at the appropriate time,” Spyer said.