ISTANBUL // Turkey, the only Muslim member of Nato, has warned its western allies to tread carefully when considering a no-fly zone in Libya.
As Nato defence ministers prepared for a meeting in Brussels starting today to discuss Libya, Turkish officials said a mandate by the United Nations for an intervention is an essential precondition.
And even if a UN mandate could be obtained, which is uncertain because of reservations by China and Russia, the western alliance would be confronted with many challenges, the Turks said. Turkey's position matters because Nato decisions must be approved by all 28 member states.
"We do not want Nato to intervene because the situation is not clear at all," a senior Turkish diplomat said in an e-mail. "What would happen if Nato forces are fired upon, captured et cetera. Will it send ground forces?" he asked.
"There are so many questions, unknowns and the situation is so tricky. Who in the opposition will Nato support?" the envoy went on.
The comments by the diplomat, who insisted on anonymity, reflected scepticism in Turkish government circles regarding a role for Western forces in Libya. Last week Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, put it more bluntly: "What business does Nato have in Libya anyway?" he asked.
The Nato ministers will consider a British-French call for a no-fly zone which could go before the UN Security Council as early as this week.
Nato began 24-hour air surveillance of Libya on Monday, and US diplomats have said Nato planners are looking at various options, including a no-fly zone. An emergency summit of EU leaders on Friday will also deal with Libya and a possible role the international community could play.
The Turkish diplomat stressed that Ankara was ready to consider options aimed at easing the suffering of civilians in Libya. But the no-fly zone is out of the question for Turkey at present.
The fact that the Gulf states support a no-fly zone does not change that, the diplomat wrote.
Ankara's position carries the risk of deepening suspicions in the US and Europe that Turkey may be turning away from the West under Mr Erdogan's religiously conservative government. Last year, Turkey shocked its allies by opposing a fresh round of sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council.
Turkey insists that it agrees with its Western partners that Col Muammar Qaddafi will have to go. But it is concerned that intervention would allow the Qaddafi regime to portray the Libyan opposition as Western pawns.
As if to confirm Turkey's concerns, Colonel Qaddafi used an interview with TRT, Turkey's state-run television station, to welcome the prospect of a no-fly zone.
He said Libyans would be outraged by foreign planes controlling the nation's air space.
"Libyans would see their real aims - to bring Libya under their control, to take away their freedom, to steal their oil. That way, all of the Libyan people would take up arms and fight," Colonel Qaddafi said.
Turkey's warnings are not only rooted in fears about handing Colonel Qaddafi a propaganda tool. With the highly unpopular US-led war in Iraq still fresh in the minds of Turks, Mr Erdogan also echoed the mistrust felt by many people in the region towards the West.
Suggestions about how to handle Libya should be made only to support democracy and human rights, the Turkish prime minister said last week. No one should "make his calculations based on those countries' oil wells."
Turkey is also reluctant to support demands for sanctions against Libya. "All sanctions and interventions that amount to a punishment of the Libyan people could trigger big and unacceptable problems," Mr Erdogan said.
Sanctions could hit Turkish economic interests in Libya. In recent years, Turkish companies have thrived there, raking in contracts worth about US$27 billion (Dh99bn), especially in the construction sector, according to Zafer Caglayan, the trade minister.
Mr Caglayan has said that Turkish companies had "paused" their activities in Libya but would resume them as soon as the situation returned to normal.
The high number of Turkish workers in Libya - about 25,000 - is another reason Turkey has been less enthusiastic about intervention.