The Oruç Reis' significance in East Med dispute

The Oruç Reis, a Turkish research vessel, which is carrying out drilling surveys in the East Mediterranean Sea, is getting close to the Greek island of Kastellorizo, raising the tension in the region to an alarming level.

It is no coincidence that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey chose the Oruç Reis for its adventurous research vessel. Oruç is a real historical figure, ingrained in the Ottoman history and is hugely symbolic for Islamists, particularly in Algeria, where he is considered a hero of jihad against the “European infidels”. 

Oruç Reis was an Ottoman seaman, basically a glamorised pirate who shopped for loyalty, first to an Ottoman Prince Şehzade Korkut against the crusaders, then to Egyptian sultan after Prince Korkut has to run for his life after a succession feud with his own Ottoman brother sultan. Later, in 1515, Oruç sent precious gifts to Ottoman Sultan Selim I who, in return, sent him two galleys and two swords embellished with diamonds. In 1516, Oruç and his brothers took control of Algiers from the Spaniards, forcing the previous ruler to flee, then sought protection from the Ottoman Empire. Now Turkish media glamorise him as an Ottoman hero.

Observers may agree or disagree about the extent of the Turkish president’s obsession with Ottoman history. Alan Mikhail argued that President Erdoğan strives to be the empire’s ninth sultan, Selim I. The choice of the Oruç Reis as a name for Turkey’s exploration vessel, in a way, supports that view, although I think that Erdoğan sees himself as an amalgamation of several Ottoman Sultans – not just Selim I. 

What should not be disputed, however, is how the Turkish president’s goals are greater than mere gas exploration and a dispute on the demarcation of the maritime border with Greece. It is crucial to understand that Turkey has two broader goals, both related to Greece in one way or another.

First, to expand its influence to North Africa, not just in Libya, but to dormant Islamist communities in Tunisia and Algeria. Within that context, Ankara sees Greece as an obstacle against achieving its expansionist goals in North Africa, which is precisely why it is clinging to the illegal maritime deal with the Libyan Government of National Accord, which ignored the presence of the Greek island of Crete between the Turkish and Libyan coasts. Therefore, it is only natural for Erdoğan’s Turkey to ignite historical grievances and threaten confrontation with Greece. 

Second, the Turkish president sees a divided European Union and NATO as his only way to strengthen Turkey and boost its regional power. 

There is no chance for the Turkish president to project his soft power among his Islamist fans, without projecting the current Western order as weak and divided on Turkey. Terms such as “de-escalation” and “calling for dialogue” in “tactical negotiations,” are music to Erdoğan’s ears, as it magnifies his positive image among his fan club, who boast daily on social media how their invincible leader installs fear among “the infidels”.  

For Erdoğan’s Turkey, a strong EU that imposes sanctions on Turkey will shatter President Erdoğan’s dystopian myth, cultivated for years among his Arab and Muslim followers. To prevent such a nightmarish scenario, Turkey deals with Western countries in a “divide and rule” manner. Here is the Turkish drill: First, the Turkish president raised the rhetoric against Greece, sending his exploring mission to harass it. Later, he plays the victim, flirts with the dovish appeasers, agrees on negotiations, demonises the hawks as irrational aggressors and later resorts to victimhood and conspiracy theories to garner more support. Thus far, this Turkish strategy seems to be effective. 

It may be difficult to stomach; in reality, however, Turkey does not aim to resolve its dispute with Greece. All what Turkey aims to achieve is to present a strong argument to the doves of Western countries who refuse to apply sanctions against Turkey, thus undermining Greece’s efforts to obtain Western support. The more differences between the two sides escalate, the greater the opportunity for Turkey to create a new reality on the ground without paying a huge price for its disruptive actions in the East Mediterranean.

Turkophiles in the Western corridors of power believe that negotiations could solve the problem between Turkey and Greece. But they do not realise how a divided West on Turkey is part of the problem – not part of the solution. They are doing nothing but enabling a staunch enemy who is tricking them by his insincere grievances, while he neither appreciates their weakness nor their appeasement.

French President Emmanuel Macron is right to say that Turkey is no longer a partner in the Mediterranean region. The French efforts to unite, at least the southern European Mediterranean countries, is a step in the right direction. Only a strong united Europe can negotiate with Turkey and control the wild ambitions of the Turkish leader. Unity and strong stance on Turkey are the only ways forward, as Ferdinando Giugliano wrote.

Until such elusive unity happens, the Turkish president will continue to see France’s Macron as a modern version of Emperor Charles V King, whose forces eventually killed Oruç Reis, and will do whatever he can to allow the Turkish vessel, named after his legendary seaman, Oruç Reis, to wildly frolic in the Mediterranean.

(A version of this article was originally published on Nervana Mahmoud’s blog and reproduced by permission.)

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.