Turkey facing a reckoning for a decade of poor choices

U.S. Senators Robert Menendez and Chris Von Hollen urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday to cooperate with the European Union to halt Turkish hydrocarbon exploration efforts in the eastern Mediterranean.

The senators called Turkey’s efforts illegal and asked for comprehensive joint U.S.-EU sanctions to be “imposed on key sectors of the Turkish economy”.

The standoff between Greek and Turkish fleets continued to escalate this week, to the point where two vessels collided on Thursday. Both countries claimed the others’ vessel was damaged heavily in the incident. On Friday, Greek defence sources identified the collision as an accident.

Turkey maintains that Greece’s claims to territorial waters in the Aegean over Greek islands, some of which are just a few kilometres off the Turkish coast, are illegitimate, while Greece says the islands stand on its continental shelf and, as such, allow for the extension of territorial waters and airspace for the EU member state.

The most recent flash point has been the small Greek island of Kastellorizo, which lies 580 km away from mainland Greece, but is just 2 km from Turkey’s southern coast.

Despite the escalation and the senators’ letter, the U.S. State Department and U.S. government have remained silent on Turkey's behaviour.

Pompeo had a call with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias on Friday, and he said they had discussed “the strong U.S.-Greece bilateral relationship and the urgent need to reduce tensions in the eastern Mediterranean,” without giving any specific condemnation of Turkish actions in the Mediterranean.

Pompeo also met with Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg in Vienna on Friday morning. During the press briefing, Schallenberg made a long reference to the situation in the eastern Mediterranean and said “Austria is very concerned about the dangerous and alarming situation which we believe could easily escalate” and that the issue was of “high urgency and high importance for everybody and especially for the European Union.”

Schallenberg’s strongly-worded statement ended by saying the EU should re-evaluate its relationship with Turkey in light of its recent actions “in the Mediterranean from Libya, Syria, to north Iraq - even the reclassification of a world-renowned monument, the Hagia Sophia, as a new mosque”.

Standing next to him, Pompeo once again failed to mention one of the hottest issues of the day - skipping the eastern Mediterranean subject altogether. However, sources in Washington told Ahval that, although Dendias was happy with the meeting he held with Pompeo and the assurances he had received, the readout was still accommodating Ankara’s position by not specifically calling out Turkey for its actions in the eastern Mediterranean.

Some Turkey-Greece watchers in Washington explained that the two different pro-Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lobbies in the U.S. government are so far prevailing.

One is the pro-Turkish government bureaucracy at the State Department, along with U.S. President Donald Trump’s strong pro-Erdoğan approach which won the day in Vienna again. However, there are serious questions over how long this pro-Erdoğan outlook can continue. There are also who believe Pompeo is fed up with the State Department’s pro-Turkish, anti-Kurdish stance and might move to make some changes at the department in the coming days or weeks.

Pompeo’s scheduled meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Sunday in the Dominic Republic is one meeting we need to pay close attention to.

Meanwhile James Jeffrey, U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Ambassador, participated his first press briefing since former National Security Adviser John Bolton released his explosive memoir in June and effectively labelled Jeffrey as anti-Kurdish and pro-Turkish.

Jeffrey dismissed those reports about his resignation during the press briefing and, even though he was asked twice, he did not condemn recent Turkish airstrikes that killed at least two senior Iraqi military officers - giving Turkey another green light in the contentious region.

On Thursday, the Pentagon expressed concern over developments in the region after France and Greece engaged in a joint military exercises that day involving a French assault helicopter carrier and frigate. But other than that, the Pentagon has also been silent on Turkey recent actions.

Yet, Erdoğan’s relationship with the United States may drastically change if Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, is elected president in November.

While the United States remains largely silent and passive on Turkey’s actions, Ankara is looking increasingly isolated.

Former Turkish Foreign Minister Yaşar Yakış likened the policies and behaviour of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to the 1912 Balkan Wars, which ended in disaster for the Ottoman Empire as it lost over 80 percent of its European territories and almost 70 percent of its European population. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Dendias on Thursday too, and issued a message of support afterwards. “I made it clear that we take seriously any aggressive action in the Eastern Mediterranean by any factor, including Turkey,” Netenyahu said in a tweet.

Greece and Israel had agreed to cooperate on a pipeline project to take Israeli gas to Europe over the Mediterranean last year.

The European Union has also reiterated support for Greece following a meeting of EU member states’ foreign ministers on Friday.

A statement issued after the meeting called the developments of the week “a grave deterioration of the security situation,” and called for “solidarity, de-escalation, and dialogue”.

It also called for good-faith dialogue and negotiation instead of “unilateral actions and the mobilisation of naval forces”.

The EU said it will also be preparing “options on further appropriate measures in case tensions do not abate”.

France has taken recent steps against Turkish moves, boosting its number of war ships in the Mediterranean. If there happens to be an armed confrontation in the region, whether between Turkey and Greece or France, Turkey almost certainly will find itself all alone in the diplomatic arena.

It increasingly appears that Turkey is to reach the point where it will have to pay the tab for a decade of poor choices, in which it lost all of its friends abroad and utterly degraded democracy and human rights at home.

The Turkish armed forces became Erdoğan’s personal army, and tools for his domestic theatrics.

In these theatrics, only one influential foreign actor appears to be helping Erdoğan, and that is Donald Trump’s administration - now in a countdown to the November elections.

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