Turkey’s Erdoğan finds himself alone in East Med conflict

The dispute over recently discovered hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean has triggered a barrage of conflicting maritime claims, pushing countries in the region towards open confrontation.

Turkey's assertive stance in the maritime dispute in particular is being challenged by a bloc comprising Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel. 

Meanwhile, France has deployed warships in support of Greece after Turkey sent a seismic vessel to the contested waters in the eastern Mediterranean. Paris is also seeking additional sanctions against Turkey for violating Greek and Cypriot maritime zones.

Ankara insists it has the right to drill offshore of the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, an entity only recognised by Turkey.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), another regional rival to Turkey, has stepped up efforts to establish diplomatic ties with Israel. 

In response, Turkey is increasingly flexing its military muscles as it seeks to break its regional isolation, shore up its positions and block the others’ moves in the region.

In November, Turkey signed a deal with Libya’s United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) that set out maritime borders between the two countries that would cut off the route of a pipeline that Greece, Cyprus and Israel want to build to carry gas to Europe. Turkey then sent troops to help the GNA, bolstering its partner in the maritime deal.

Turkey's aggressive moves in the eastern Mediterranean that intensified after the maritime deal with Libya also angered the European Union and the United States.

The EU hit Ankara with sanctions in February over what it called illegal drilling in the eastern Mediterranean, including a freeze to 146 million euros of pre-accession assistance for Turkey, the suspension of negotiations for an aviation agreement, and a review of lending to Turkey from the European Investment Bank, worth 386 million euros.

The foreign ministers of a group, dubbed the Med7 and comprised of Greece, Cyprus, France, Italy, Malta, Portugal, and Spain, issued a joint declaration on June 5 calling on all countries of the region to respect international law, including the law of the sea, and in particular the sovereignty and sovereign rights of EU member-states.

On August 14, foreign ministers of 27 EU member states reiterated the bloc’s full solidarity with Greece and Cyprus after the recent military build-up in the eastern Mediterranean.

At the same time, ministers stressed that the serious deterioration in the relations with Turkey is having far-reaching strategic consequences for the entire EU, well beyond the eastern Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department urged Ankara to stop any plans for explorations off the Greek islands in the eastern Mediterranean and avoid raising tension in the region immediately after Turkey announced its plans to send another vessel to the region.

In other words, Turkey is finding itself increasing isolated as Greece enjoys strong support from all western actors of the volatile region.

While these developments were unfolding, Ankara failed to cooperate with Moscow on the Libyan crisis, where the two countries support opposing sides of the conflict.

Russian Wagner Group mercenaries have supported forces rivalling the Turkish-backed GNA for some time now.

Moscow also deployed regular troops, advanced fighter jets and artillery in Libya and it has been providing coordinated missile strikes for the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the GNA rival Libyan National Army (LNA).

An earlier report claimed that Russia and France are seeking to forge an alliance in Libya in a bid to disrupt Turkish efforts in the war-torn country.

Meanwhile, the White House has been focused on a historic agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel for the normalisation of relations, and establishment of diplomatic ties between the countries for the first time. 

In a joint statement with the UAE and Israel on Thursday, the White House lauded the “historic diplomatic breakthrough,” and the countries’ “courage to chart a new path that will unlock the great potential in the region.”

The statement referred to UAE and Israel as “two of America’s most reliable and capable regional partners,” and expressed support for “a just, comprehensive and enduring resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Turkey’s reaction to the agreement was to condemn the UAE, and announce a possible withdrawal of the Turkish ambassador from the country alongside a suspension of diplomatic relations. 

While Turkey and Israel have had active diplomatic relations since 1949, relations between the countries have been strained in recent years over various economic and political issues. While Turkey has diplomatic relations with Israel, and was one of the earliest countries to recognise the state of Israel, condemning another country for doing the same thing did not really come off as logical. 

However, it is hard to find much logic in the adventurism of Turkish foreign policy recently, from Libya to Syria, from northern Iraq to Eastern Mediterranean.

It was not only U.S. President Donald Trump, but also Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who welcomed UAE’s deal with Israel as “a historic step to bridge the deep divides of the Middle East.” 

Erdoğan, on the other hand, envisages nightmares if Biden is elected U.S. president in November due to a possible clash on a number of regional issues with a U.S. Democratic government.

Meanwhile, Turkey's only ally in the region, Qatar, has been silent. Turkey rushed to the aid of Qatar after a group of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Doha in 2017, imposing restrictions on the movement of goods and individuals, citing its support for terror.

Qatar in return provided aid to Turkey during the coronavirus pandemic, when its central bank reserves fell into negative territory. Earlier, the gas-rich nation offered support to Turkey's central bank by tripling a currency-swap agreement to $15 billion. A total of $15 billion of the almost $38 billion swap reserves in the central bank is now comprised of riyals purchased from Qatar.

Qatar has been Turkey’s foul weather friend, yet Doha has been sitting on its hands when it comes to Ankara's policies in the eastern Mediterranean.

Qatar is planning to become more active in the Mediterranean as an effort to consolidate a regional footprint and ensure its continued existence. The Gulf nation is also trying to strengthen its economic and diplomatic ties with Greece. 

State oil company Qatar Petroleum entered into a consortium with ExxonMobil for the surveying, development and utilization of hydrocarbon reserves off Cyprus, while also examining the prospects of similar cooperation concerning Greek reserves and distribution channels. Doha also plans to take a share in a $4.4 billion refinery venture in Egypt.

Turkey has so far remained silent about Qatar's relations with Ankara's rivals while it fiercely objects to the efforts of other regional states. 

The battle for domination over the region and its lucrative resources is sure to keep escalating and Turkey's rivals are adopting a more hostile tone against Ankara, posing a significant new challenge to Turkey in an already volatile part of the world. 

While Greece receives statements of solidarity from individual states and blocs, such as the United States and the EU, Erdoğan merely discusses “regional issues,” as he did with Venezuela’s embattled President Nicolas Maduro over the phone on Friday.

A few hours later, the U.S. State Department made an announcement saying the U.S. seized "over one million barrels of Iranian gasoline intended for the illegitimate Maduro regime in Venezuela.” In the readout, there was no statement of support from Maduro, one of Erdogan’s few friends. 

Erdoğan’s allies in the Balkans and Central Asia have also been mum. 

What if, god forbid, things get more serious in the region? Will anyone step up in support of Erdoğan against practically most of the civilized world?