Turkey’s lose-lose game in eastern Mediterranean

Turkey’s commitment to its intervention in Libya is tied to its quest for eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon reserves, which is at root about the conundrum of Cyprus, where Ankara feels the Turkish Cypriot north has been cut out of Nicosia’s energy plans. 

This perceived offence has driven Turkey to launch half a dozen drilling operations in disputed waters off Cyprus and threaten to drill off the coast of Libya and near two Greek islands, including Crete, which the maritime borders deal Turkey signed last year with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) essentially wiped off the map.

American University professor Ulaş Doğa Eralp said Turkey’s main goal with these maritime aggressions is not necessarily to find hydrocarbon reserves, but to stand in the way of Greece, Egypt, Israel, and Cyprus, as well as major drilling firms that have signed deals with those states, in the hopes of muscling into the negotiations. 

“That’s their policy, they’re just going to continue sabotaging these drilling initiatives,” Eralp told Ahval in a podcast.

“They are saying, ‘We are here. You may not like to see us, but here we are -- and without us at the table you are not going to make this a reality’,” he added. “But that’s not going to happen, and that’s why this whole game being played in the Eastern Mediterranean unfortunately is a lose-lose for everyone.”

Because of the lingering Cyprus issue, Turkey’s planned drilling near Crete and the island of Kastellorizo, regular Turkish violations of airspace and still-high tensions over refugees, Greece and Turkey are closer to conflict than they have been in decades. Athens has put its military on high alert and on Tuesday Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said Turkey’s provocative behaviour had undermined eastern Mediterranean peace and stability and NATO cohesion.

Blood is also boiling between Turkey and France, as witnessed in the June 10 maritime incident in which Paris said a Turkish warship locked its targeting technology onto a French frigate requesting permission to perform a mandatory arms search. In addition, as Macron has sought in recent months to combat foreign Islamic influence within France, he has moved against Turkey-backed Islamic groups and mosques. And in the past few years, Ankara has also done more to support Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe and the Middle East, including in Libya, where France is aligned with GNA-foe Khalifa Haftar.

Last weekend, France, Germany and Italy said they were prepared to consider sanctions should Turkey’s breaches of the U.N. arms embargo on Libya continue. In the past Europe has rarely followed through on sanctions threats. Also, any sanctions on Turkey for Libya would likely target Turkish military commanders or business people working in Libya, and would thus be more symbolic than economically damaging, according to Atilla Yeşilada of Global Resource Partners.

For now, Europe seems happy to threaten Turkey while hoping for a diplomatic solution. Eralp believes the Turkish president’s standing threat of unleashing a million or two refugees and potentially upending European politics has ensured that the EU will continue to treat Turkey with kid gloves.

“Erdoğan is quite straightforward about it: ‘I’m going to put these two million folks in that territory in Idlib and they’re not going to bother you, so you better remain silent vis-a-vis my policies in the eastern Mediterranean, in Libya, and in Syria’,” said Eralp.

On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron again denounced what he saw as Turkey’s violations of the sovereignty of EU members Cyprus and Greece. “It is not acceptable for the maritime space of a member state of our Union to be violated or threatened,” he said, threatening sanctions.

Observers have begun calling for a shift away from Europe’s mostly combative approach. Nathalie Tocci, an advisor to EU foreign affairs minister Josep Borell, this week urged European players to stop rattling sabres and find a way to negotiate and collaborate.

“Rather than banging our heads against the brick wall of mild confrontation, time has come for the EU — via Paris, Athens and Nicosia — to opt for a U-turn, and start treating Turkey as a partner, rather than an adversary,” Tocci wrote in Politico on Thursday.

Similarly, Aslı Aydıntaşbaş of the European Council on Foreign Relations argued this week that, rather than threatening sanctions, the EU should work to establish a grand bargain with Turkey that includes a conflict resolution framework to address Cyprus and eastern Mediterranean maritime issues. Barring such a grand bargain, Aydıntaşbaş called on Brussels to encourage Greek-Turkish dialogue on hydrocarbon resource sharing.

Eralp, who teaches conflict resolution at American University’s School of International Service, is convinced that resolving the Cyprus issue and Greek-Turkish disputes will require an impartial third party. In a study of the failed 2004 Cyprus reunification talks, he found the EU poorly positioned to help resolve that conflict because Greece and Cyprus are both EU states. Still today, the EU mediating Turkey-Cyprus or Turkey-Greece disputes would be akin to the United States mediating a border dispute between Russia and Alaska.

“The EU cannot play the role of a mediator because the EU is already an interested secondary party,” said Eralp, suggesting that Germany, in its current role as EU Council president, could pressure the United States to step in and mediate.

Trump has been mostly cosy with Erdoğan, refraining from levying sanctions against Turkey for its S-400 purchase for an entire year, for instance, and could thus hold some sway. The problem, Eralp pointed out, is that Washington to some extent approves of Turkey’s aggressions in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean because they have the potential to limit Russian influence and expansion. In addition, few see the United States playing an impactful mediating role amid a coronavirus pandemic, a massive protest movement and a looming presidential election.

Turkey, on the other hand, finds itself awash in nationalist fervour, thanks to concurrent military interventions in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and aggressions on the high seas that are all part of a more militaristic, anti-Western regional foreign policy approach known as Blue Homeland.

“Turkey has started relying more and more on the military in pursuing these confrontational, assertive objectives in its immediate neighbourhood,” said Eralp, pointing to an alliance of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), its far-right parliamentary partner the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the armed forces, which devised the new outlook.

“Civilian Turkish bureaucracy no longer has much say on the way Turkey creates its policies,” he added. “Rather it’s this ultra-nationalist militaristic alliance that calls the shots.”

These shots include drilling in waters claimed by Cyprus, where 46 years ago this week Turkish forces invaded to head off an Athens-backed coup. Still today the island remains divided between a Turkish Cypriot north and a Greek Cypriot south, with the former recognised only by Turkey and the latter an EU member state.

Marking the anniversary, Erdoğan on Monday called for a lasting solution that acknowledged Turkish Cypriots’ equal rights to natural resources. “A fair, permanent solution on Cyprus is only possible with the acceptance of equal status for Turkish Cypriots,” he said in a statement.

Hopes of reaching a resolution to the Cyprus issue have waxed and waned for decades, yet with the discovery of natural gas in the area a decade ago, hopes of a breakthrough spiked. The thinking was that Cyprus, Turkey, Greece and the EU would be driven to consensus by the promise of natural gas revenues.

Instead, Turkey saw itself being marginalised and Erdoğan took matters into his own hands, launching drilling operations and ending any real chance at reunification talks anytime soon.

“He believes, and the ultra-nationalist military alliance behind him believes, that Turkey has the legal right to access these hydrocarbon resources through its involvement in Cyprus,” said Eralp. “He’s like a bully in the schoolyard. He thinks by acting more aggressive, throwing rocks at kids, he thinks kids will be interested in playing with him.”