Turkey reminds world COVID-19 will not undermine regional ambitions

Turkey is still focused on furthering its regional goals, a senior adviser of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said.

In an apparent warning to those who thought the COVID-19 outbreak may be forcing Turkey to look inward, Fahrettin Altun, Erdoğan’s communications chief, said the wheels of Turkey’s foreign policy continued to turn.

“Our government continues to be focused on the coronavirus challenge at home and abroad, but we are also working on foreign policy matters such as those in Syria, Libya & the Aegean Sea,” Altun said on Twitter. 

Altun spoke after comments by Erdoğan on Monday in which he lambasted the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad for breaking a ceasefire agreement for the rebel-held enclave of Idlib. Turkey stations troops in the region to back remaining opposition forces in the country, led by Islamist militants. It conducted more military patrols with Russian soldiers along a highway in Idlib to police the deal, the Defence Ministry said on Tuesday.

Turkey is also backing the United Nations-recognised government in Tripoli, Libya against opposition General Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by Russia and the United Arab Emirates. It has conducted air exercises involving fighter jets and refuelling tankers off Libya’s Mediterranean coast in recent days, prompting Turkey’s Sabah newspaper to ask whether a larger military operation was imminent.

Turkey will continue to provide support to the Libyan government pledged in bilateral agreements, Altun said.

"President Erdoğan made it clear that the international community must support the legitimate Libyan government,” he said. “Their recent advances against the putschist Haftar forces show that Turkey’s support is paying off.”

The Turkish government is also continuing drilling activities off the divided island of Cyprus, prompting rebukes from the ethnic Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia.

Turkey is pursuing “illegal expansionist plans” by once again attempting to drill for gas in areas where Cyprus has exclusive economic rights, the Cypriot government said on Monday. The activities occurred in zones where Eni of Italy and France’s Total have been given drilling contracts, it said.

“This new illegal ‘act of piracy’ constitutes a further severe violation of the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Republic of Cyprus, contrary to international law,” the Cypriot government said.

Altun said “rogue regimes” and putschist forces were trying to take advantage of the unprecedented circumstances which had risen due to the pandemic, but Turkey would continue with its plans without pause.

This week, Turkey also reiterated that it intended to activate S-400 air defence missiles purchased from Russia. It said their final deployment had been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. The S-400s are a symbol of Turkey’s new-found independence and regional power, Erdoğan has said.

The United States, which has threatened sanctions against Ankara should it make use of the weapons, said on Monday that it was deeply concerned by plans to activate the Russian system. 

“We continue to stress at the highest levels that the S-400 transaction is the subject of ongoing CAATSA sanctions deliberations and it remains a major obstacle in the bilateral relationship and at NATO," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told Reuters.