Germany’s mission impossible in the Turkish capital
There is no sign of de-escalation between Turkey and Greece, which raises the potential risks of a minor or major military confrontation in the Eastern Mediterranean. Despite calls and expectation and even after his recent announcement of Turkey’s significant gas resource discovery in the Black Sea, Turkish President Erdoğan threw a new curve ball to analysts, who had predicted that the discovery would create a pretext to step back from seismic surveys and military drills down south. Turkey’s strongman gives no indication of a desire to ease tensions in the region.
As a result, both Turkey and Greece continue to up the ante, through declaring series of naval advisories (Navtex), claiming activities in the same area. The latest Navtex was issued by Athens, as a response to Ankara, reserving zones in the areas of southeastern Crete, Karpathos, Rhodes and south of Kastellorizo, between August 25 and 27. Turkey has shown no signs of ceasing activities in the areas so far.
These “Navtex wars” are extremely timely during a sensitive period. The EU is set to convene for an informal meeting in Gymnich on August 27 and 28. The date coincides with the deadline of the request submitted to the Turkish Energy Ministry by Turkish Petroleum Company (TPAO) for a permit to explore in areas designated in the Turkey-Libya maritime boundaries deal. Greece made it clear on Monday that any further exploration in the south and east of the island of Crete is a “red line,” constituting “casus belli” (reason for war).
Is the crisis that serious? Very much so. Even the most cautious, hesitant of observers are now ringing alarm bells, including Ian Lesser, vice president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). Lesser points to several reasons for why we should all be concerned.
The complexity of conflicts in the basin has never been deeper than before, involving a number of actors, Lesser says, pointing out that the risk of “accidents” are very high.
Alliance structures are crackling and “the strategic relationship between Ankara and transatlantic partners has reached a point of virtual collapse,” he adds.
Lesser misses two more points - that U.S. President Donald Trump has created a huge power vacuum in the region, and that Erdoğan, as the most unpredictable and cunning of the political actors, is busy creating havoc.
Meanwhile, Germany continues its attempts to act as an intermediary to defuse the tension, much to the apparent indifference of Trump, and to the weariness and disbelief of French President Macron and his team.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is set to visit Athens and Ankara, on August 25 to hold talks with his counterparts. Germany’s earlier engagement had failed, because Athens, which does not trust the current power constellation in Ankara - a curious blend of Islamists, pan-Turanist nationalists and adventurist-expansionist ex-officers - signed an EEZ agreement with Egypt, in a responsive move against the Turkish deal with Libya’s internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
For Erdoğan, the game based on “sustainable crisis” has not changed: He used the Athens-Cairo deal as a pretext to continue Turkish activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, and showed also how little consideration for de-escalating gestures he has in the area of conflict resolution, a term which happens to be very remote to his leadership conduct.
Will Maas’s efforts produce any results? Not very likely. Firstly, Germany does not have legacy of successful mediation in any international conflict. The Berlin peace process on war-torn Libya is in shambles. Secondly, it has enormous interests in continuing to appease Erdoğan and his regime, including motivation in maintaining trade, fear of a refugee exodus into EU and concerns that standing up to Turkey’s strongman will further polarise Germany’s Turkish community.
A third reason may be that the German notion of “reasoning” is coupled with naiveté that one can talk sense with a power, whose pattern is based on using threats of brute force, on militarised language and on irrational acts. It was not a long time ago Erdoğan and his ministers threw a string of insults at Merkel and her team, labelling them “Nazis”. They have not apologised since, which means they stand where they are.
What can be expected, then, from Maas’ visits? He is to explore grounds for “resetting” a tripartite meeting between Merkel’s advisors, Greek Prime Minster Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Erdoğan (Jan Hecker, Eleni Sorani, Ibrahim Kalın). Nothing more than this makes sense, but even this is a mission impossible. Why? Because, for a long time, Ankara’s foreign policy management has suffered from an institutional anomaly. Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, like Kalın, is tightly tied to Erdoğan’s chain of command, with the foreign ministry as a guiding force “out of circuit”.
This means, Turkey’s behavioural pattern in the Eastern Mediterranean crisis - as with other crisis it is mired in - is strictly synched with Erdoğan’s moods, domestic policy and personal interest calculations. The Turkish president is squeezed into a corner, as his approval ratings are on an all time low, according to a survey to be published in the coming days.
Erdoğan is in dire need of some sort of “victory”. He intends to be an example of pomposity on August 30, Turkey’s Victory Day, marking victory in the last battle in the Greco-Turkish war.
He has run out of ammunition domestic “successes” and needs to seek one beyond Turkey’s borders.
Besides, nobody can be sure who exactly steers the moves on issues regarding the Eastern Mediterranean. Are some anti-Erdoğan forces in Ankara trying to push him across the edge by war mongering? Perhaps, perhaps not. Maas may or may not be aware of the fact that he will have to skate on thin ice. Under such circumstances, to believe Erdoğan would prove to be a huge mistake, as evidenced by recent history.
Logically, even after Maas’ visit, we can count on Erdoğan falling back into his “crisis invention” mood, escalating and further stretching tensions as long as he sees disunity within the EU and NATO.
But it may be understood that Maas has been instructed to play for time. Merkel may have persuaded Macron in Fort de Bregançon that, in order to tackle the belligerent and unpredictable Erdoğan, one should keep him occupied with visits, short-term promises and due military build-up by the allied forces until the election of the next U.S. presidential election – a move that would somewhat rescue the mission. The rest is only a bundle of illusions and wishful thinking.