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Cengiz Aktar
Oct 10 2018

Turkey could stir up conflict to mask domestic problems

When cornered by escalating domestic problems, autocrats frequently resort to provoking and even launching external conflict to re-coalesce the masses around chauvinism, to make them forget the fact that they are famished, and keep them powerless and paralysed. Even though the majority of the population does not go to fight the war, the masses feel happy, despite their growling stomachs. These ventures regularly mark the end of those regimes as well.

The Greek military junta was behind the 1974 coup d'état in Cyprus that overthrew President Makarios and replaced him with Nikos Sampson. The Greek colonels’ regime collapsed following Turkey's invasion of the island and the colonels were brought to justice.

Similarly, in 1982, the Argentinian military junta, launched a last-ditch effort to save itself from a devastating economic crisis and large-scale civil resistance, by invading the Falklands/Malvinas Islands. Britain quickly sent its navy and promptly retook the islands. The junta regime that ravaged Argentina from 1976 collapsed in 1983 and its leaders were brought to justice.

Turks are an easy sell for this type of adventure. Just remember the enthusiasm of Turkish nationalists during the invasion of the Syrian district of Afrin early this year. The Turkish president's blind followers are sufficient to create a patriotic euphoria within Turkey. And all opposition political parties, apart from the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), will follow no doubt. Not just the political parties, but a sizable majority of Turks will merrily march to the war drums. All Turks, raised in the firm conviction that their country is surrounded by enemies, are ever ready to join the ranks to fight these foes.

Even if Turkey is surrounded by enemies, one cannot fight them easily. A conflict with the Caucasus states is impossible, Iran and Iraq are similarly complicated, and Turkey is already bogged down in Syria. One cannot possibly justify a war with Bulgaria, and conflict with Greece would not only be protested by the European Union and the United States, but Greece has strong armed forces and is a member of NATO. Hence the only possible target of an external escalation seems to be Cyprus, for plenty of reasons too. Turkish officials, especially the president and the foreign minister, for quite some time now have been loudly protesting and threatening natural gas exploration efforts around Cyprus and staking claims to resources.

Such a move would not only help to soothe domestic economic and financial hardships, but it would mean a war for natural gas. Nonetheless all the tough talk is ridiculous because since 1983 Turkey has asserted, demanded, maintained and insisted that the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is an independent state. Now negotiating on behalf of that sovereign state could only mean that it is a de facto part of Turkish territory. Similarly, the Turkish government cannot claim to be the honorary spokesperson for the TRNC. So, the only option would be the annexation of the TRNC to Turkey. If this were not enough, Ankara could even start a military conflict with the Republic of Cyprus.

However, the real facts on the field are not as rosy as this scenario, as a matter of fact, they are pitch black.

On the issue of gas exploration around the island of Cyprus, the tough-talking Turkish government is truly alone. It is facing two EU member countries, Cyprus and Greece; the EU, the United States, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria. Despite not being a party to the issue, Russia is not happy with Turkey's rhetoric and ambitions either.

From a very convoluted perspective, this issue is almost tailor-made for Ankara; Turkish people fighting all the world powers! It is not difficult to guess the pro-government media headlines. They would rejoice talking about Turkey's “precious loneliness”, as Turkish former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu called it. But such an enterprise would not end any different than those of the Greek or the Argentinian juntas.

Let us have a closer look at Russia. Cyprus is practically Russia’s protégé with a sizeable presence and economic interest in the island. Not to mention the proximity of the island to Syria, which has become a Russian satellite in the Middle East. Russia is a key player in the eastern Mediterranean now.

But more importantly, Ankara by making a move to claim a stake in Cyprus gas fields is aiming to reduce its dependence on Russian natural gas. How does that suit Russia's interests? Moreover, all energy insiders are aware that the "take or pay" clause of Turkey's natural gas agreement with Russia makes the country dependent on Russian gas for at least eight more years.

Meanwhile, the countries in the region; Israel, Cyprus, Lebanon, Egypt and Greece are busy signing bi-lateral, tri-lateral trade, industrial and military agreements. Turkey is not included in any of these agreements. Even Bulgaria expressed an interest in joining the Egypt-Greece-Cyprus gas project.

What about the international majors, the gas exploration companies active in the region? They are heavy hitters in the sector such as ENI, ExxonMobil, Qatar Petroleum and Noble Energy. Even though the Turkish navy chased off an ENI exploration ship, ExxonMobil's Med Surveyor and Ocean Investigator sailed into the Limassol Port without interception. This port is utilised jointly by Russia and the United States.

In addition to its two military bases on the island, Britain moved quite a few warships to Cyprus.

Britain’s nuclear-powered submarine HMS Talent joined three other nuclear submarines and three U.S. destroyers, the USS Carney, USS Ross and USS Winston S. Churchill into the Mediterranean in early September.

The Blue Ridge-class command and control ship USS Mount Whitney arrived in Thessaloniki, the second largest Greek city at the northwest corner of the Aegean Sea, to represent the U.S. Navy at the Thessaloniki International Fair.

France is using sea and air bases in Cyprus as part of a bilateral military co-operation programme signed between states in 2007.

Hence, looking at all the actors and states in the region, it does not look like Turkish officials can put their verbal bullying about Cypriot gas exploration into action any time soon.

But for some time now Ankara has not been very keen on reason, logic, moderation or cooperation. Quite the opposite. Just like the Greek junta or the Argentine junta that failed miserably at calculating the political costs of their actions and eventually brought about their own demise.