Turkey's assertive acts paying off in Syria, Libya and at sea

Over and over again, in Syria, Libya and the Black, Aegean and Mediterranean seas, Turkey has proven its willingness to take aggressive action to advance its interests.

In the past two weeks, Turkey beefed up its military presence in Syria’s Idlib province and had a ceasefire announced in Libya, strengthening its expansionist aims; extended its drilling operation near the Greek island of Kastellorizo, which had already put Greek forces on high alert; and announced a significant gas find in the Black Sea that could be a game-changer for its energy interests.

The West has responded with little more than admonishments and pageantry. Greece, Cyprus, France and Italy performed joint military drills south of Cyprus this week, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas visited Athens and Ankara in an effort to calm sky-high tensions, a top U.S. State Department official denounced Turkey’s aggressive posture, and European Union foreign ministers met to discuss sanctions and further punishments against Turkey.

In other words, no real step was taken to curb Turkish aggression, solidifying Ankara’s position of leverage.

“As things stand now, it’s a qualified success on the Turkish part, at least in the short term,” Atlantic Council fellow Dimitar Bechev told Ahval in a podcast. “It’s not without costs, to be sure. There is an alliance in the eastern Mediterranean which is coalescing around Greece and Cyprus.”

He pointed to the United Arab Emirates’ air force performing joint exercises with Greek forces this week, and to perhaps the only tangible step by Western players to counter Turkey - the maritime agreement Greece signed with Egypt, which was ratified on Wednesday.

That deal, which expands Athens’ eastern Mediterranean claims and challenges those made by Turkey in its deal with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), emerged days after a round of exploratory talks between Turkey and Greece and pushed Ankara to return to a more assertive posture.

In the past two years Turkey has asserted itself into the race for regional hydrocarbon resources, challenging Greek and French ships and an Italian commercial vessel in the eastern Mediterranean and drilling repeatedly in areas claimed by Cyprus. This month it extended its drilling to Kastellorizo and threatened to drill near Crete and off the coast of Libya, areas it claims in the GNA deal.

Bechev thinks the latest Turkish and Greek aggressions are partially for show, as both sides look to ramp up the pressure in the hopes of increasing their negotiating leverage. The problem is that if both sides keep upping the ante, at some point one might go too far. Many have compared the current tensions to the 1996 Imia/Kardak situation, over which Turkey and Greece might have gone to war but for U.S. mediation.

“Without such a mediator, the situation can become volatile,” he said. “Without wanting to, either Turkey or Greece can go over the brink.”

On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump held talks with the leaders of both countries and reportedly discussed the eastern Mediterranean issues. It is still too early to know whether this attempt will bear any fruit and calm the waters.

In Libya, the main foes, the GNA and General Khalifa Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army, pulled back from the brink with a ceasefire announced last weekend. Thus, Turkey’s intervention has ensured the survival of its GNA deal, expanding its eastern Mediterranean claims, successfully defended Tripoli and pushed Haftar’s forces into retreat, and possibly enabled Turkish firms to resume billions of dollars worth of contracts.

“Right now Turkey’s winning and it has become an asset for [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan,” said Bechev.

All that aggression is indeed paying off. Estimated at 320 billion cubic metres (bcm), Turkey’s Black Sea discovery is the country’s largest ever energy find. It is among the world’s 25 largest maritime hydrocarbon discoveries, though it is smaller than Israel’s Leviathan field, at around 450 bcm, and Egypt’s Zohr field, estimated at 850 bcm.

“What it really depends on is the cost of extracting and marketing the gas,” Bechev said, pointing to a global glut and low hydrocarbon prices, as well as a pandemic-related market slump. “Will the gas be competitive relative to other suppliers?”

In Syria, Turkey has refrained from going head-to-head with the Russian-backed forces of President Bashar Assad in part because Turkey relies on Russian energy. The Black Sea find, particularly if it leads to more discoveries and Turkey expanding its energy infrastructure, gives Erdoğan greater leverage with Russian President Vladimir Putin and a stronger hand in possible eastern Mediterranean talks.

“In the future, should Turkey decide to back up and head back to the negotiating table, I think the find allows some wiggle room for Erdoğan, a face-saver,” said Bechev. “Turkey will have an extra bargaining chip vis-a-vis the Russians, but also other suppliers.”

As a result, the find may embolden Ankara in other theatres. Despite the ceasefire in Libya, Bechev expects Turkey and the GNA to keep applying pressure around the key port city of Sirte and the Jufra air base, if only to gain concessions from the LNA in any political resolution.

Germany has sought to broker Libya talks, to move the main actors toward resolution. As with Turkey-Greece tensions, Bechev expects little involvement from the United States in Libya.

“The system of decision-making in Washington is as dysfunctional as it’s ever been,” he said, pointing to the lack of U.S. sanctions for Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile defences. “Erdoğan’s bet is that he can get away with murder virtually by just talking to the White House and thus far it has worked his way.”

France may soon alter Erdoğan’s plan as it, along with Italy - the former colonial power in Libya - bears some responsibility for the current instability there, according to long-time Turkey correspondent for French newspaper Le Monde, Guillaume Perrier. France led the 2011 NATO campaign to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

One of French President Emanuel Macron’s first diplomatic initiatives after taking office in 2017 was to invite Haftar and GNA leader Fayez al-Sarraj to France. Those talks failed, but now Macron is again looking to mediate, inviting Sarraj to Paris for talks and reportedly getting a positive response.

“The French government aligned with the UAE for its Libya policy and most of the Mediterranean positions it takes now. But we’ll see,” Perrier told Ahval in a podcast. “I wouldn’t be surprised if France tries to find a solution in between, to reconcile a little bit more with Turkey.”

This would underscore Turkey’s considerable leverage in Libya, which has echoes in Syria. The Middle East Monitor reported last week that six Turkish military convoys had moved into Idlib province in recent days, presumably to deter an offensive by the Russia-backed forces of Assad and maintain a tenuous ceasefire that has held since March.

“Turkey showed its muscle and got the outcome it wanted in Idlib,” said Bechev, who foresees Ankara holding onto the territory it controls there and in Afrin and northeast Syria and slowly incorporating them into Turkey. “The Turkish state has ventured in with infrastructure, hospitals, schools. We saw areas switching to the Turkish lira...For all intents and purposes they are becoming parts of Turkey, not unlike northern Cyprus.”

The occupied territories in Syria expand Turkey’s borders and economy and offer greater protection from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an affiliate of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in Turkey for decades. In addition, if a comprehensive settlement is ever reached on the Syrian war, Turkey would surely use these territories as a bargaining chip to gain concessions from Assad, according to Bechev.

In the early days of the Syrian war, Erdoğan vowed to get rid of Assad. Last October, as Turkey launched its northeast Syria offensive, he committed to eradicating the Kurdish enclave of Rojava and the SDF and settling up to 2 million refugees in northeast Syria. Bechev acknowledged that Ankara had failed to achieve these objectives.

“But in the spectrum of goals between true defeat and full victory there are a lot of shades of grey and Turkey has done its best to contain the Kurdish nationalist movement and retain enough leverage over the economy, politics, and security in order to apply pressure,” he said.

Turkey has appeared to take a similar approach in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, using the tools at its disposal to gain ground despite being unable to achieve its primary goals.

“Turkey probably cannot get what it wants 100 percent, but it has enough power to spoil other party’s plans and force a stalemate, partly through military force and legalistic means,” said Bechev.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.