Turkey’s expansionism into the Eastern Mediterranean


Huffington Post Greece – 19.08.2019

Turkey has been escalating in recent weeks in the Eastern Mediterranean with the deployment of three gas exploration vessels in Western, Eastern and Southern Cyprus . This is a clear and explicit provocative step by which the Turkish administration shows that it is ignoring international agreements and warnings from either the European Union or the US. In this move by Turkey, Europe has imposed limited financial sanctions in an effort to send a message to the Erdoğan government that this step is unacceptable as well as any further escalation. On the other hand, the newly elected Greek government tries to manage the issue in a balanced way by sending diplomatic messages. But the issue is very complex and needs more action from Greece. In order to understand the scene and what the next moves will be, the details of the Turkish step, its causes and the timing must be considered in depth.

In Turkey, the situation before Erdoğan’s defeat in Istanbul was different than afterwards. The general atmosphere confirms that Turkish society is beginning to feel the danger that Erdoğan and his government are dragging them in the economy on the one hand and in international relations on the other. This tension is even evident within the Justice and Development Party. The public resignation of Ali Babacan, one of the flamboyant party executives, confirms the division that I have repeatedly mentioned in my previous articles on Turkish issues. But things don’t stop there. At a recent meeting of AKP executives in the presence of Erdoğan, there were many voices who sounded the alarm for the policy pursued and who thought it would lead to a dramatic fall in the upcoming parliamentary elections. There have also been clear threats from high rank executives that if the country’s internal and international position is not redefined, they will proceed to breakup and set up a new party. This is the picture I was given by an important diplomatic source who confirmed that the next month will be the most decisive: either we will see changes in Erdoğan’s policy or we will witness the birth of a new party.

Regionally the atmosphere is not the best either. The attack on the Turkish consulate in Erbil , which claimed the life of a Turkish deputy consul, may indicate that Turkey is on the verge of new terrorist attacks, which means that Erdoğan’s statements in the past about his victory and termination of the PKK party is nothing but ink on paper. The attack came at the same time that the Turkish air force carried out air strikes in southeastern Turkey on the one hand and in the Kurdistan region of Iraq on the other, which proves that the PKK is still a force to be reckoned with and can become particularly dangerous for Turkey. On the other hand, the border between Syria and Turkey is no better. Battles fought over the last three months in Northern Syria’s Idlib, despite Sochi agreement between Turkey and Russia not to carry out any military action, confirms that the Russian-Turkish talks on the Syrian file are no longer the same. Turkey is not ready for the fall of Idlib and its surroundings in Assad’s and Russia’s hands. This could lead to a huge wave of refugees estimated at more than a million Syrians while losing this delicate card from Turkey would mean isolating it from the negotiating table for the Syrian crisis, so it could not affect the future of political solution and the Kurdish presence in eastern Syria.

Internationally, Ankara began receiving the Russian S400 defense system despite US warnings, prompting Washington to terminate the participation of Turkish defense companies in the F-35 program. In addition, continued pressure from Congress on Trump to impose further financial sanctions will lead to a serious financial crisis for Erdoğan and his government.

The gas file

It is known that Turkey has signed an agreement with Moscow on the construction of the Russian gas pipeline, known as the “Turkish Stream”. Ankara has placed great hopes on it because it will offer some stability in the energy sector. But there are many obstacles to the realization of this project, not just from Washington. The Trump administration has repeatedly stressed that this pipeline should not be done and that Europe should replace Russian gas with other sources of gas, such as from the US. The US views gas as a powerful Russian weapon that could be used by Moscow against NATO countries if needed. Former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has been heavily pressured by the US government to block the passage of the Russian pipeline from Greek territory. But Erdoğan personally addressed to Bosnia and was able to get approval from its government to cross the pipeline through its territory. But there is more. According to well-informed sources there are additional obstacles that delay the implementation of the “Bulgarian phase” of the “Turkish Stream” gas pipeline which will not proceed until the end of the year as planned. The tender for the construction of the 474km section of pipeline from Bulgaria to the Serbian border was suspended after problems arose in the process between the investment groups (of the Saudi Arabian consortium and two other companies) and which were forwarded to Supreme Administrative Court. The Russian company Gazprom itself has delayed the implementation of the line passing through Bulgaria because Moscow does not want it completed right now since it wants to put pressure on Europe to renew its gas supply contract through the Ukrainian pipeline which expires at the end of this year. This crisis has been another blow to the Erdoğan government and is one of the most important reasons for its moves into the Eastern Mediterranean.

Cyprus

For the past five years, Turkish-Greek Cypriot negotiations have come to a standstill (it is undeniable that the European desire is to support Athens not to enter into these negotiations). Athens and Nicosia, meanwhile, have proceeded in agreements on the Eastern Mediterranean gas such as the Euro-Israeli pipeline. They also began conducting regular meetings with Israel and Egypt, from which Turkey is completely excluded, pushing it to take unilateral steps by sending three gas exploration vessels to the Cyprus EEZ.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the interpretation of these recent Turkish moves in the Eastern Mediterranean relates to all the crises I mentioned earlier. The export of gas from the Eastern Mediterranean will positively affect the Turkish economic situation, which would mean a major success for Erdoğan to present to the Turkish people. The delay in Russia’s energy plans has pushed Turkey to look for new sources of energy. On the other hand , the progress of energy projects in Cyprus has created a kind of confidence in the Cypriot government that it will not rush to resolve the crisis with Turkey. So Turkey, through its recent actions, wanted to shake off stagnant waters and push Nicosia and Athens back to the negotiating table for the Cyprus issue. Turkey sends the message that it will either partner with these projects or move on to its own. In the shadow of Washington’s lazy moves and Russia-Turkey common interests, Europe is the only one that can block Turkish provocation. The solution for Greece is, first of all, to press the European Parliament to focus on the issue and move immediately. In my opinion, the visit of the Greek Foreign Minister to Washington was a right and timely step. The most important step for the new Greek government will be to bring Greece back to the negotiating table and reopen the Cyprus file. Greek negotiators should put Greek and Cypriot interests above all and strive to make progress that will bring peace to the Eastern Mediterranean.