Turkey’s long hand in the Eastern Mediterranean

Huffington Post Greece – May 16, 2019

With the announcement by Turkey of the launch of gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean and the American and European objections to this move, the Cyprus issue has come to the fore. Despite international warnings, Ankara continues to insist on its rights to explore the northern part of the Cypriot coastline without having obtained full consensus. The impressive, in my opinion, is the time of this movement and it is precisely what we have to explore to understand the issue deeper. It is certain that the conditions within Turkey as well as in the regional and international spheres do not suggest that Ankara desires escalation. Moreover, the diplomatic relations between the Erdoğan government and Athens have recently entered a phase of stability and effort to avoid skirmishes. So what is the message that Ankara wants to send beyond its urgent need to find energy sources?

First of all, in order to understand the essence of the scene on the northern coast of Cyprus, we need to examine deeply the conditions within Turkey. On the same day Ankara launched the eplorations, the Turkish Supreme Court announced the resumption of the municipal elections in Istanbul despite objections from the opposition parties and important personalities of the Justice and Development Party such as Abdullah Gül and Professor Ahmet Davutoğlu. According to my information from a Turkish diplomatic source, at an Erdoğan closed meeting with the AKP leader, he complained about the attitude of the two personalities and even pressed for Davutoğlu’s expulsion from the party, which would add more internal problems.

The announcement of the resumption of elections followed the US warnings a few weeks ago that they should not be repeated, suggesting that Ankara wanted to pull out the spotlight and move it onto gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish government is experiencing a tense and complex economic situation due to the continued fall of the Turkish lira, which does not seem to stop. Protests against the resumption of the electoral process and debates within the ruling party – public and secret – are also highlighting the possibility of withdrawal of important figures and forming a new party away from Erdoğan’s sovereignty. Amid this negative climate, it is clear that Turkey is not in a position to open new fronts and increase crises. In addition, we must emphasize that Turkey’s regional and international situation is not the best.

With the outbreak of fighting in the Idlib governorate in Syria, despite the existence of Turkish checkpoints, it is obvious that the Russian-Turkish negotiations on Syria’s file are not doing well. According to a source from the Syrian political opposition, the talks between Ankara and Moscow on the file of Idlib have reached a deadlock. Russia wants to put an end to the presence of the Syrian armed opposition there. It has an absolute need. On the other hand, Turkey does not want these battles to be the reason for a new wave of refugees that will further complicate the Turkish domestic scene. Nor does it want to lose Idlib card without getting something in return, either in Tel-Rifat or Manbij now controlled by the Kurdish militias. Therefore, the battle of Idlib may be the beginning of a diplomatic crisis between Ankara and Moscow, impacting negatively on the Turkish economy.

The US envoy to Syria and Iraq, James Jeffrey, visited Ankara a few days ago, where he met with Turkish presidency spokesman İbrahim Kalın and defense minister Hulusi Akar. Jeffrey confirmed that the talks were positive, but the reality is different. Turkey is still determined to create a safe area in the northeast of Syria, and totally denies the presence of Kurdish militias in the region. This is translated in the field by the continuing Arab demonstrations of the region against PYD and YPG, confirming Ankara’s influence on Arab tribes. Therefore, the ongoing dispute between Ankara and Washington in this file will complicate other files of interest to both countries.

Assurances of diplomatic sources about the possibility of a visit by US President Trump to Ankara in July, the same month that the Russian S400 system will arrive, will be of vital importance for many of the outstanding issues, particularly eastern Syria and the presence of the Kurds there, as well as the S400 and the F35. Until then, it does not seem that Turkey will face tough US economic sanctions.

Finally, the Cyprus issue is still at zero since Alexis Tsipras became prime minister. The recent Geneva talks showed the lack of seriousness of the international community, Europe and Washington, to end this crisis. Following the announcement by Tel Aviv one month ago of the Israeli gas pipeline to Europe via Cyprus and Greece and the announcement by Nicosia for the discovery of new natural gas fields on its southern shores, Ankara  feels the biggest loser in the eastern Mediterranean. As long as the Russian-Turkish pipeline sinks due to American and European pressures, Ankara is now looking for its own gas sources, because it is imperative to revive its economy. This is one of the reasons for this latest Turkish move north of Cyprus in order to put pressure on Europe and the international community to restore diplomatic efforts to resolve the Cyprus issue.

Based on the above, Turkey’s overall internal, regional and international situation does not allow it to escalate. Whatever happens in eastern Mediterranean is nothing but messages sent by Ankara, not hostile or aggressive actions.