Turkey’s dangerous game in the Eastern Mediterranean

Hubris can easily breed miscalculation, especially if Trump changes tack.
Sunday 22/12/2019
Libya's UN-recognised Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj holds a cabinet meeting in the Libyan capital Tripoli on December 19, 2019. (AFP)
Libya's UN-recognised Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj holds a cabinet meeting in the Libyan capital Tripoli on December 19, 2019. (AFP)

Armed Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones landed in Northern Cyprus as tensions rose over Turkey’s deal with Libya’s Government of National Accord that extended both of their claims to the gas-rich Eastern Mediterranean.

A significant discovery of natural gas offshore confirmed the economic potential but quickly spilled into the protracted disputes surrounding Cyprus, Turkey and other EU countries on several issues.

The Greek and Cypriot governments see the memorandum of understanding (MoU) as a challenge to their exclusive economic zones (EEZ). The Greeks argue that the MoU and the subsequent delineation of the economic boundaries ignore the presence of the Greek island of Crete and its EEZ between Cyprus and Turkey.

The MoU needs to be set in the context of two other developments.

Since last April, the Libyan National Army (LNA) has laid siege to Tripoli but failed to take it. LNA Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar has the support of a motley crew that includes Egypt and France and more recently Russia, whose 200-plus mercenaries give the LNA a significant advantage on the ground.

The MoU has complicated UN efforts to resolve Libya’s civil war. Turkey is quite open in its support for the Muslim Brotherhood to which the Government of National Accord (GNA) leader Fayez al-Sarraj is affiliated.

Turkey has, for decades, had important economic interests in Libya, not least in the construction sector. It has sold weapons to the GNA — the maritime agreement amounts to payback to Ankara. It can thus hope to gain important contracts when the civil war ends and the reconstruction of Libya begins.

Turkey’s behaviour is closely linked to the division in Cyprus between the southern internationally recognised government and the northern Turkish one, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).

Ankara argues that the Greek Cypriots should not proceed with exploration and possible export of gas without a buy-in from Turkish Cypriots. Ankara has used the TRNC to begin exploring for oil and gas in Cypriot waters while an anti-Turkish coalition has formed that includes Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Italy. Coming under the umbrella of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, the partnership has the appearance of being energy-related but its purpose is ultimately military and Turkey is excluded.

The broader context of Turkey’s “Mavi Yatan” or Blue Homeland deserves to be explained. It claims “extensive maritime jurisdiction in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas” — large segments of the Eastern Mediterranean continental shelf for Turkey’s benefit to the exclusion of its neighbours.

Turkey recently enlarged a military base in Qatar and one in Somalia. In a show of growing self-confidence, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan intervened against the Syrian Kurds, to the fury of French President Emmanuel Macron, who supports the LNA.

Erdogan has neutralised US President Donald Trump, who has refused to bow to pressure from the US Congress to impose sanctions on Ankara for the flouting of Iran sanctions and buying the sophisticated S-400 Russian missile defence system, despite the fact that Turkey is a member of NATO.

Erdogan has taken advantage of the disarray in Washington to articulate a more independent foreign policy. His MoU with Tripoli was signed after his visit to Washington and just before a NATO summit.

Is Erdogan just putting down markers before serious negotiations take place to resolve the Libyan civil war or just getting carried away by hubris at a time European Union has threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey for the latter’s exploratory moves in Cyprus waters?

This would not be the first time Ankara acted unilaterally and aggravated tensions in the region, leaving Brussels and Washington to pick up the pieces. A more assertive policy plays well domestically and in the Turkish parliament.

Erdogan uses his office as a bully pulpit. He has asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw Russian troops supporting Haftar and warned the European Union it has no right to declare its agreement with Libya unlawful. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared, petulantly, that, though no formal request for troops had been made by the GNA, “sending troops is the easiest way.”

The question is whether we are sliding into war without realising? Macron’s remark that NATO was “brain dead” must be set in a Mediterranean context in which NATO allies are working at cross purposes, allowing the Russians to play on their divisions.

As for the gas reserves around Cyprus, not only will they take a long time to develop but they can hardly be said to contribute to Europe’s energy security. The world is awash with gas whose price is lower than it has been for years. The European Union does not need more gas at present. Its outside supplies from Russia, Norway and Algeria are more than sufficient.

Erdogan’s more assertive policy in the Mediterranean has many explanations. A combination of economic interests and strong desire to show the West that Turkey is no longer the traditionally compliant ally needs to be set in the ideological subtext of the Blue Homeland Doctrine. It has worked well so far but hubris can easily breed miscalculation, especially if Trump changes tack.