Turkey’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy is without doubt reducing the number of countries with which it maintains cordial relations.
Ties with the European Union, long considered a linchpin of Turkey’s foreign relations, have descended into a level of acrimony without precedent.
Except for Qatar and the Tripoli-based statelet, Turkey’s relations with Arab countries are very bad. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Tunisia sent shivers through the spine of the establishment — his ally there is Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi, whom a recent poll indicated was not trusted by most Tunisian respondents. He has long been a friend of Erdogan. Both belong to the Muslim Brotherhood or support its activities across the Arab world.
The conflict over the development of offshore gas around Cyprus is, along with the announcement that Turkey will send troops to Libya, the latest twists in a story that Ankara sees officially as defending the rights of Turks and Turkish Cypriots whose republic they are the only one to defend.
Supporters of Erdogan argue that Turkey is not so much going rogue as defending its interests. The unilateral military push into north-eastern Syria against Kurdish forces allied with the West to counter the Islamic State, the threat to sending millions of Syrian refugees to Europe if the European Union objects to Erdogan’s plan to resettle them in a buffer zone inside Syria, installing Russian air defence missiles in defiance of NATO, agreeing with Libya on new sea borders in the Eastern Mediterranean, claiming waters that Cyprus and Greece consider their own — the list grows — are provoking such widespread opposition and anguish across the United States, the European Union and the Arab world that it is difficult to see Turkey emerging stronger as a result.
The risk of a military confrontation between Turkey and its NATO allies, not the least of which are Greece and France, is growing. French President Emmanuel Macron has been the most vocal critic of Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria. The risk of confrontation with those backing Libyan National Army Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have laid siege to Tripoli since last spring, including Egypt, Arab Gulf countries and France, will increase if Erdogan sends Turkish troops to Tripoli.
On January 2, the Turkish parliament voted to allow Erdogan to do so despite that many senior members have deserted the president’s Justice and Development Party and public opinion in Turkey is far from convinced by Erdogan’s designs.
If Turkish troops are sent to Libya, they could confront Russian mercenaries backing Haftar. To what extent is the risk of a Russian-Turkish confrontation real? To what extent is Russian President Vladimir Putin simply using Erdogan to sow discord among Western allies? No one knows.
A worsening economic situation in Turkey and the loss of mayoralties Ankara and Istanbul in elections last year may embolden Erdogan to seek a foreign adventure to solidify his base domestically.
When turning to the issue of drilling off the shore of Cyprus, the estimated size of reserves has whetted appetites all around. Turkey has no intention of being excluded from what promises to be a regional bonanza.
Israel s discovery of the vast Leviathan and Tamar gas fields transformed the country from an energy importer to an exporter in the past decade. Israel began pumping gas from Leviathan, its largest offshore natural gas field, December 31. The field has an estimated 500 billion cubic metres of gas.
Ankara is clearly furious about US-backed collaboration among Greece, Israel, Cyprus and Egypt, another sworn enemy of the Turkish leadership.
International law requires maritime economic zones to be negotiated by the countries involved based on the principle of fairness. Each country is entitled to a 370km zone. Greece, Cyprus and Israel can do as they please in areas that do not overlap with other countries’ 370km zone but, where zones overlap, there is no mechanism for the aforementioned countries to declare their sea borders without negotiating directly with Turkey.
This is what led Turkey to set a Mediterranean border with Libya in waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus in a move that could jeopardise a proposed EastMed pipeline. The Turkey-Libya agreement also affects Tunisia, which was not consulted by Turkey.
The proposed gas pipeline would cost an estimated $6 billion, no mean sum of money, and laying pipelines undersea in such deep waters is no mean feat. The proposed pipeline would also link the Israeli and offshore Cyprus gas fields. No estimate of the differential in cost and throughput of shipping the gas appears to have been made nor is it known what the lifetime of the new Cyprus fields would be.
At a time when gas prices are lower than they have been for a long time and the European Union is awash with gas, the idea of sinking such a large sum of money in the middle of all these political and economic tensions seems far-fetched.
Whatever the economics of such a project, the fact is that Turkey is throwing its weight around in the Mediterranean as never before.
Another fact is that Erdogan is reversing his country’s long-standing Western orientation. Since World War II, that direction, set by the founder of modern Turkey a century ago, Kemal Ataturk, was anchored in Turkey’s membership of NATO and the Council of Europe.
As the United States upgrades its naval facilities at Souda Bay in Crete in what looks like a fallback should Turkey deny the US Air Force use of the Incirlik Air Base in south-western Turkey, as Ankara frequently gums up NATO exercise-planning over its air and sea-space disputes with Greece, the field for Russian monkey business in the Mediterranean grows. The risk of a major confrontation in the mare nostrum grows every day.
Francis Ghiles is an associate fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.