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Turkey’s ambitions have imperial echoes

Facing the challenge of a domestic economic crisis, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes that successful military interventions in the surrounding region will foster nationalist solidarity

President Erdogan, always a tough talker, is now acting tough. He has despatched troops and military hardware to northern Iraq, Syria and Libya, as the Ankara government asserts what it regards as its legitimate rights in the broad Eastern Mediterranean.

For too long, he argues, neighbouring states have ridden roughshod over Turkey’s interests. Now he is saying enough is enough. “The actors that are planning to violate our rights and interests should be ready to pay the price we already have been paying,” he told an audience in Ankara in July.

Turkey’s campaigns against Kurdish separatists in the east of the country and their bases in northern Iraq, and its involvement in the war in Syria, are well established in Ankara’s narrative.

This is not the case for its unilateral Libya adventure. This follows an aggressive Turkish strategy of hydrocarbon exploration, with naval escorts, around the island of Cyprus, including areas inside the Cypriot exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Despite international protests and threats of sanctions, Turkey continues to explore around Cyprus

The 2019 agreement between Turkey and the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli covers military cooperation and maritime jurisdiction. The deal allows for the GNA to request military assistance, which it has since done. It also established a common maritime border midway between the two countries. Waters to the north and south of this line overlap Greece’s EEZ, as well as some Greek islands. Turkey is also permitted to explore for hydrocarbons off the Libyan coast.

Turkish military drones, along with Islamist militiamen flown in from Syria, lifted the siege of Tripoli and pushed forces loyal to the Benghazi-based military leader Khalifa Haftar eastwards. The surprise Turkish intervention alarmed Arab states. An editorial in the pro-government Saudi daily Al-Riyadh stated that the region appeared to be witnessing the re-awakening of “historical Ottoman-Turkish aspirations to dominate Arab lands”.

Blue Homeland

Turkey dismisses suggestions that it wants to re-establish the Ottoman empire. But it has no intention of apologising for a strategy that has seen the expansion of its reach across the width of the Mediterranean Sea—and now into North Africa—in an assertive and controversial manner. The Turks label the strategy Mavi Vatan, or Blue Homeland. It has a strong nationalist resonance that plays well among most Turks, not just Erdogan loyalists.

Turkey has shrugged off all international criticism. On the issue of Cypriot waters and Greek islands being swallowed up by the claimed maritime zone, a foreign ministry spokesman in Ankara says “islands cannot have a cut-off effect on the coastal projection of Turkey, the country with the longest continental coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean… Through this agreement with Libya, the two countries have clearly manifested their intention not to allow any fait accompli [on the part of Cyprus and Greece]”.

Turkey argues that Cyprus should have delayed energy exploration until the island was reunited so that Turkish Cypriots could share the spoils. When international energy firms started drilling, Turkey itself began exploring around Cyprus in areas it said were within its continental shelf, which partly overlaps the Cyprus EEZ. The big difference is that Turkey’s maritime claims are not internationally recognised, while Cyprus’ claims are. But that does not deter Ankara; despite international protests and threats of sanctions, Turkey continues to explore around Cyprus.

Strategic priority

For Turks, their maritime claims in the East Med are commensurate with the size and perceived importance of their country. The chair of political science at Turkey’s Ibn Haldun University, Talha Kose, wrote in pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah that defending the country’s rights in the East Med is a strategic priority: “Turkey has been systematically expanding its naval capacity and investing in military technology to protect this priority. Any effort to change the status quo or to violate Turkey’s rights by violating international maritime law will face pushback.”

Turkey has no intention of apologising for a strategy that has seen the expansion of its reach across the width of the Mediterranean Sea—and now into North Africa—in an assertive and controversial manner

Turkey’s attitudes and actions are disturbing for other Nato members and for EU governments. They all now accept that Erdogan realised sooner than anyone else that the atmosphere in the East Med region had changed following the gradual disengagement of the US from the Middle East. This, in the opinion of veteran French diplomat Michel Duclos, is “paving the way for second-tier powers that have no hesitation in using force. There are no more rules or referees”.

Christopher Davidson, a Middle East expert at Durham University in the UK, says the Turkish president “has identified a significant opportunity to position his country as a key regional power, especially as US/EU influence in Mena continues to waver and wane. One of the most straightforward means of boosting Turkey’s status and ensuring it has a seat at the table is to build up its political, economic and military capital in as many of the region’s hotspots as possible.”

A Turkish diplomat in Ankara, who is not allowed to be named, says that one of Turkey’s goals in Libya is to restore the close economic links that existed during the Muammar Gaddafi  era. “By supporting the legitimate government in Tripoli we hope to get special-nation status and be well positioned to win reconstruction contracts—and hopefully a good deal on Libyan crude oil.”

Election issue

Economic concerns are at the forefront of the Turkish president’s mind. He faces an election in 2023, and the economy looks like being the central issue. With the collapse of tourism because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the country is struggling. A recent opinion poll showed that 60pc of Turks described economic conditions as either bad or very bad. With inflation at more than 10pc and no prospect of pay rises to match, poverty and unemployment are on the increase. The result is that support for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party is slipping.

In the absence of rules and referees, and with an eye on the 2023 election, Erdogan is likely to keep beating the nationalist drum. He also envisages Turkey becoming a leading force in the Islamic world, standing alongside Qatar in a struggle with Saudi Arabia and its allies (notably the United Arab Emirates and Egypt) for influence in Mena and beyond. Some sections of Turkey’s media are calling for the restoration of the Ottoman caliphate when the country celebrates a century of independence in 2023. Against this background, the Turkish leader had no hesitation in ordering the conversion of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from a museum back into a mosque—another guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

Europe is as perplexed as Arab countries by Turkey’s assertiveness and about how to react. Europeans face the uncomfortable prospect of the future of Libya, a vast country on their southern flank, being determined by Turkey and Russia. But the EU is split on Libya, with France maintaining ties with Benghazi-headquartered Haftar while Italy backs the Tripoli-based GNA. Joint European military action against a Nato member is not a realistic option.

The EU continues to condemn Turkey for illegal drilling in areas of the East Med. But, as Davidson points out, its options are limited because Turkey holds a valuable card. “The EU is prepared to back Greece and Cyprus publicly,” he says, “but is severely hampered by Erdogan’s ability to effectively control the flow of refugees into the Balkans. In this context, rational-legal support for its Eastern Mediterranean members remains highly vulnerable to broader political and social dynamics.”

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