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With its warships deployed from Libya to Cyprus and boots on the ground from Tripoli to the Syrian province of Idlib, Turkey’s influence across the Eastern Mediterranean is unprecedented in modern times.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pro-Islamist government sees itself as heir to the Ottoman Empire, realm of the last Islamic Caliphate that controlled much of southeastern Europe from the 14th to early 20th century before being abolished in 1924.
Its perceived ambitions have been dubbed “neo-Ottomanism”, a term laden with historical conquest that raises modern-day concerns about Ankara’s intentions towards its smaller neighbors, including Greece, Cyprus and Libya, and broader regional vision.
By challenging treaties and boundaries that have existed in the region for nearly a century, Turkey’s government hopes to secure a dominant position in the region. In doing so, it is also bringing an end to NATO and Western dominance to the geography, accelerating the birth of a new, multi-polar world – with all its associated uncertainties and risks.
Those muscular ambitions are seen most overtly in the region’s strategic Mediterranean sea, ratcheting up tensions in a maritime area through which much of the trade between Europe, the Middle East and Asia pass.
“Turkey will exercise its rights under international law and international maritime law until the end, when it comes to the Eastern Mediterranean,” Erdogan told members of his party in Istanbul in December 2019.
The comment came in response to neighboring Greece’s condemnation of Turkey’s new deal on maritime boundaries with Libya. Greece has accused Turkey of violating international law “to serve expansionist aims.”
The foreign ministry of neighboring Cyprus has denounced Turkey’s drilling for natural gas in Mediterranean waters Nicosia claims as its own as those “of a pirate state.”
“You have a powerful state here, Turkey, increasingly doing just what it wants,” said Zenonas Tziarras, a researcher specializing in Eastern Mediterranean international relations with the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) Centre in Nicosia, Cyprus.
“With an increasing power vacuum here, I fear more tension and instability now lies ahead,” he said, referring to rising perceptions the region’s traditional policeman, the United States, is retreating from this role in the Middle East and Europe.
The Eastern Mediterranean is now host to three maritime flashpoints between an increasingly assertive Turkey and its ring of smaller neighbors. First is the Aegean Sea, where many Greek islands lie only a few kilometers off the Turkish Anatolian coast.
Athens and Ankara have never agreed on maritime boundaries in the area, although Greece claims that under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) its islands are entitled to maritime territories around them that effectively make the Aegean Greek.
Ankara disagrees, arguing that this means ships traveling from the Mediterranean to Izmir or Istanbul must cross through Greek waters, giving Athens a high level of control over Turkey’s maritime traffic.
“Turkey just wants to defend its rights,” said Atilla Yesilada, Istanbul-based Turkey analyst for GlobalSource Partners, a political and economic risk consultancy. “The Turkish side sees the current agreements governing the region as so unfair to Turkey. They ask: where is the justice in this?”
Turkey thus refuses to recognize Greek authority over the Aegean, a view that alarms Athens, which fears its much larger neighbor intends to extend its control right into Greece’s backyard.
Ankara applies the same argument when it comes to the de facto divided island of Cyprus, the region’s second maritime flashpoint.
There, Turkey refuses to recognize the 200-kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around the island claimed by the United Nations-recognized, Greek Cypriot-dominated government of the Republic of Cyprus (ROC).
Instead, Turkey claims its own EEZ and the territorial waters of the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” – the Turkish Cypriot dominated breakaway in the north of the island recognized only by Ankara.
The dispute has become a live issue in recent years, following international oil companies’ discovery of natural gas in waters claimed by the ROC. The exploitation of the resource has become highly contentious.
The ROC argues that revenue from the gas should be divided between the island’s Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities, but only when the island is reunited. Turkey argues that such benefits should be divided up now.
In 2017, the last UN-sponsored effort to reunite the island collapsed after no agreement could be reached on the future of some 30,000 Turkish troops based in North Cyprus and Turkey’s existing right to intervene in the island’s affairs.
Ankara later deployed research and drilling ships, with warship escorts, to the same offshore blocks that ROC authorities had earlier awarded to international oil companies including US energy giant ExxonMobil, Qatar Petroleum, France’s Total and Italy’s ENI.
A third flashpoint has flared in the waters off eastern Libya, where forces of the Turkey-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) have been racing forward across ground held for months by their Libyan National Army opponents.
In the skies above, Turkish drones have been decisive in turning the course of the conflict – as has an army of Syrian former rebel fighters, trained, equipped and dispatched to Libya by Ankara.
In November 2019, after signing a military pact with Ankara, the UN-recognized Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) agreed to new maritime boundaries with Turkey. The GNA was under siege in Tripoli by rival Libya National Accord (LNA) forces at the time, with the maritime agreement going alongside a security deal that provides GNA with Turkish military backing.
The maritime agreement gives Libyan assent to Turkish control over a stretch of sea from the south coast of Turkey all the way to a Libyan maritime zone extending out from eastern Libya.
This giant Turkish zome also overlaps the Exclusive Economic Zone claimed by Greece, as it passes between the Greek island of Crete and Cyprus, a fact which Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has called “geographically ridiculous.”
This zone is also where a planned Eastern Mediterranean Gas Pipeline (EMPG) would pass.
Backed by the European Union (EU), the initiative was put together by Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, Egypt and Israel to transport natural gas to Europe from the gas fields discovered off Cyprus, along with gas from neighboring Israeli and Egyptian fields.
While Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel have all condemned the Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement – with Athens arguing that it should be taken to the International Court of Justice in the Hague – for Ankara the deal means that Turkey can block the EMPG. Even if Turkey’s claims are not recognized, they increase the risk attached to a project that many claim is already uneconomic.
At the same time, Ankara has also announced that it intends to begin gas exploration work in the waters it has agreed with Libya. “This would mean exploration in waters close to Crete, which might even raise tensions between Turkey and Greece to a military level,” warns Tziarras.
Threading the Needle
While the Aegean Sea and Cyprus have long been bones of contention between Turkey and its neighbors, Libya represents a new departure – and, some would argue, a logical next step in a coherent Turkish strategy for the region.
The maritime aspect of this is known as “Mavi Vatan”, or “Blue Homeland.” This strategy harks to the days of the old Ottoman Empire – modern Turkey’s more expansive predecessor which for centuries dominated the Eastern Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Gulf.
First outlined by Turkish Admiral Cem Gurdeniz in 2006 to expand Turkish influence over the three seas that wash her shores, this strategy has now been revived by Erdogan.
His pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has long had pan-Islamic, neo-Ottoman sympathies, and since 2015 has been in coalition with the Turkish nationalist National Action Party (MHP), which is known to support a militaristic, ethnic Turkish nationalism.
“Erdogan has integrated these views together,” said Yesilada.
The Turkish president has been photographed in front of maps showing Mavi Vatan waters that encompass the Greek islands off its Aegean coast. He has also persistently questioned the Treaty of Lausanne, the post-World War I agreement that established most of the region’s boundaries following the Ottoman Empire’s collapse.
“Not only the government, but also an important part of the Turkish opposition also support this strategy,” said Associate Professor Altug Gunal from Ege University in Izmir, Turkey.
Indeed, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the main Turkish opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), told the Turkish parliament in January that “We have a right in the Eastern Mediterranean, which we call the ‘blue homeland.’ We have to protect the blue homeland.”
His party does, however, see the strategy as more of a defense of Turkey’s rights than an expansionist project.
At a time when the Turkish economy is tanking and Erdogan’s popularity is waning – as seen in his party’s loss of Istanbul and Ankara at 2019 local elections – the beleaguered president clearly sees the Mavi Vatan strategy as a way to garner domestic support.
Judging by the statements of Erdogan’s rivals, the expansionist strategy can be expected to continue even if the leader is voted out of power. The Mavi Vatan gambit has also benefited from recent unexpected developments.
The collapse in global oil and gas prices this year has made the EMGP gas pipeline uneconomic. ExxonMobil, Total and ENI have all announced they are freezing their operations off Cyprus due to the coronavirus crisis.
“The international oil companies are making serious losses at the moment and having to make major cutbacks,” said Charles Ellinas, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a US think tank.
“Cyprus’ gas deposits are in deep water and expensive to develop, so they have been one of the first places for the companies to walk away from and will be one of the last places they return to,” he said.
Ankara, however, has continued its energy operations in the region. “Turkey sees this as an opportunity to catch up and demonstrate her durability and decisiveness when compared to her rivals,” said Gunal.
Exploitation of neighboring undersea gas had also drawn Cyprus and Greece together with Egypt and Israel. Yet with the economics no longer adding up, that unity could soon start to fray. “There are tentative signs that Turkey and Israel can recover their relations and cooperate on energy,” adds Gunal.
Turkey’s relations with Israel were good under previous, secularist Turkish administrations but took a nosedive with Erdogan’s pro-Islamist government and the Israel-Gaza conflict in 2008-09, which Erdogan described as “state-sponsored terrorism.”
In 2010, Israeli commandos then killed nine Turkish citizens aboard the ship Mavi Marmara, part of a “peace flotilla” carrying supplies to Gaza. Relations have never recovered since the incident. But a recent joint condemnation of Turkey’s involvement in Libya by Greece, France, Cyprus, Egypt, and the UAE was notably not signed by Israel.
As Gunal points out, “Israel would gain approximately 6,000 square kilometers of sea area if she made a deal with Turkey on the same basis as the Turkey-Libya deal.”
Traditional external influencers are also now on the back foot. “The EU is reluctant to further aggravate such an important neighbor as Turkey,” said Tziarras.
Turkey is a key economic partner for the EU, while in recent times it has also served as a route for many migrants and refugees heading to Europe from war-torn Syria. A 2015 deal between Brussels and Ankara has kept many of these would-be migrants in Turkey, an arrangement the EU is anxious to sustain.
Russia, which is on the opposite side to Turkey in Libya’s conflict, could also find itself bogged down by recent developments, analysts say. “Russia has been badly affected by the oil and gas price collapse due to the pandemic, as it is highly dependent on these for revenue,” Tziarras adds.
This has left Russia potentially overstretched from Libya to Syria, a factor Turkey is now anxious to exploit by leveraging Russian weakness to expand Turkish influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.
That, of course, could be a slippery strategic slope.
Confrontations between Turkey and its neighbors have previously provoked American intervention. In 1995-1996, for example, a dispute between Ankara and Athens over possession of an uninhabited islet in the Aegean drew US mediation and led to both sides backing down.
Yet, since the election of President Donald Trump, the US – long a regional arbiter and power broker – has been in retreat from this traditional arbitrator role. The US has taken a back seat in the Libyan conflict, and last year pulled troops out of Syria.
Washington has described the Turkish-Libya maritime deal as “unhelpful”, but has refrained from the wholesale condemnation of European countries. “A post-US world seems more likely to come into being,” adds Tziarras.
With both Turkey and Greece members, NATO has also been largely paralyzed in the region, with individual member states France and Italy also supporting different sides in Libya.
In such a fluid, multi-polar atmosphere, what happens next is highly unpredictable – and without modern precedent.
Regional states such as Israel or even Egypt may take up Turkish offers of new maritime deals if they substantially increase their offshore territory, squeezing out smaller states like Cyprus and Greece in the process.
At the same time, if the Libyan-Turkish maritime deal holds, it will create a precedent for further Turkish claims in the Aegean and around Cyprus, claims which Mavi Vatan advocates may one day seek to consolidate – by force, if necessary.