Deciphering Turkey’s strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean

Leiden University By Vasileios P. Karakasis

On February 23 2018, five Turkish warships, applying a NAVTEX issued by the Turkish authorities in Block 3 of RoC’s EEZ[1], harassed the drilling rig Saiepem 12000 of the Italian state-owned company ENI, and threatened to sink it. The Italian vessel, after the discovery of an allegedly important amount of gas reserves in Block 6 of RoC’s EEZ, was heading towards Block 3 to initiate drilling in another well. However, Turkey’s threats forced it to maneuver in order to avoid a collision and sail for another drilling destination (Morocco). A similar incident had occurred two weeks ago; while the same drilling-rig attempted to approach the designated surveying spot, a Turkish vessel set a collision course against it and ordered it to stay put. The Italian Foreign Ministry, on the eve of the 4 March general elections in Italy, followed a “hands off policy”, claiming that this issue did not concern the bilateral relations between Italy and Turkey, but “relations and economic balances between the RoC and the Island’s northern part”. To justify the adoption of such “gunboat diplomacy”, Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a press release casting the blame of this standoff on the Greek-Cypriot side. After the collapse of the Crans Montana talks in July 2017, Turkey has been accusing Greek-Cypriots of persisting in “acting as though they were the sole owner of the Island”, instead of “expending their efforts towards a just and lasting comprehensive settlement in Cyprus”. The aim of this piece is to read between the lines and explain the structural and domestic stimulants prompting Turkey’s behavior.

Although Turkey’s gunboat diplomacy has never reached such a level of threat towards RoC’s sovereignty, its actions should have not come as a surprise for the Greek-Cypriots. Back in 2011, 2014 and in the summer of 2017, Turkey had issued NAVTEX and dispatched seismic vessels on areas encroaching RoC’s EEZ, on the grounds that Turkish-Cypriots were excluded from RoC’s energy initiatives. They protested against the delimitation agreements –signed by RoC with Egypt (2003), Lebanon (2007[2]) and Israel (2010) – the licensing rounds that the RoC published and the launch of drilling by the authorized companies. Although Greek-Cypriots have repeatedly reassured that the revenues deriving from the exploration would be distributed among all Cypriot citizens on the condition of a peaceful settlement, Turkish-Cypriots have accused them of abusing the negotiation process in order to win time for the sake of continuing the uninterrupted implementation of their energy plans. They assume that by displaying a positive environment in Cyprus negotiations (regardless of whether this matched the reality or not), Greek-Cypriots would not feel compelled to postpone their (unilateral) energy designs after a settlement. Instead, Turkish-Cypriots repeatedly asked them to become part of the decision-making procedure and proceed to the explorations jointly. Greek-Cypriots counter-argue that from the moment Turkish-Cypriots have been de facto abstaining from RoC’s government apparatus since 1964, they cannot all of a sudden have a say in the energy planning of reserves, which falls within RoC’s sovereignty. Furthermore, Greek-Cypriots, as the only community legitimately representing the RoC, were the ones holding the legal obligation to make decisions on such matters.

So, at a first glance, there are two objectives that someone can attach to Turkey’s strategy. First, Turkey seeks to interrupt or even cancel RoC’s current energy designs from the moment the latter does not include Turkish-Cypriots on the decision-making board. This was actually the alleged underpinning logic prompting similar incursions in 2011, 2014 and 2017; Turkey signals a clear message: we will allow no decisions on the future monetization of the gas reserves without the involvement of the Turkish-Cypriots. As an extension of this official discourse, the second objective is to gradually downgrade the energy issue from a sovereignty right for the Greek-Cypriots to an additional bargaining chip in the convoluted Cypriot negotiations’ talks. Pursuant to this rationale, behind Turkey’s gunboat diplomacy, many analysts see the enduring attempt to forge strong linkages between the Cyprus question and the energy plans. In their view, Turkey wants to create faits accomplis that would force the Greek-Cypriots bring the exploration of the gas reserves onto the negotiations-table, despite the latter’s continuous determination to keep it off the re-unification talks.

Nevertheless, the assumption that Turkey’s recent initiatives reside solely in its concerns to safeguard the Turkish-Cypriots’ interests on the Island might be oversimplified and make the readers unable to see the forest for the trees. The recent incursions cannot be clearly separated from Turkey’s hyperactivity in other parts of the wider Eastern Mediterranean. Since January 20 2018, the Turkish military, along with the Syrian rebels, waged a “hybrid-war” (through the “Operation Olive Branch”) against the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin, in order to root out the Kurdish militia (YPG) acting along its borders with Syria. On February 13, 2018, a Turkish patrol vessel, after making some risky maneuvers, collided with a Greek coastguard boat and stroke its left side putting the lives of the Greek crew in danger. The incident occurred around a pair of Greek uninhabited islets in the Aegean; the row over their sovereignty had flared up in 2017, when warships from both sides got involved in a brief standoff. These last events are reminiscent of the incidents in January 1996, when the two countries dispatched troops in sign of an imminent armed confrontation that was eventually avoided after a US-led mediation.

From a structuralist point of view, the Eastern Mediterranean, a marginal theater amid the Cold War, has shifted nowadays from the periphery to the epicenter of global concerns, hosting –among other tensions- a continuous civil war in Syria, the operations of jihadist groups, an ongoing refugee crisis and illegal trafficking; it has also inherited from the Cold War period the traditionally strained Greek-Turkish relations, the Cyprus question as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These issues have been further exacerbated by the power vacuum that emerged as the outcome of US reduced involvement in the region. Within this regionally anarchical realm, fortified by the gradually decreasing American entanglement, which could otherwise monitor the developments and keep the actors’ moves on check, Turkey seeks to re-define its security calculations. Inspired by the principles of offensive realism, Turkey may believe that the most efficient way to consolidate its security in this anarchic environment is to maximize its relative power with the ultimate objective to play a hegemonic role in the region. Through this theoretical lens, Turkey muscles its military strength, not only to secure the Turkish-Cypriot interests around the Island but to project itself as the key decision-maker in the future energy developments in the Eastern Mediterranean. This way Turkish officials want to disseminate a message: no decisions about future monetization projects can occur without Turkey’s approval.

In this geopolitical equation, we cannot neglect the significance of the domestic developments. After the failed coup staged against Erdogan in July 2016, Turkey has been at the pulse rate of parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019. The overhaul proposed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would replace Turkey’s Parliamentary model of governance by a Presidential system, attributing to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan executive powers. In order to bring these changes into effect, he needs to form wide coalitions. To this effect, he recently joined forces with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). From a rally-around the-flag approach, the recent incursions in the Aegean, Cyprus and Syria could help him score extra points among the nationalist constituents.

All these incidents came as EU leaders gathered in Brussels for an EU Summit on February 23, 2018. The EU President, Donald Tusk lashed out at Turkey claiming that the recent activities contradict its commitments to good neighborly relations. He also warned to reconsider the Varna meeting with Turkey’s President scheduled in March. Nevertheless, the EU’s leverage in luring Turkey to live up to its obligations as an EU candidate-member are limited. EU membership does not seem to mirror Turkey’s foreign policy priority anymore, especially after the July 2016 events. Furthermore, Turkey holds an extra bargaining chip in its negotiation vis-à-vis the EU; it plays a central role in preventing a renewed inflow of Middle Eastern refugees into the EU via Greece. Based on this power-configuration and while the clock is ticking, Greek, Cypriot and EU officials need to envision and (re)design the pillars upon which a future containment and/or engagement strategy vis-à-vis Turkey will be constructed.

[1] Exclusive Economic Zone of the Republic of Cyprus

[2] Although it is not ratified by the Lebanese parliament, a development attributed, among other factors, to Turkey’s threat to cancel free-trade agreements