|Cyprus' declared (Blocks 1-13) & undeclared EEZ|
Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak
Turkey finds itself at a historic junction where it must decide whether to proceed alone by challenging Israel, Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus – or whether to embrace regional cooperation.
The eastern Mediterranean, an arena of great power struggles, has undergone dramatic changes over the past decade. The “Arab Spring,” Egyptian military takeover, civil war in Syria, refugee waves, and Turkey’s deteriorating relations with the West and Israel – are the most important aspects of this drama.
However, these remarkable developments alone do not provide a complete picture of the forces transforming the region. Russia is once again establishing a permanent presence, while China seeks anchors for its “Belt and Road Initiative.” Moreover, the newly-discovered natural gas resources have turned the eastern Mediterranean into one of the most significant geostrategic maritime zones, which may reshape the regional balance power and the dynamics of European energy politics.
With its abundant natural gas reserves and opportunities for joint ventures, the eastern Mediterranean is emerging as an important region, shaping the balance of power and paving the way for new alliances. As a key player in the region, Turkey finds itself at a historic junction, where it must decide whether to proceed alone by challenging Israel, Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus – or whether to embrace regional cooperation.
Certainly the Egyptian, Israeli, and Cypriot discoveries of large new fields of natural gas have opened up new possibilities for joint pipeline projects to transport this bounty via Greece to Italy and to western Europe, or for liquefied natural gas (LNG) conversion to Egypt. This has paved the way for new alliances among Athens, Nicosia, Jerusalem, and Cairo, which the pro-Turkish government newspaper Yeni Şafak has described as an “axis of evil.”
Given the “cold peace” between Egypt and Israel, Egyptian leaders generally refrain from posing before the cameras with Israeli counterparts. Yet thanks to the hospitality of Greece and the Republic of Cyprus, the four states have managed to form a quartet on two separate trilateral platforms, namely Israel, Greece, and Cyprus and in parallel Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus (whose latest tripartite summit, the sixth so far, was held in Crete on October 10, 2018).
Besides benefitting from the gas findings, these four capitals have another common reason to forge an alliance: Turkey. Indeed, with its Neo-Ottoman foreign policy, which often shuns the considerations and imperatives of realpolitik, Turkey appears to be a catalyst for this rapprochement. Ankara’s ongoing chronic disagreements with Athens over the Aegean continental shelf, and with Nicosia over the painful Cyprus question, reflect a centuries-old enmity. Now this historic animosity has been compounded by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s support for Islamists, his pro-Palestinian stance, his problematic intervention in in Jerusalem affairs, his attempts to delegitimize Egyptian President Abdal Fattah A-Sisi’s rule (following the 2013 Egyptian military takeover), and his on-and-off relationship with Trump. All this has pushed the other regional powers to form a semi-alliance against Ankara. Ankara’s open hostility and military interventions in northern Syria have negatively affected Turkey’s position in the eastern Mediterranean too.
In view of the above, Ankara has found itself isolated in the region. Having been ousted from all potential joint regional projects, Ankara appears to be cast in the role of spoiler, the “killjoy” of the region.
For example, by using its leverage on the Cyprus question and declaring the Cypriot exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to be void, Ankara seeks to thwart the big natural gas pipeline project mentioned above, even though it does not traverse Turkey. At the November 2018 summit in Crete, Turkey’s position drew severe criticism from Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus.
To analyze the fundamentals of this regional chess game, this study introduces the main players, their interests, and the main dynamics that drive their foreign policies, as well as their disputes, with a focus on Turkey. It starts by highlighting the importance of the energy find in the eastern Mediterranean as well as the legal situation related to this. It then provides a geostrategic basis for understanding the dynamics in the eastern Mediterranean and the current antagonism of Turkish foreign policy.
The Importance of Gas Findings in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Legal Context
In a world where economic development is energy dependent, where pipeline routes have strategic importance, and where energy is used for economic sanctions – energy considerations are becoming important components of states’ long-term policies. Therefore, eastern Mediterranean states without crude oil fields have sought to reverse their fortunes by launching seismic explorations in the Mediterranean Sea.
In 2003 Shell discovered a natural gas field estimated at 42 billion cubic meters (bcm) in the Nile Delta region’s North East Mediterranean (NEMED) block. In December 2017 the Zohr, an Egyptian natural gas field discovered in 2015 at the edge of the Cypriot-Egyptian median line, began production, with an estimated reserve of 849.50 bcm. Because of its huge economic and strategic potential, the original Egyptian discovery of NEMED was seen in Israel as a sign of hope. Indeed, in 2009, Israel discovered the Tamar 1 field (255 bcm) and in 2010 the Leviathan (491 bcm). The geographical proximity of Leviathan then inspired the Cypriots to search for gas in the region, and in 2011 the American company Noble Energy announced the discovery of natural gas in Cyprus’s block 12, named Aphrodite, (129 bcm). These discoveries have thoroughly transformed the strategic picture in the eastern Mediterranean, with gas serving as a common ground for economic and strategic cooperation among states. The combined estimated gas reserves in the region approach 707 bcm of gas, a volume that would place this among the 30 largest gas fields in the world, surpassing most of the North Sea gas fields.
In 2013 Israel adopted an export policy that allows it to sell 50% of its gas reserves to other markets. Cyprus, which has a small domestic market and does not share Israel’s export orientation, has not adopted a clear export policy. Nor has it released official, definitive data on this matter. The same uncertainty surrounds Egypt: its Zohr field will provide gas primarily for the domestic market, and it will use its two idle facilities to produce LNG for export to other markets. It therefore remains to be seen whether the eastern Mediterranean gas will decrease the EU’s dependence on Russia or not.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which entered into force in November 1994, sought to establish peaceful solutions to disagreements over the potential extraction of natural resources from the seabed. Because of its widespread adoption, UNCLOS’s provisions have gradually come to be regarded as part of customary international law. In its framework, all coastal states are granted 12 miles of territorial waters and 200 miles of an EEZ, as well as 250-300 miles of continental shelf. The fundamental principles of UNCLOS have been widely accepted as legal standards.
Israel, Turkey, the United States, and Venezuela have not hastened to join UNCLOS. Indeed, Israel and Turkey’s indifference to UNCLOS has made it more difficult for the region’s coastal states to resolve disagreements with their neighbors. Inevitably, traditional hostilities also spread from the land to maritime zones. The core nautical problems of the Eastern Mediterranean include Turkish-Greek antagonism regarding sovereignty rights over the Aegean Sea continental shelf basin, the Cyprus question and its ramifications for territorial waters, EEZ rights between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, and the Israeli-Lebanese maritime border disputes. The legal dimension in these cases only exacerbates preexisting political, ideological, and strategic tensions.
Turkey’s approach to other eastern Mediterranean countries originates from a foreign policy doctrine dubbed the “Precious Loneliness” (Değerli Yalnızlık), as presented by President Erdoğan’s spokesperson, İbrahim Kalın. Although this doctrine was allegedly abandoned in 2016 when Turkey and Israel reconciled, the current status of bilateral relations and Turkey’s attitude vis-à-vis Egypt and Syria suggest precisely the opposite. In accordance with Kalın’s worldview, Turkey chose to adapt its foreign policy to Islamic moral values, which has necessarily meant downgrading its relations with “immoral states.” Following this logic, Turkey cannot normalize relations with Israel because the latter has carried out three military operations in the Gaza Strip. Nor can it consolidate relations with President al-Sisi’s Egypt given that he forcefully removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power. And it certainly cannot restore relations with Bashar al-Asad considering the bloody civil war he has waged in Syria.
At the same time, with 1577 km of coastline in the northeastern Mediterranean and a military presence in Cyprus, Ankara still wants the four rivals to recognize rather than ignore Turkey’s influence and capabilities in the eastern Mediterranean equation. Ironically, despite its antagonistic foreign policy towards them, Ankara seeks to be included in every potential energy project in the eastern Mediterranean and to strengthen its position as an energy bridge to Europe. From Turkey’s perspective, its inclusion in regional cooperation on energy would increase interdependence among the states and reduce their resistance to Turkish pressure on the Cyprus question (or on Gaza). Inevitably, such interdependence would strengthen Turkey’s hands vis-à-vis all four by positioning it at the receiving end of the pipeline. In other words, Turkey’s inclusion in this regional project would allow Ankara to neutralize the Greek Cypriots’ economic and political superiority over Turkish Cypriots (a consequence of EU membership). It could even use its geographic position to apply pressure on all the eastern Mediterranean states – by closing the energy tap to Europe when doing so might serve its own interests and ideological aims.
Turkish foreign policy in the shadow of Erdoğan’s Islamist worldview, which does not always follow the realpolitik rationale, can be unpredictable. Nevertheless, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz has visited Turkey twice – in October 2016 and in July 2017 – to examine the prospects of a proposed Israeli-Turkish pipeline, presumably 482 km in length, at an estimated cost of $7 billion. Since Turkey imports more than half of its natural gas from Russia and nearly one-fifth from Iran, importing Israeli natural gas could reduce Turkish dependence on Russia and Iran. However, because of deteriorating relations between the two countries and Erdoğan’s persistent interference in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly in Gaza and Jerusalem, there has been no genuine progress.
If traversing Turkey, the eastern Mediterranean pipeline will strengthen Turkey’s position globally as the natural “hub” of the energy market. Turkey already hosts various natural gas pipelines, such as the Blue Stream and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines, and will most likely host the Turkish Stream and the TANAP pipelines. In order to reach these goals, Turkey may well be tempted to use its strong navy, in addition to diplomacy, to deter and dissuade the four states and other potential international gas companies from launching regional projects designed to exclude Ankara.
Turkey’s efforts to enhance its influence in the eastern Mediterranean are not limited to the sea basin. In recent years Ankara adopted a very proactive policy of support for various parties in politically fragmented countries, especially in the Levant and North Africa, including Syria, Gaza, the Palestinian Authority, and Libya. In Syria’s case, Ankara decided to join the Russian bandwagon because its growing influence undermines the US presence in the region and because of Washington’s support for the Kurdish PYD in northern Syria. Having mended relations with Moscow in the aftermath of the Russian jet crisis of November 2015, Turkey then managed to seize control over parts of Syria – despite US protests – by launching Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch. Ankara also provided political, economic, and military support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and assisted it in capturing the Jarabulus and Afrin cantons. Moreover, following the September 18 Sochi Agreement with Russia, it began to act as patron of the Idlib province, preventing a military offensive against this rebel enclave.
Turkey also seeks to increase its influence in the Gaza Strip through soft power, using its government agency, the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA). In the framework of Gaza’s reconstruction, Turkish NGOs and government agencies conduct reparations and transport humanitarian aid by ship to Israel’s Ashdod port, to be sent to Gaza. Turkey also provides fiscal support for the Strip, which in 2014-2017 amounted to $200 million. Today Turkey supports the reconciliation efforts between Mahmud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority and Hamas. It is no secret, however, that Ankara favors Hamas.
Ankara attributes great importance to Libya because of the latter’s location on the Mediterranean. Following the fall of Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi, Ankara supported the National Transitional Council of Tripoli and became the first country to recognize it as the sole representative of Libya in its entirety. To strengthen its soft power influence, Turkey also dispatched humanitarian aid to the country, although this was later halted because of security complexities.
To further increase its influence in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey seeks bridgeheads at strategic junctions that would allow it to extend its activities beyond the region. The year 2017 marked a milestone in this regard. With the inauguration of new military bases in Qatar, Somalia, and Sudan, Turkey has now established its “Turkish Triangle” – a bold move interpreted by many Turks as a message against Egypt and Israel: If either country attempts to block Turkish vessels’ right of innocent passage through the Suez Canal or the Gulf of Aqaba, its base in Sudan would provide Turkey with all the means necessary to punish it.
Turkey, which is not a party to UNCLOS, has its own territorial law of the sea. Although this law sets the breadth of territorial waters in the Aegean Sea at 6 miles, Ankara has established a limit of 12 miles in the Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea. Given the proximity of the Aegean Greek islands to the Turkish mainland, Ankara views Greece’s claim to 12 miles of Aegean territorial waters as a casus belli. Moreover, Turkey has claimed that the Greek islands are part of the Turkish continental shelf – in other words, that these islands have no continental shelf of their own. Accordingly, Ankara has proposed delineating the median line along the midpoint between respective mainland of the two states. The Greek islands would then remain Greek enclaves within the Turkish continental shelf. Even today, there is a great deal of tension between the two states surrounding this issue. In 1996 brinkmanship brought the two states to the edge of war over the deserted Imia/Kardak islets, and in recent years Erdoğan has openly questioned the validity of the Treaty of Lausanne, which delineates the borders of Turkey and thus of the territorial status quo in the Aegean Sea.
The Turkish-Greek Aegean continental shelf dispute has spread to the Mediterranean basin. The maritime border between mainland Turkey and Rhodes as well as another small Greek island, Kastelorizo/Meis, has generated problems between the two states. The Turkish administration seeks to limit Greek territorial waters in Rhodes significantly, and Ankara has declared Kastelorizo a Greek enclave in Turkish waters. Greece, in contrast, claims a contiguous territorial and EEZ zone, seeking to expand its sovereignty dramatically in the eastern Mediterranean by emphasizing Kastelorizo’s geographical contiguity with the other Greek islands.
The tension in the Mediterranean is not limited to Rhodes and Kastelorizo but extends to Cyprus as well. Despite being a neighbor of the [self-declared, recognized only by Ankara] KKTC (Turkish initials for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus), which signed a bilateral delimitation agreement with Ankara acceding to its demands, Ankara claims Cyprus’s declared 1-4-5-6-7 blocks as part of its own continental shelf. In contrast to its approach to blocks claimed by the KKTC, Turkey has adopted belligerent rhetoric towards Nicosia, consistently warning it that Ankara is determined to take any measures necessary to protect its own sovereign rights. In fact, Turkey has engaged in naval activities aimed at interfering with the work of research ships.
Turkey also conducts its own independent gas explorations. It has replaced its Piri Reis seismic ship with the modern Barbaros Hayreddin Paşa, first deployed to the eastern Mediterranean in 2017. Moreover, Turkey is building up its naval arm. In the framework of its national arms project, the national warship program Milgem has already produced four highly equipped warships. The TC-G Heybeliada, which became operational in 2011, is the most concrete illustration of Turkey’s policy. It is also known as “the ghost ship” because of its capacity to evade radar detection. The TC-G Heybeliada’s success has been demonstrated, and mass production is now underway. In 2013, 2016, and 2017 respectively, the Turkish Arms Forces acquired the TC-G Büyükada, TC-G Burgazada, and TC-G Kınalıada.
On October 18, 2018, these newly-equipped Turkish ships began to make their presence known in the eastern Mediterranean. A “maritime dogfight” broke out between the Greek and Turkish navies when a Greek frigate tried to prevent a Turkish seismic ship from conducting research on the disputed maritime territory located west of Cyprus. In addition to the Greek navy’s attempt to limit Turkish activities in the field, Greece’s administration further sought to increase its leverage over Turkey through the Balkan Summit in Varna, Bulgaria. By paving the way for Israel’s attendance at the summit along with Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia, Athens has added Sofia, Belgrade, and Bucharest to its eastern Mediterranean equation for amplifying the pressure on Ankara. As one might expect, the Erdoğan administration has not remained silent. On November 4, during a ceremony at the shipyard of the Naval Forces in Istanbul, Erdoğan openly threathened Greece and its partners in the eastern Mediterranean, formally adopting a hawkish line against this coalition: “We will never accept the attempts to hijack the natural resources of the eastern Mediterranean while excluding our country and the KKTC. We have no ambitions [regarding] the territories of others [states]. Those who ignore Turkey and think that they can take unilateral steps in the eastern Mediterranean and in the Aegean [Sea] finally began to understand that they made a huge mistake. [As with] the terrorists who were defeated by us in Syria, we will not let these maritime bandits act against us.“
The Cyprus-Turkey Energy Dispute
Since Turkey’s military intervention in 1974, the island has effectively been divided into two separate states: the Greek Cypriots in the south and the state (or Turkish occupied zone) of Turkish Cypriots (and settlers from the mainland) in the north. The current Greek Cypriot government, officially named the Republic of Cyprus, is considered the legitimate authority under international law, while the Turkish Cypriot community’s Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC in Turkish, TRNC by its English initials) lacks international recognition (Turkey is the exception). Despite its illegitimacy, since 1983 the KKTC has been acting as the sovereign state in the north of the island thanks to the presence of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK).
Recognized as the only de jure government on the island, the Greek Cypriots sought to strengthen their position by signing EEZ delimitation agreements and delineating maritime borders in the southeastern Mediterranean. Cyprus, as an island, claimed its 12 miles of territorial waters in 1964 and ratified UNCLOS in 1988. Recognizing the vast potential for natural gas, Cyprus signed an EEZ border agreement with Egypt in February 2003, which led to similar EEZ agreements with Lebanon in 2006 and with Israel in 2010. After securing its southern and southeastern EEZ borders, Cyprus divided its EEZ into 13 blocks and awarded Noble Energy the right to extract natural gas. The most significant development took place in December 2011, when Noble announced the discovery of natural gas in block 12 – Aphrodite.
To avoid further deterioration in its relations with Turkey and the KKTC, Cyprus has refrained from mapping the parcels adjacent to the northern shores of the island in its national natural gas block map. Nonetheless, Turkey has refused to recognize Cyprus’s EEZ agreements because of its ongoing dispute with Cyprus and their competing claims to blocks 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7. Ankara asserts that the blocks are located on the Turkish continental shelf.
Cyprus’s headaches have not been limited to Turkey. In retaliation for Cyprus having produced a parcel map, the KKTC released its own map. Apparently the KKTC’s “F” and “G” blocks overlap with the Greek Cypriots’ 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 12, and 13 blocks. Thus the only non-disputed Greek Cypriot blocks, according to Turkish claims, are 10 and 11. To avoid exacerbating the tension between the two states, the Greek Cypriots have refrained from opening the blocks under dispute with Turkey to an international bid. However, Nicosia has yet to recognize the KKTC’s claims to its own parcels.
In view of the KKTC’s claims to the south shore of the island, it is safe to conclude that the Turkish Cypriots’ main relates to issues of sovereignty rather than the sharing of wealth. As part of the island, Turkish Cypriots seek international recognition of their claim to an equal share of its natural resources. Yet the KKTC, while asserting this claim under international law, is regarded as the principal violator of that same law because of Turkey’s de facto occupation of the island since 1974. To solidify their stance vis-à-vis Cyprus, in 2011 the KKTC and Turkey signed a continental shelf delimitation agreement granting ultimate authority to the Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) to conduct seismic research in the area between Turkey and the KKTC. This act was certainly designed to underline Cyprus’s sovereignty over part of the island.
The European Union
Since the destination proposed for much of the eastern Mediterranean gas is Europe, and both Greece and Cyprus are EU member states, the European Union’s energy consumption and dependence deserve examination. The EU imports more than half of all the energy it consumes and is particularly dependent on import for crude oil (90%) and natural gas (69%). The total bill for imports exceeds €1 billion per day.
Because of the transportation sector’s needs, oil remained the most important fuel during 2017, accounting for 37.1% of the total, while the use of natural gas increased slightly – by 1.2% during the same period – reaching 23.2%. The EU’s use of coal has drastically decreased over the past decade. In 2007, it consumed 372.9 million tons of coal, and by 2017 the figure dropped to 296.4 million tons. Gas is seen as an alternative fuel to coal for the world in general and Europe in particular.
Before the discovery in the eastern Mediterranean, the EU had two main gas corridors: the Russian gas lines across the Baltic Sea to Europe via Germany, and Norwegian gas. Aside from these two corridors, which are still operating, Algeria, Libya, Nigeria, and Qatar are seen as alternative sources of natural gas. According to EU Energy in Figures: 2017 Statistical Pocket Book, in 2015 the EU imported 37% of its natural gas from Russia, followed by Norway at 32.5%. A planned Israeli-Cypriot-Greek-Italian eastern Mediterranean pipeline, for which the four countries’ energy ministers signed a memorandum of understanding in December 2017, would reduce the EU’s dependence on Russia. If the pipeline were to ship up to 16 bcm of gas per year beginning in 2025, it still would only meet about 5% of annual consumption; nonetheless, the EU would gradually be able to decrease the 100 bcm it is now buying annually from Russia.
Turkish Public Discourse on the Eastern Mediterranean
In the aftermath of the First World War and the Turkish War of Independence, Turkey lost significant portions of land. While in 1913 the Ottoman Empire controlled the shores of the Adriatic Sea, by 1919 the empire’s capital, Istanbul, was under occupation. The Sevres Treaty (1920) codified this land loss, giving rise to a national trauma – the Sevres Syndrome – which passes from generation to generation.Consequently, the Western powers are viewed as potential enemies that seek to weaken or dismember Turkey. The mistrust towards the West has produced a conspiracy theory for almost every disagreement between Turkey and the West.
Adding to the Sevres Syndrome, Neo-Ottomanism, which had begun to rise under Turgut Özal, gained significant momentum under Erdoğan, augmenting this worldview and highlighting “the eternal struggle between the cross and the crescent moon.” Such rhetoric led many Turks to see various domestic and international political events as interrelated anti-Turkish moves in a complex game of chess that has been underway for centuries.
Given its worldview, Turkey saw the rejection of the Annan peace plan for Cyprus in 2004 and Cyprus’s accession to the EU the following year as a form of deliberate diplomatic humiliation. Moreover, the discovery by Egypt, Israel, and Cyprus of gas in the eastern Mediterranean, the emergence of a de facto Kurdish state in northern Iraq and northern Syria, and Israel’s support for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Greeks are inseparable parts of this “grand game.” A growing interest in this venture among international oil companies – including Noble, the Russian company Gazprom, and the Italian ENI (which many Turks see him as an offshoot of the Vatican) – has created a mindset focused on conspiracy theories among the Turkish public. This outlook, which views Turkey as perpetually under threat, has unsurprisingly activated the old-new strategy of “diversifying alliances.” In other words, rather than depend solely on the West, Turkey seeks to strengthen its ties with Russia – and China – as it did in the aftermath of 1974 Cyprus War. Because relations with the United States, Israel, and the European Union are tense, its interest in a diversification of allies is driving Turkey towards alignment with the Russia-China axis, and to some extent towards a better relationship with Iran.
Notably, this strategic choice first manifested in 2010, when Turkey was one of two states (alongside Brazil) to vote against the UN Security Council resolution imposing additional sanctions on Iran. A second significant indicator followed the publication of the UN Palmer Report on the May 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla incident, in which members of the Turkish organization IHH, who attempted to break the Israeli naval blockade, confronted the IDF. Ankara then imposed sanctions against Israel, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu sent a direct message to Israel by ordering the navy to secure Turkey’s “right of navigation” in the eastern Mediterranean. Only eleven days later, Turkey further sabotaged the relations deliberately, when the Turkish military announced that it was equipped with national IFF software – rather than the NATO version – which could identify both Israeli and Greek armed forces as hostile entities. Inevitably these steps contributed to Israel’s interest in enhancing relations with Greece and Cyprus.
Many Turks interpreted this new rapprochement as a maneuver by Greece, which sought to use Israel as a shield against Turkey in Cyprus. Rumors that Israel was going to establish a military base on the island and conduct joint military drills in the island’s mountainous areas led many Turks to regard Israel as a core national security threat. The results of a survey by Istanbul Kadir Has University confirm this trend: in 2018 Turks viewed the United States and Israel as the greatest sources of threat to national security, at rates of 60.2% and 54.4% respectively.
Aerial “dog fights” between Turkish and Greek aircraft, which still occur regularly in the Aegean skies or above eastern Mediterranean waters, are adding fuel to the fire at the interpersonal level. In May 2017, for instance, footage showing the crew of the Turkish Barbaros Hayreddin Paşa research ship making the Greek Cypriot fleet listen to the famous Ottoman military march “Ceddin Deden” was internationally leaked and created a stir in Turkey’s media and social networks. This incident is an indicator of rising Turkish nationalism and the perception of a “perpetually threatened Turkey.”
During the first decade of the 2000s, Turkey’s popular culture and cinema focused on the theme of an American-Turkish war. During recent years a potential Turkish-Israeli war has replaced war with the United States as a theme and is being openly discussed as a possibility in the same spheres. While some popular culture products, such as “The Valley of Wolves Palestine,” focus directly on Israel as the theater of confrontation, others, including as YouTube videos or novels like Davut Harekatı (Operation David) by Sedat Pekdemir, regard the eastern Mediterranean as the most probable friction point.
According to these fictitious war scenarios, Turkey and Israel will engage in fighting because of brinkmanship in the eastern Mediterranean. Given Israel’s military might, the Turks will suffer high casualties but unsurprisingly all these imaginary campaigns end with decisive Turkish victories that even include the liberation of Jerusalem from Israeli “occupation.”
The current disputes in the eastern Mediterranean could lead to a consolidation of Turkish nationalism – as expressed in Cyprus – with political Islam, some of whose agents might indeed be fantasizing about the liberation of Jerusalem from the Jewish state
The Erdoğan governemnt is using Turkish foreign policy to boost its public approval at home while simultaneously deterring four other eastern Mediterranean countries – Greece, Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt – from pursuing their ambitions in the region. Recent remarks by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s follow this pattern. Çavuşoğlu made it clear that Turkey will continue to take all necessary precautions to protect Turkish and Turkish-Cypriot interests while conducting drills in the eastern Mediterranean. Conversely, President Erdoğan recently signaled an interest in possible normalization with Egypt and Israel, at the same time highlighting Turkey as the most feasible route of export considering the high cost of the alternative pipeline envisioned by the four and by Italy. Erdoğan’s remarks indicate that Turkey has not completely lost interest in acting as a bridge for the eastern Mediterranean pipeline to Europe.
Greece, Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt, for their part, continue to make significant progress – without Turkey. In this regard, following a trilateral prime-ministerial summit in May 2018 in Nicosia, the Greek and Cypriot foreign ministers recently visited Jerusalem to advance the pipeline project. The second trilateral ministerial meeting took place after leakage to the press of a classified Israeli Foreign Ministry report, according to which exporting Israeli gas via Turkey is no longer considered a wise move because the Turkish administration is an “unstable and dangerous actor.”
Recently media outlets have claimed that both countries are engaging in secret talks to mend this relations, which presumably would pave the way for an exchange of ambassadors. Despite these encouraging rumors, however, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s latest remarks on relations with Turkey and Erdoğan – namely, that he cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel because of President Erdoğan’s unpredictable attitude – reflect the bitter truth that genuine normalization is still a distant aspiration.
Its Neo-Ottoman policy prism is apparently preventing Turkey from seeing the totality of strategic, legal, economic, and social dimensions in the eastern Mediterranean equation. Although the realpolitik factors that brought the four countries together would compel Turkey to normalize its relations with Israel and Egypt, Ankara still has not taken any significant steps to improve relations with these two countries, which President Erdoğan criticizes constantly and, primarily, for the sake of public approval at home. Erdoğan’s harsh rhetoric and attempts at de-legitimization have undoubtedly generated severe crises of confidence vis-à-vis Turkey for both Cairo and Jerusalem. This lack of trust, combined with the discovery of gas, drove these two countries towards one another and into the arms of Cyprus and Greece, which also have strong disagreements with Turkey.
These four countries have significant superiority vis-à-vis disputes with Turkey in the strategic, legal, and economic dimensions. This might provide them with the capability to actualize their ambitious project – if they are able to raise the funds necessary to implement the venture.
Turkey has arrived at a new crossroads. Will it pursue “precious loneliness” (a variation on the original nineteenth-century British concept of “splendid isolation”) – a foreign policy doctrine that has become synonymous with Turkey’s games of brinkmanship? Or will it initiate genuine normalization with its four neighbors? Rebuilding trust would require genuine normalization, which in turn would require that there be no more bashing of Israel and Egypt in Turkish politics.
If Israel and Egypt do indeed manage to work together, despite subversive efforts by Ramallah, to stabilize the Gaza crisis, it would be easier for Erdoğan to explain any abrupt change in attitude or policy to the Turkish public. If such an atmosphere could be preserved and turned into a steady state policy, then it would eventually pave the way for genuine regional cooperation on gas, without the exclusion of any players. Such a breakthrough could, at least in theory, help bring about a final peace deal on the island, which would facilitate prosperity for the whole region.
However, the prospect of a prosperous eastern Mediterranean will most likely be overshadowed by Turkey’s inflexible Neo-Ottoman foreign policy, which is fueled by diplomatic tensions – mainly with non-Muslim countries. Erdoğan’s ability to turn diplomatic tension and brinkmanship into unshakable public support at home in the face of economic crisis has encouraged him to abide by this approach and formulate a legacy based on confrontation between the cross (and the Star of David) and the crescent.
Unless Ankara makes an unexpected U-turn, Turkey’s growing animosity towards the eastern Mediterranean pipeline will most likely reverse the entire route by making Egypt the destination of Cypriot and Israeli gas, to be exported to Europe as liquefied natural gas via ships rather than through a pipeline. Europe would then be unable to counterbalance Turkey because Ankara could use the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis as a trump card against the union. Ultimately, therefore, Turkey will have to decide whether to take part in this prosperous regional venture as a genuine partner, or to act against it without achieving anything concrete other than more attrition.