Turkey’s stand-off with Greece and Cyprus in the Mediterranean
Amb D P Srivastava, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The EU Council issued a statement on 14th August reaffirming its ‘full solidarity with Greece and Cyprus’.1 The statement reiterated that ‘sovereign rights of EU member states must be respected’.2 It stressed that ‘Immediate de-escalation by Turkey was considered crucial.’ 3 The EU’s statement is a set-back to Turkey which has tried to expand its footprint in the Mediterranean. This included an earlier intervention in Libya. This was followed by dispatch of an oil drilling vessel escorted by naval ships to the region which falls in Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone.

Turkey also received a reprimand from Biden, the US Democratic Presidential candidate, who described Erdogan as an ‘autocrat’. 4 Biden said that the US should ‘support opposition leadership.’5 He said that Washington should encourage Turkish opposition leaders “to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan. Not by a coup, but by the electoral process.’6 Turkey has condemned Biden’s remarks. A spokesman of the Turkish President described them based on ‘pure ignorance, arrogance and hypocrisy’. 7

The EU Council’s statement on Friday was in response to a Greek request for an emergency meeting of the EU foreign ministers to discuss the crisis. This was followed by a tweet by the French president Macron that “The situation in the Eastern Mediterranean is alarming. Turkey’s unilateral decisions in matters of oil exploration provoke tensions.’ Earlier France decided to send a Frigate and station two Rafale jets to the eastern Mediterranean region. Turkish President Erdogan said, “It is not Turkey that raises the tension in the Mediterranean Sea but a Greek mentality that tries to ignore Turkey and the Northern Cyprus Turkish Republic.”8

There has been a rapid deterioration of Turkish-French relations particularly since Turkey decided to send its advisors and Syrian mercenaries to Libya. President Macron has accused Turkey of “criminal responsibility” in fomenting Libya’s civil war.9 There are multiple areas of possible conflict. Turkish presence includes a sea-based air defense system off Libya. The EU, on the other hand, has launched a naval operation Irene to enforce a UN arms embargo against the supply of weapons to warring sides in Libya. A “Turkish naval force off Libya in June came close to attacking a French frigate enforcing a UN arms embargo.”10

Turkey has signed an agreement with the Libyan Government mutually recognizing their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). This overlaps with the claims of other regional powers and may complicate the project to lay a pipeline to evacuate gas from the Eastern Mediterranean basin to the EU. This has pitted her against Egypt and Israel. The Turkish presence in Libya has also occasioned a spat with Egypt. The Egyptian Parliament had earlier adopted a decision that if Turkish back Libya GNA (Government of National Accord) forces advanced beyond Sirte, Egypt would intervene militarily. Egypt has drawn a red-line extending from Oil crescent in Sirte in the north to al-Jufra in the south.

Following the recent decision by the UAE to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, Turkey issued a statement criticizing UAE’s actions as ‘hypocritical behaviour’ and threatening to suspend diplomatic ties with her. Turkey is also having strained relations with Iraq. In response to a Turkish drone attack in which two Iraqi border commanders were killed on 11th August, Iraq canceled the scheduled visit of the Turkish Defence Minister to that country. 11 Iraq sees Turkey’s military presence in the Kurdish region as a violation of its sovereignty.12

Why this extra-ordinary activism which has alienated Turkey from both its Arab neighbors and the EU? Erdogan has reversed Kemal Ataturk’s secular legacy at home. It is not trying to reverse his foreign policy. Kemal Ataturk decided to concentrate on development at home and modernize his country. Erdogan is credited with ambitions of reviving Ottoman glory. This risks reviving memories of Turkish occupation in the Arab world. The Ottoman Empire had even worse relations with Shia Iran down the centuries.

In recent years, Turkey under Erdogan has tried to insert itself wherever intra-Arab differences presented an opportunity. Turkey had intervened in the Saudi-Qatar stand-off earlier. It is now involved in Libya. There is an ideological dimension. Turkey supports the Muslim Brotherhood, which is anathema to most of the Arab countries and Gulf monarchies. If ideology is not the only a justification for actions taken for other reasons, Turkish policy seems to have seriously backfired.

Erdogan’s adventurism comes at a time when Turkish Lira is sliding. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the Turkish lira fell almost 19 % against the dollar and 20 % against Euro this year.13 Turkey is the sixth-largest export destination for the EU. Thus, the paper estimates the weakness of the Turkish economy could also dent the Euro. The Central bank has tried to prop up the currency by selling dollars. But depleting reserves limits its options. The currency has dropped 6.6 % against the dollar since July 24.14 According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Central Bank reserves went down by the US $ 15 billion by the end of June. For the time being, the currency-swap agreement with Qatar has led to a slight increase in reserves since May.15 The EIU expects the economy to contract by 5.2 % in 2020. Turkey’s tourist sector, which earned the country US $ 35 billion last year, has been badly hit by the COVID pandemic. The tourist arrivals in May plunged by nearly 99.3 % year on year.16

Erdogan’s AKP lost its absolute majority in the parliament. Last year, the party lost Istanbul Mayor’s election, whose importance Erdogan had touted earlier. Turkey is one of the most highly industrialized countries in the Middle East. It had successfully re-invented itself under Kemal Pasha. After the Second World War, it benefited from an alliance with the West. This included NATO membership and preferred trade access to the European Union. It could not get EU membership, but remains an important trading partner for the EU. In his rush to take advantage of the disarray of its Arab neighbours, he has involved Turkey in Qatar and Libya, where his country has no direct border. He also played the Syrian migrants card against the EU. Turkey has been a difficult ally for the US; it has sparred with Russia on Syria and Libya. The adventure in the Mediterranean pits him in direct conflict with the European Union.

References
  1. EU Council, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/meetings/fac/2020/08/14/
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Al Jazeera, Turkey condemns Biden’s criticism of autocrat Erdogan, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/08/turkey-condemns-biden-criticism-autocrat-erdogan-200816072119841.html
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. Wall Street Journal, France Sends Navy to Eastern Mediterranean Amid Turkey-Greece Standoff”, August 13, 2020
  9. Ibid
  10. Ibid
  11. Al Jazeera, Iraq fumes against Turkey over deadly drone attack, 12 August 2020
  12. Ibid
  13. WSJ, Turkish Lira’s Fall Drives Concerns for Euro, August 10, 2020
  14. Ibid
  15. Economist Intelligence Unit, Country Report, Turkey, August 17th 2020
  16. Ibid

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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