Jerusalem Post, 2/8
Turkey’s ambitions to assert itself as a Middle East power are currently in evidence across the western part of the region. Ankara occupies a chunk of north west Syria. Its troops are currently massing on the border of Syria further east. President Recep Teyyep Erdogan has threatened that his troops may arrive ‘suddenly in one night’, unless the US supported Syrian Democratic Forces concede to the establishment of a Turkish maintained ‘safe zone’ 30 km into Syria and along the breadth of the border. Turkish forces are also present in northern Iraq, where they are engaged in action against the PKK presence in the Kurdish-controlled north.
In addition, Turkey offers active support to the Muslim Brotherhood associated government in Libya, supplying drones to Tripoli in violation of a UN embargo in place since 2011. And of course Ankara supports the Hamas regime in Gaza. The Palestinian Islamist movement maintains an active office in Istanbul (which, according to recent defector Sohaib Hassan Yousif ‘operates security and military operations on Turkish soil under the cover of civil society.’ Turkey’s efforts to build influence in Jerusalem, by way of the activity of government linked aid agencies such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) are also a matter of public record.
Turkey’s efforts at building influence and power in the neighborhood are not restricted to dry land. Rather, an important currently developing arena for Turkish assertiveness is the eastern Mediterranean. This area has been the site of major gas discoveries in Israeli, Cypriot and Egyptian waters in recent years. Lebanon too is seeking to open exploration in its territorial waters. The current matter facing countries that have enjoyed major discoveries is creating the infrastructure for export of natural gas to Europe and further afield.
Turkey has not discovered major gas reserves. It has not been invited to join the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), the newly formed body intended to coordinate efforts to develop gas resources and mechanisms for export to international markets. Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, the Palestinian territories and Jordan are members of this forum.
As Turkey moves further from the west, and closer to alliance with Russia, so it is emerging as an aggressive and disruptive force with regard to gas development in the eastern Meditteranean. The main area of current concern is that around Cyprus. Israel, Egypt and Lebanon have all signed delimitation agreements with Cyprus. Turkey refuses to do so.
Ankara is adopting its own interpretation of international law with regard to defining ownership of energy resources. According to the Turkish view, the waters adjacent to Cyprus constitute part of Turkey’s own continental shelf, and as such Ankara has the right to explore and to drill for gas within them. Ankara further contends that the Cypriots have no right to begin to drill for gas without reaching agreement on the matter with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The latter entity was established by Turkish arms in 1974 and is recognized by no country other than Turkey itself.
President Erdogan summed up the Turkish position in a recent speech at a naval command center in Istanbul, quoted by the al-Monitor news website: ‘We will not allow moves aimed at usurping the Eastern Mediterranean’s natural resources to the exclusion of our country and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Just as we taught a lesson to the terrorists in Syria, we will not cede ground to the bandits in the sea.” (The latter reference is to the Turkish military operation against Kurdish areas of northern Syria in 2016 and 2018).
Turkey despatched gunboats last year, to drive off an attempt by the Italian energy company ENI to commence drilling close to the Cyprus shore in agreement with the Cypriot government. ENI subsequently abandoned its plans.
In May, Turkey held its largest ever naval exercise, Operation Seawolf, in the Mediterranean, involving more than 130 warships.
At present, two Turkish ships are engaged in drilling close to the shores of Cyprus. The Fatih is drilling about fifty miles off the western coast of the island. It claims to have struck gas reserves of up to 170 billion cubic metres in the waters off Paphos two weeks ago. A second ship, the Yavuz, meanwhile, has begun drilling close to the Karpas Peninsula north-east of Cyprus, its concession granted by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The ships and their support vessels were escorted by a Turkish naval frigate.
Cyprus possesses no navy and is hence militarily helpless in the face of Turkey’s actions. It is seeking to respond through diplomacy. The EU have criticised Turkey’s moves, and threatened sanctions. Rather than rely on European promises, however, Cyprus is developing its relations with local powers similarly concerned at Turkey’s transformation into an aggressive and irredentist power. Since 2010, Greece, Cyprus and Israel have held six tripartite summits. The latest took place on March 21, 2019. In it, the three countries signed a joint declaration pledging to increase cooperation, support energy independence and security, and defend against destabilization. The issue of gas discoveries underlies the growing ties between the three.
It remains to be seen how far Turkey will wish to push its attempts to disrupt the process of gas exploration in the east Mediterranean. At present, Ankara’s efforts are limited to the Cypriot context. Turkey is not trying to claim to or interfere with the process further south. So the future direction of events is likely to depend on the extent of Turkish ambitions.
Turkish analyst Amberin Zaman noted the broader regional context in an article in Al-Monitor focusing on this issue, ‘Turkish muscle flexing goes beyond Cyprus and needs to be understood in the broader arc of Turkey’s efforts to renegotiate its relations with the West and its neighbors so as to reflect the influence it feels it deserves.’ It is all a far cry from the late 1990s, when Israel welcomed the Turkish Navy’s ships to Haifa port. Their arrival for the first Israeli-Turkish joint naval exercise in 1998 was seen as the harbinger of a possible new strategic alliance. The rise of Erdogan and political Islam in Turkey ended all such hopes. Turkey’s leaders today describe themselves frankly as enemies of Israel. They appear to have set course toward a broader orientation of hostility to the west. The eastern Mediterranean look to be one of the arenas in which that course will be followed.