Editorials

Turkey continues to stir the pot in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu attends the second international Libya conference, Berlin, Germany, 23 June 2021.
© EPA-EFE/SEAN GALLUP / POOL   |   Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu attends the second international Libya conference, Berlin, Germany, 23 June 2021.

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In the first half of 2022, Turkey seemed to be trying to tone down its aggressive policies in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. Through mutual visits by presidents, heads of government and foreign ministers, Ankara was apparently making steps towards normalizing relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and even Egypt and Israel. These efforts brought in major investments from the first two, and in the case of Israel they have recently led to restoring diplomatic relations between the two states at embassy level, four years after both decided to withdraw their ambassadors. Even in the case of relations with Syria, rumors are intensifying over possible top-level contacts between presidents Erdoğan and Assad in the coming period.

In Libya, where ever since the start of the civil war Turkey has been supporting the government in Tripoli, close the Muslim Brotherhood and recognized by the international community, Ankara has recently tried to soften the tone towards the authorities in the east, in Tobruk. Yet all these efforts were but a ruse. In fact, Ankara never renounced key elements underlying its aggressive strategy. It has recently actually dialed up its aggression in relations with Tripoli, which can further deteriorate the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

In its quest for the Mediterranean’s resources, Turkey defies EU states and Middle-Eastern powers

A significant Turkish delegation, which included foreign and defense ministers, as well as the head of the country’s intelligence service, signed on October 3 an agreement with the government in Tripoli for the exploitation of oil and gas deposits in Libyan waters in the Eastern Mediterranean. If we examine the agreement signed in November 2019, whereby Ankara and Tripoli divided the section of the Mediterranean that separates them by disregarding any claims Greece and Egypt might have in the area, the latest agreement on hydrocarbon exploration virtually gives substance to the maritime jurisdiction delimitation agreement of 2019. Yet from the point of view of Athens, the maritime border deal it signed with Egypt in August 2020 automatically makes any agreement between Turkey and Libya, past, present or future, void of any legal binding.

The October 3 deal confirms the most pessimistic predictions, according to which Turkey is incapable of renouncing its aggressive posture in the Eastern Mediterranean, in particular, and in the Middle East as a whole. Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt were quick to react, criticizing the Turkish-Libyan deal. When asked if he considered the agreement would inflame relations with neighbors in the region, the Turkish Foreign Minister delivered a shocking response at odds with minimum diplomatic standards: “It doesn’t matter what they think. Third countries do not have the right to interfere [with Ankara’s decision].

Turkey opting out of its agreement with Libya was not the only request advanced by the other countries in the region as a prerequisite to patching up relations with Ankara. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE expect Turkey to withdraw its military and political support for the authorities in Tripoli, but also for another supporter of this regime with regional ramifications: the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey’s influence in the Horn of Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa is also perceived as a threat, particularly in Cairo, but in other European capitals as well. Should Turkey continue to explore hydrocarbons in disputed waters in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea, this will further deteriorate relations with Greece, Cyprus and other countries, including Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

Adding to that is Turkey’s support for Hamas, which is assumed will continue in more refined ways. The restoration of diplomatic ties with Israel could become a reversible process under these circumstances. Moreover, there are no clear signs Ankara has ceased to support the Muslim Brotherhood, and this will continue to prevent Turkey from building up a more solid relationship with Egypt, but also with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. We should also factor in Ankara’s persistently aggressive tone towards Europeans and its double-standard response to Western sanctions against Russia, as well as its refusal to respond to the United States over its purchases of Russian weapons. Furthermore, Turkey’s current energy policies further deepen the country’s energy reliance on the Russian Federation. Turkey is shaping up to become an increasingly careless actor in the region, at the same time aggressive towards its traditional Western partners and its neighbors with which it enjoyed lucrative peaceful relations not so long ago.

In the name of ethno-nationalism, Ankara undermines Libya’s stability

In this broader context, the Turkish foreign minister’s presumptuous statement no longer comes as a surprise. Incapable of managing the ever deeper crisis facing the Turkish economy, the regime in Ankara seems determined to continue playing the ethno-nationalist card and maintain its uncompromising anti-Western stance. The aforementioned statement, as well as many others made by the Turkish foreign minister or other members of the presidential administration fully confirm Turkey’s attitudes. Ankara’s aggressive tone towards Greece and Cyprus, which has reached unprecedentedly high levels of hostility in the last three decades, observes the same pattern.

It is in this key that the Turkish-Libyan agreement of October 3 should be deciphered, because all it can do is further complicate the internal context in Libya, which might appear to be exactly Turkey’s strategy for this region. The agreement thus contradicts the impression created by Ankara in recent months that it is trying to reconcile the two warring factions in this country, the regime in Tripoli and the eastern authorities in Tobruk. A number of leaders from Tobruk, led by Aquila Saleh, the Tobruk Parliament Speaker, as well as Fathi Bashagha, the leader of the Parliament-endorsed government, dismissed the October 3 agreement as null and unacceptable  for Libya. Saleh and Bashagha have warned that the agreement will further destabilize the country, as well as the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, has immediately contradicted both, claiming that “every faction in Libya Turkey has clashed with in the past now supports this agreement”. The statement suggests, in both content and tone, that Ankara will uphold its aggressive tone without any concern for the parties involved. This might cost Turkey dearly, since Bashagha, for instance, was a supporter of Turkey until recently, and it was Ankara’s unflinching attitude that prompted him as well as other Libyan politicians to switch camps.

What Ankara succeeded in accomplishing by signing the deal with the Tripoli authorities on October 3 was to further inflame their spat with their rivals in Tobruk. And Turkey is the first to profit from this conflict, where it provides Tripoli with military and political assistance against Tobruk, which in turn relies on the support of powerful Arab states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Therefore, what appeared to be a reshaping of its stance towards Libya leaning on neutrality, Ankara’s efforts in the last months turned out to be nothing but an illusion. Some critics have called it a bluff, others see it as a failure. What is certain is that the October 3 agreement, which will take effect once it is ratified by the two parties’ parliaments, helps Turkey maintain a foothold in Libya in the long run. It would actually be naïve to imagine Turkey would be foolish enough to withdraw from such a complex region, much to the frustration of some notable Arab and European states.

Therefore, bringing relations with Cairo back on track will have to wait, as the two rival parties also compete in terms of delimitating and exploring resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. The same can be said of Turkey’s relations with Greece, one of Egypt’s partners in this region. Cairo and Athens have both condemned the Turkish-Libyan agreement, and subsequently the two countries’ foreign ministers held talks to coordinate their response.

Ankara might raise the foreign policy stakes to draw attention away from the economic crisis

Considering the European Union, certain Member States but also the United States voiced criticism over the signing of the agreement, we can argue Ankara’s efforts in the first half of 2022 in the direction of normalizing relations with traditional Western and regional partners have failed miserably. From a different point of view, the said efforts were nothing but a hoax, as Erdoğan’s foreign policy priorities remain the same as they have been since 2011, namely hostile to the West and Turkey’s major neighbors.

The most vulnerable of these remains Greece. Ankara’s deal with Tripoli ignores what Athens describes as its claim to an exclusive economic zone around Crete. And the dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean is an extension of a decade-long conflict between Turkey and Greece over the status of smaller islands in the Aegean Sea. Since both governments will be hosting general elections in 2023, nationalist rhetoric is expected to gain momentum in both countries. A war might be out of the question. But Ankara’s inability to come up with solutions to the economic crisis it caused itself might push some of its leaders to make rash decisions, against which Athens will obviously feel compelled to respond. In the unfortunate event a conflict breaks out, we will recall the Turkish-Libyan agreement of October 3 contributed to fueling tensions beyond WWII levels in a vast region of global strategic importance such as the Eastern Mediterranean.

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Dragoș Mateescu

Dragoș Mateescu




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