In recent years, Turkey has increasingly tried to project its power outside its borders, be it the Mediterranean Sea, with Cyprus and Libya as key pieces in Ankara's policy, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, or the Caucasus. To achieve its goal, Ankara has relied on aggressive diplomacy, its defense industry and its military. This policy will continue in 2023 and its big stakes are Northern Cyprus and energy.
Hydrocarbon reserves, the big stake in the Mediterranean region
On December 21, 2022, the Italian group ENI announced the discovery of a new natural gas deposit approximately 160 kilometers southwest of the island of Cyprus. Preliminary assessments indicate that the deposit could be more than 85 billion cubic meters, which is about a fifth of the annual gas consumption of the entire European Union. The total reserves discovered so far in the Cypriot territorial waters are estimated to be somewhere close to the total amount consumed annually by Europe. It is therefore not a surprise that Cypriot reserves are an important target especially in the current conditions, in which the Union aims to drastically reduce its dependence on Russia. But these natural riches also sharpen the dispute with Turkey, which does not recognize the Greek administration in Nicosia and remains the only country that recognizes and supports the Turkish entity in the north of the island.
The tensions surrounding Cyprus are part of a multitude of regional developments in which Ankara continues to play a rather aggressive role. Although it has made efforts to normalize its relations with the “big guys” in the region, especially Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Turkey still does not meet some of their important expectations, especially of the Arab states. Thus, Ankara continues to provide decisive support to the Libyan regime in Tripoli which, in turn, remains an emanation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ankara and Tripoli signed an agreement in 2019 to demarcate maritime borders without taking into account the rights claimed by other states in the region. In response, Egypt concluded an agreement on the delimitation of maritime economic zones with Greece that invalidates the Turkish-Libyan deal.
But Turkey did not stop there. It concluded an agreement with the regime in Tripoli for the exploitation of hydrocarbons in the contested area of the Mediterranean Sea, offering significant opportunities to specialized Turkish companies. On October 25, Turkey and the Tripoli government concluded two millitary cooperation agreements in Istanbul on topics such as border security, military equipment (unspecified), combating organized crime and terrorism. A military cooperation committee will be established that will also oversee training programs for Libyan military pilots on planes and helicopters also provided by Turkey.
The Army as an Instrument of Turkish Power: Africa and the Middle East
The Turkish military has actually expanded its presence in Africa in recent years, carrying out military missions (or participating in international ones) in Mali, the Central African Republic, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Recently, Ankara has also stepped up contacts with Algeria, where it aims to become a major player in hydrocarbon exploitations and, more generally, in that country's foreign trade and economy. Also in the Arab world, in northern Syria but also in northern Iraq, Turkey continues its aggressive security policy, on the territory of the two sovereign states, against PKK terrorism and the factions it considers affiliated with the PKK, especially the YPG. These Kurdish militias are the main element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that are formally supported by Washington. Ankara's main problem in this context is that neither the regime in Damascus, nor Russia, nor the United States, nor any other relevant actor treats the YPG as a terrorist entity, as Turkey does. On the contrary, all these actors consider the YPG as a force that has fought and continues to fight successfully against Islamic State terrorists.
Ankara is still threatening a fourth major military operation in northeastern Syria against the YPG, after those in 2016, 2018 and 2019. This despite the explicit opposition from Moscow and Washington, Damascus, Tehran, but also from some European capitals, including Brussels. They have all warned about the danger that a new Turkish military operation would pose for the peace and stability of the region, where the Islamic State continues to be active and the balance between the forces involved in the civil war is very fragile. It is important to note that in both Damascus and Baghdad, the respective governments are now openly expressing their discomfort with the Turkish military presence on their territories , which represents an undermining of the sovereignty of the two states.
Ankara is expanding its influence through arms exports
An increasingly important role for the projection of Turkey's influence is played by the country's defense industry. Albania has recently become the 27th state to acquire Bayraktar TB2 drones on a list that includes Poland, Turkmenistan, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Libya and many other African countries. Future buyers include Iraq, Romania, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and other countries, including NATO members, have announced their interest. Turkish drones have already proven their effectiveness in the conflicts in Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh, in the border dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, in the civil wars in Syria and Libya, but also in other conflicts of varying intensity in Africa.
Adding to this are the increasingly important development and exports of other Turkish military equipment, such as short-range missiles, tanks or helicopters, as well as various types of individual weapons and other equipment. In May 2022, the turnover of the Turkish defense and aerospace industry had already exceeded 10 billion US dollars. The coordinator of these policies, the Presidency for Defense Industries, subordinate to President Erdoğan, announced in this context that the number of projects in the field had increased from only 62 in 2002 to 800 in 2022. And the countries that import armaments and military equipment from Turkey now include some very distant ones, such as Indonesia, the Philippines or Bangladesh along with many African countries. We can thus speak of a global projection of the interests of the Turkish defense industry. But these successes do not mean an expansion of the same scope of “strong essences” in foreign policy, which remains focused mainly on regional imperatives. And Cyprus, to which we must return, is a focal point.
How Turkey is trying to force recognition of Northern Cyprus
On the territory controlled by the Turkish entity in the north of the island, Turkey already had more than 40,000 soldiers stationed. In September, President Erdoğan and his defense and foreign ministers threatened that Ankara would multiply its military presence by adding new ground, naval and air forces, including state-of-the-art munitions and military vehicles. Political control over the regime in Nicosia/Lefkosha is currently ensured by President Ersin Tatar, who seems to follow Ankara's directions in every measure of domestic and foreign policy.
2023 could be the year in which Turkey accelerates efforts for the international recognition of the Turkish entity in Northern Cyprus, with signs that Azerbaijan, Pakistan, and other states could align themselves with this effort.
It should be added that the Turkish entity in Northern Cyprus already has observer status in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, as well as in the International Organization of Turkish Culture. It also has representative offices in 18 countries, including Germany, the United States, Azerbaijan, or Pakistan. Turkey has been the main supporter in this context and in November took a new step in the same direction, inviting Northern Cyprus to join the Organization of Turkish States with observer status. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, on that occasion had an extremely aggressive speech towards the United States and the European Union who had protested, clearly indicating that Ankara would follow step by step its policy of supporting the international recognition of the Turkish entity in Cyprus, regardless of the opposition of any other player.
Northern Cyprus, the “aircraft carrier” through which Ankara can control energy flows to Europe
Turkey thus enters the year 2023 with higher ambitions than some analysts would have expected. Despite the fact that it faces an official inflation of almost 90% and a huge deficit, the country's economy continues to function, and the defense industry is even experiencing unprecedented development, enjoying the firm support of the president. Although, like all other national industries, it remains dependent on imports of technology, raw materials and capital, the defense industry manages to be increasingly competitive. Turkish products in the various fields of security simply sell, and conflicts of various types in the region serve to prove their effectiveness.
In this context, Cyprus is emerging more and more as one of the extremely important pieces in Ankara's regional strategy. With or without international recognition, the north of the island will remain under the control of the Turks who will use that territory as a kind of huge aircraft carrier, from where it will be possible to project force and influence, in various configurations, both in the eastern Mediterranean and in the Middle East. Natural gas resources in the area are the main attraction at the moment, but a strengthened position of Ankara in the island gives it other opportunities that it will certainly address, perhaps even more aggressively than before, in 2023.
Thus, Turkey will be able to condition the support for any energy transfer project to Europe from the eastern Mediterranean, where there are important deposits and in Egyptian, Israeli and Lebanese territorial waters. The Cypriot card will be played with even more aplomb by Ankara in the dispute with Greece, a dispute that practically covers the entire eastern half of the Mediterranean as well as the Aegean Sea. The same card will be played in Brussels, where the influence of Athens and Nicosia is important, but Ankara's pressure will be all the more visible. The developments in relations within the same triangle, Ankara-Athens-Nicosia, will also have effects within NATO, although Cyprus is not a member state in the organization. By default, they will also affect the Turkish-American relationship.
From the perspective proposed here, the year 2022 can be seen as one in which Ankara built step by step a strategy in the extended Eastern Mediterranean region within which Cyprus was the focal point. Although most analysts of Turkish foreign policy preferred to look towards Nagorno-Karabakh, towards Syria or towards Libya, I always believed that the island had always been the real concern for Ankara. And I believe that developments in 2023 will confirm this vision. Cyprus' strategic position and natural riches are far too attractive targets for Turkish policymakers, regardless of who is in power after next year's mid-term elections.