The Turkish strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean highlighted that Ankara will keep pushing with more and more expansionist claims, interpreting International Law to the best interest of the country. It makes perfect sense, that this policy has been unfolding at the expense of Greece and Cyprus; we have repeatedly noted that as long as Athens and Nicosia continue adopting a passive stance towards this situation, Turkey will keep raising further demands. If anything, Turkey’s latest moves in the region, keep confirming our assumptions.
Last Thursday, November 28, 2019, Turkish sources made the agreement between Ankara and the internationally recognized Libyan Government of Tripoli public. The agreement – in fact, a memorandum of understanding between the two sides – has been signed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Fayez al-Sarraj; according to the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, this has been an initiative for the “delimitation of the maritime boundaries”. The MoU per se and the following statements from the Turkish side triggered new tensions and wide controversy among the neighbouring countries.
From Idlib to the battle of Tripoli and back to Karpasia
If there’s one thing that cannot be questioned about the Turkish government, is the ability to make the most purposeful moves in terms of foreign policy amidst numerous challenges in several different fronts. The Turkish decisions up-to-date should be interpreted and assessed as a well-orchestrated, step-by-step and carefully-implemented long-term operation. Within the last three years, Turkey has managed to become one of the key actors in the Syrian front, achieving the strategic objective of mitigating the Kurdish presence in the area, with wide-scale offensives against YPG, namely in Idlib and Manbij. In the same time, Turkish forces have been actively engaged in the Libyan Civil War, playing a pivotal role in the developments on the ground and significantly contributing to the very survival of the Tripoli Government of National Accord (GNA) even during the latest major Haftar’s offensive in June.
By providing equipment, like Bayraktar TB2 drones and BMC Kirpi Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, alongside vital intelligence support, Turkish involvement should be seen as a game-changer in the course of the conflict. The significance of these acts is even more important, considering that Turkey has ignored the UN arms embargo in Libya and openly criticized its purpose. Ankara’s stance in the Libyan front promotes Turkey´s position as guarantor of the Islamic world; Erdogan has been moving towards this direction by adopting a controversial attitude towards traditional allies, to protect fellow Sunni Muslim nations and groups against forces backed by the West – Haftar’s LNA in this case. Also, Turkey’s decision to ship equipment to Tripoli forces regardless of the UN sanctions, not only created greater leverage for Ankara towards the Government of National Accord but also consolidated further the image of Turkey as a fundamental regional player, able to form a surprising and unconventional foreign policy, independent of the western demands.
The achievements in Libya and Syria should be assessed alongside the Turkish moves in the EEZ of Cyprus, where Ankara has managed to establish a de facto presence and has been raising claims for a share in the Cypriot gas reserves ever since. The moderate response from the side of Greece, Cyprus and the European Union, has encouraged Ankara to keep up with the same approach, accomplishing to make the international community familiar with the idea of potential joint exploitation of existing and potential reserves in Greece and Cyprus in due time. The well-structured Turkish plan is being materialized over the last few months. Initially, military sources have been leaking generic information around Turkish demands and their lawful sovereign rights between the 28th and 32nd meridian. Then repeated statements have been made by the Turkish Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar about the concept of “Blue Homeland” and finally an official letter has been sent by the Permanent Turkish Representative to the UN, where Turkey rejects the existence of sea zone for the Greek island of Kastelorizo and claims that the Turkish EEZ overlaps a large part of Greek maritime boundaries. Therefore this latest development should not be perceived as a surprise, since the combination of Turkish soft and hard power recently, has been unambiguously pointing towards this direction.
Athens’ past, present and future stance
Athens promptly condemned the agreement and stressed out that there is no legal basis to justify the Turkish actions. Greek Minister of foreign affairs, Nikos Dendias, contacted his counterparts in Cyprus and Egypt, Nikos Christodoulidis and Sahem Al Suhri, to achieve a coordinated diplomatic response from all sides against Ankara. However, the Greek reaction gradually is setting the context for what we have previously predicted. The Greek foreign minister from the first days of his appointment has implied in a Bloomberg interview, that an agreement with Turkey could solve long-term problems and establish a beneficial partnership for both sides. Of course, such an approach is exactly what Erdogan is looking for, as Ankara is stepwise achieving to legitimize the idea of joint exploitation within Greek and Cypriot boundaries.
Returning to the context of the Libyan-Turkish agreement, we should mention that one of its most worrying points, especially for Athens, is the provision that allows Turkey to have a physical presence in the Libyan fields south of Crete, next to critical strategic points of the Greek territory. Under those circumstances, Ankara is not only gaining access to a considerable part of the Greek exclusive economic zone but also can justify a permanent Turkish naval presence in the region. Such a development combined with the deployment of Turkish armed forces across the eastern and northern borders between the two countries, eventually leads to the Greek mainland and islands being equally surrounded, a situation that could turn out to be catastrophic for Greece from a military perspective.
Ankara’s prolonged gamble and General Haftar’s role
We have mentioned in the past that Turkey frequently adopts an opportunistic attitude in the fields of foreign policy, defence and diplomacy. In this case, counting too much on Tripoli Government of National Accord could prove to be a risky bet. General Haftar currently controls the largest part of the country and has been pushing towards Tripoli over the last few months. It is a fact that the efforts to seize the Libyan capital have been unsuccessful so far, however, it should be highlighted that both sides are working with in-country militias; such entities are prone to intra-conflicts, keen on crossing over and far from being perceived as trustworthy partners. To better assess the current situation, we should take a look at the key external actors supporting LNA and GNA. As already stated Turkey is backing the Tripoli Government of National Accord, with marginalized Qatar being the other major player in this “camp”. On the other hand, Haftar’s Libyan National Army, with a permanent base in Tobruk but with notable presence all across the country and currently at the gates of Tripoli, is being assisted by a complex “coalition” spearheaded by Russia, Egypt and the UAE. Simultaneously major Western powers including the US and France are favouring Haftar’s prevalence. Therefore in terms of foreign support, it is rather dubious if the Tripoli GNA could survive long enough, in order Erdogan’s decisions to play out well for Ankara.
Since Turkey has opened its cards in the Libyan conflict, Greek diplomacy is now left with the advantage to take the initiative; Athens could smartly reach out to President Sisi through official diplomatic channels and pursue a more aggressive stance towards Turkey’s regional claims, by establishing the EEZ with Egypt as an immediate response to the Turkish-Libyan agreement. In the same time, backroom negotiations with General Haftar could be a well-purposed option for Hellenic diplomacy, so Greece could capitalize in case the Libyan conflict ends with his victory.
Greece has repeatedly condemned the Turkish policy in the eastern Mediterranean and has been presenting Ankara’s case as illegitimate and irrelevant to international law. Greek foreign minister has travelled to Egypt to discuss the recent developments, while the Libyan ambassador in Athens could be expelled. In the same time, a Greek delegation in the opening ceremony of the TANAP pipeline led by the Deputy Minister of Environment and Energy, Mr Dimitris Ikonomu, has left in protest against the provocative speech of the Turkish President. But most importantly the Greek Prime Minister has put forward the Greek agenda and has addressed the Turkish acts of misconduct in the context of the ongoing NATO conference in London. By the time these lines are written, a meeting between the Turkish President and the Greek Prime Minister has just been completed. According to the first reports, all the critical issues that are triggering the tension between the two countries, have been tackled and discussed in-depth, during the meeting.
From our side, we are quite sceptical about the results of the Greek approach, considering that all the quasi-measures adopted so far are seeking to maintain the popular political momentum, that the current government has been enjoying during the first months of the administration term, rather than consolidating a serious and well-respected international presence. The latest statements from the Greek Prime Minister amidst the NATO conference and those to follow are more of an effort to impress the in-country public. Unless Greece implements a more determined policy – which is rather unlikely – the scenario of the joint exploitation between Greece and Turkey, always at the expense of Athens, will remain a probable one, regardless of the Greek government attempts to downplay this prospective.