On Sunday, 30 August, Turkey commemorated the Turkish victory in Dumlupinar, the last battle in the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922. This year, Ankara took advantage of the occasion to air a particularly militaristic video prepared by the Defence Ministry in order to convey the message that Turkey which prevailed over Greece in 1922, is stronger than ever. The main intended recipient was Athens against the backdrop of mounting tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean over underwater oil and gas resources.
The Turkish public did not seem particularly jubilant on this grand occasion. They haven’t had much to celebrate for a long time. Not even the fabulous tidings their president delivered to them a couple of weeks ago of a massive natural gas reserve in the Black Sea discovered by the Tuna-1 after only a few weeks of drilling raised their spirits. It is not just that the discovery is turning out to be more modest than claimed, or that the returns will not even begin to be felt before at least five years, or that this was not the first time the government announced a Black Sea oil and gas discovery (most of the previous times came ahead of elections). Turks are increasingly feeling the pinch on their pocketbooks and just last week their currency scored another new low against the dollar. Meanwhile, government officials claim that Turkey will not “concede a single inch of its rights in the region whatever that might cost”, which immediately translated into another increase in military allocations.
Political elites in Ankara are divided over deteriorating relations with Athens. Some, especially moderates who were in power in the 1990s and helped build bridges of understanding and good-neighbourliness with Greece, caution against rash behaviour. On the other hand, the hardcore ultranationalists and radical Islamists want to sound the war drums as they hark back to the glories of Ottoman conquests. These are the groups have the ears of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and of his ally in the People’s Alliance, Devlet Bahceli, these days.
However, even if it promises to win votes at home, the belligerent rhetoric emanating from Ankara is not winning friends abroad. “The West is growing firmer and more unified against Turkey by the day,” warn Turkish opposition critics. France, which is seeking a more prominent role in the Mediterranean following Britain’s exit from the EU, offers a sign of the direction Europe is headed with regard to Erdogan. “When it comes to Mediterranean sovereignty, I have to be consistent in deeds and words. I can tell you that the Turks only consider and respect that,” French President Emanuel Macron said Friday, stressing that with Erdogan, words have to be followed by acts. He called it a “red line policy” that was needed in order to counter Turkey’s provocative behaviour in the region. Macron added: “I don’t consider that in recent years Turkey’s strategy is the strategy of a NATO ally... when you have a country which attacks the exclusive economic zones or the sovereignty of two members of the European Union.”
Meanwhile, Turkey is staring at the prospect of stiffer sanctions from Brussels this autumn. “We agreed that in the absence of progress in engaging Turkey (in talks to reduce tensions with Greece and Cyprus) we could develop a list of further restrictive measures that could be discussed at the European Council on 24 and 25 September,” EU Foreign Affairs Minister Josep Borrel said Friday. He indicated that sanctions could be extended to ships or other assets involved in the drilling, as well as prohibiting the use of EU ports and supplies and restricting economic and financial infrastructure related with this activity. He said that wide-ranging sanctions against whole sectors of the Turkish economy could also be considered, but that these would only come into play if more targeted measures against the drilling were not effective.
Opposition forces in Turkey see the foregoing as strong signs that Europe has jumped off the fence between firmness and appeasement towards Turkey. They believe that inter-European divisions over how to handle Turkey only created opportunities for Turkey to attain its own political goals at the expense of European interests. They also caution that the policy of appeasement is not the way to stop a government that has so far failed to heed international warnings against its provocative actions.
Greece and Cyprus, which have bemoaned the EU’s half-hearted measures towards Ankara so far, welcome the new signs of European resolve. Another significant development in this regard is the participation of French warships and jet fighters in naval drills off the coast of Crete. Italy also joined the drills. Since the decline in Italian interests in Libya as a consequence of Turkey’s growing influence with Tripoli, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has moved towards a tougher EU stance on Turkey.
Predictably, on Saturday, Turkey launched a counter military exercise off the coast of North Cyprus. The series of drills are expected to continue until 13 September. Also, on Saturday, Ankara reacted to Greece’s decision to expand its territorial claims from six to 12 nautical miles. Turkey will “protect its rights on every cubic metre in the eastern Mediterranean waters no matter what,” said Turkish Vice-President Fuat Oktay. “This is reason for war,” warned Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
This wouldn’t be the first time Ankara played brinksmanship. However, observers do not believe that it would risk a direct confrontation which would snap all the remaining threads in its relationship with the West and issue the death certificate for the Turkish economy. Perhaps this explains some of the more reserved statements from Ankara recently, such as the call for the EU to act “without bias” and as an “honest mediator” in order to find a solution in the Eastern Mediterranean, as Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hami Aksoy said last week. Not that this prevented a division of rhetorical labour that left Erdogan and his military officials free to reiterate the jingoistic refrains that appeal to his and Bahceli’s ultranationalist and radical Islamist bases, which he increasingly needs as he grows more and more hemmed in by his policies.
Herein resides the predicament of Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions, according to the Russian academic Vladimir Afatkov. In an interview with Eurasia Daily that was broadcast by Russia Today online, Afatkov argues that Erdogan lacks the resources to fulfil his vow to turn Turkey into a world power. “He also fails to understand that to be a world power, other countries have to see you as such,” said the Russian academic. He added that if Erdogan were to act responsibly, he would not follow a confrontationist approach but rather one that takes into account balances of powers, balances of potentials and balances of interests. On all these points, modern Turkey’s situation is already messy enough.
Ironically, the day before the annual commemoration of the Battle of Dumlupinar and while Erdogan and other Turkish officials were fulminating against Greece, 26 Turkish citizens arrived on the island of Chios seeking political asylum. They said they were being persecuted by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In order not to be noticed, they used several small fishing boats on which they raised the Greek flag, according to The Greek City Times. This was the second such incident in August. Earlier that month, a boat carrying 23 Turkish asylum seekers, including several children, also landed in Chios.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly