Turkey’s expansionism in the Eastern Mediterranean and the wider Middle East is coming to an end on all fronts. After a decade of interference in other countries and military operations in Syria, Iraq and Libya, a new regional balance is gradually taking shape, with Turkey’s influence slowly but steadily receding. Turkey’s maximalist aspirations have become empty rhetoric.
One of the reasons for this is Greek-Egyptian cooperation. Greece and Egypt have been working closely over recent years on all levels. In early August, the two countries signed a deal for the partial demarcation of their respective exclusive economic zones (EEZs) southeast of Crete and northeast of the Matrouh governorate in Egypt. The deal is a necessary first step that needs to be supplemented by a tripartite Greece-Egypt-Cyprus deal according to international law provisions, especially the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Turkish reactions to the Greek-Egyptian EEZ deal have been awkward and hostile in a sign of Turkey’s increased anxiety over the realigning regional balance.
Both Egypt and Greece have witnessed considerable upgrades in their military capability. Egypt under the leadership of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has expanded its military and now ranks ninth on a global level. Greece is currently upgrading its military arsenal by spending some 10 billion Euros over the next few years, obtaining 18 4.5-generation Dassault Rafale jets and at least four frigates. Greece has also requested that it be included in the US F-35 fighter-jet programme from which Turkey has been expelled. These initiatives will offer Greece a considerable advantage over Turkey in air power in the Mediterranean by the end of the 2020s.
Meanwhile, Turkey has attempted to exert pressure on Greece on both the land and the sea. In March 2020, Turkey used migration as a weapon against Greek territorial sovereignty, but to no avail. Now Greece has deployed both military and police formations, and it is completing an extended fence on its land borders. The renewal of demographic pressure on Greece through strategically engineered migration remains an option for Turkey, but this failed in March and it will not succeed today, especially as the EU fully supports Greece’s actions.
After its failure on land, Turkey has attempted to relocate the tension with Greece on the sea. But there it has met with a double failure, both diplomatic and military. On the diplomatic level, the Greek-Egyptian EEZ deal rendered the memorandum between the Al-Sarraj government in Libya and Turkey void. On the military level, the steady presence of the Greek naval fleet and air force has halted Turkish aggression.
Now the EU is considering implementing extended sanctions against Turkey at its upcoming Special European Council meeting to be held on 24-25 September dedicated solely to Turkish provocations in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is probable that Turkey will be subjected to a series of sanctions in the fields of shipping and energy. The EU sanctions will also not just target individuals, but will also be aimed at whole sectors of the Turkish economy. As its economy crumbles and the Turkish lira plunges, the EU sanctions could seriously undermine the ability of Ankara to maintain its presence in Libya and its attempts to impose its ideas in the wider region.
France has been preeminent among the EU states in halting Turkish aggression. French President Emmanuel Macron has declared that “enforcing red lines” is the only language Turkey understands, and the expansion of French-Greek military cooperation will be announced in September. France is thus acting as an external stabilising force, and its energetic diplomacy is not objected to by the US, which potentially views France as a counter-balance in the wider region. France has excellent relations with Egypt and Greece, and together these three countries could form an alternative defence structure that would complement or even replace NATO activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Finally, the US has lifted a 33-year embargo on the sale of non-lethal security equipment to Cyprus. The US is thus changing its stance in the Eastern Mediterranean, realising that Turkey has become an unstable actor and one prone to maximalist notions of regional hegemony that undermine both NATO’s stability and regional peace.
Time is not on the side of Turkey either in the Mediterranean or in North Africa. In the Mediterranean, the decisive stance of Greece and Egypt has halted Turkish plans. In Libya, the advance of Government of National Accord (GNA) forces into the east of the country has been halted as a result of the stance taken by Egypt that has declared the Sirte-Jufra axis to be a red line that must not be crossed.
The military theatrics of the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seem by now to be both self-repeating and tiresome. Even its playing of the Islamist card with the conversion of the Hagia Sophia Church in Istanbul and other Christian monuments in Turkey into mosques has backfired. Turkey has lost virtually all its sympathisers in moderate Western circles, and its religious diplomacy seems patronising and arrogant to the Islamic community.
Despite the emerging balance, Turkey will likely continue to act provocatively against the interests of major Mediterranean actors, however. Only this time round it is not facing individual actors or war-torn states such as Iraq, Syria or Libya. Instead, Turkey is up against powerful states with considerable military power, such as Egypt and Greece, and it is also confronted by France, a European nuclear power that is determined to halt Turkey’s neo-Ottoman dreams.
What this goes to show is that once again Turkey is on the wrong side of history.
The writer is a lecturer in geopolitics at the University of Athens in Greece.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly