Turkey as a destabilising factor

Ioannis Kotoulas
Saturday 7 Mar 2020

Turkey may be pursuing neo-Ottoman imperialist goals, but its destabilising behaviour is not going unanswered, writes Ioannis Kotoulas

Turkey under the Erdogan regime has intensified its traditional revisionist and destabilising policy that it implemented in various forms in the recent historical past. Many states in the greater region realise by now the implication of Turkey in an ongoing and ever escalating revisionist and confrontational policy. Turkey’s destabilisation projects manifest themselves with varying degrees of success in a perceived periphery of states over which Ankara aims to project military power or strategic influence. The two Hellenic states, Greece and Cyprus, were and continue to be the primary targets of this revisionist policy that Turkey has pursued initially vis-à-vis Greece and Cyprus since the 1970s. Now, Turkish revisionism has been felt by other states as well, as it has spread over the last decade, affecting to a varying degree in the recent historical past Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya and the greater region of the Eastern Mediterranean in general.

In Syria, Turkey’s destabilising actions have reached a focal turning point. As the Bashar Al-Assad regime is steadily regaining territorial control over the north-western part of the country, restoring Syrian national sovereignty, Turkey attempts to maintain a disruptive presence in the greater region of Idlib with direct military interference inside Syrian territory. Turkish military operations in Syria take advantage of close ties Turkey has developed over recent years with Russia. The cooperation between Turkey and Russia is limited on a tactical level and does not extend on a strategic level, where the conflict of interests between the two actors is now evident with massive losses for Turkish forces. Turkey aims to permanently destabilise Syria and avert the possibility of any Kurdish proto-political structures on its borders.

In Libya, Turkey provides continued military and operational support to the Fayez Al-Sarraj government of Tripoli that itself is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the most vicious and dangerous Islamist organisation of modern times. Turkey continues, until recently, the deployment of both military equipment for the crumbling Tripoli regime and Syrian Islamist terrorists that fight against the Libyan National Army. According to reports, the Syrian Islamist fighters deployed by Turkey in Libya amount to 4,700. Concerning other countries of Northern Africa, Turkey is hostile towards Egypt, a hegemonic power in the Arab world, while it also pursues establishing naval or military bases in Algeria and Tunisia, albeit unsuccessfully so far. Turkish interference in Libya took its most aggressive diplomatic form with the signing in late November of the two Memoranda of Understanding between Turkey and Al-Sarraj, prime minister of the Libyan Government of National Accord. 

The Memorandum of Understanding for the delimitation of maritime zones between Turkey and the Tripoli government, an illegal action from the point of international law, serves Turkish geostrategic ambitions against Greece and Egypt. Specifically, Turkey’s main concern is the disruption of the evolving strategic alliance between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus and the extended cooperation between Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt with the support of the United States in energy and security issues. The existence of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Tripoli regime and its violations of international law forms a threat to the strategic interests of Egypt, as well as Greece and Cyprus. 

In Egypt, the failure of Turkish interference is evident over the recent period. During the last decade, Turkey’s destabilisation plans included extensive support for the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood and for terrorist groups in Sinai (Hamas members and local Islamists) with shipments of guns. Egypt’s dynamic comeback under President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has diminished Turkish ambitions in the Arab world.

Towards neighbouring Greece, Turkey uses migration flows as a strategic weapon in order to destabilise Greece. Turkey uses illegal migration as part of its hybrid warfare against Greece and the European Union. Turkey’s strategic use of migration is a form of demographic terrorism aimed directly against Greek sovereignty. Greece, a NATO and EU member, is the only neighbouring state of Turkey in the scenario of a military confrontation that can cause considerable military damage to Turkey due to its considerable air and naval forces and the proximity of major Turkish urban centres to Greece’s geopolitical centre, the Aegean Sea. Greece has the 16th strongest air force globally in total fighter and interceptor aircraft fleet strength.

Turkey’s revisionist policy forms part of an approach that includes specific short-term and mid-term goals all in service of a greater strategic neo-Ottoman vision. Turkey aspires to:

- Enhance its regional role in the Eastern Mediterranean and its southern land borders in Western Asia through the use of political, diplomatic and military means. Turkey aspires to obtain hegemonic status throughout the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, although this attempt has failed dramatically and is now in its death throes.

- Increase its military presence abroad on an independent basis (ie, outside the legal framework of NATO). This attempt of Turkey includes the use of foreign mercenaries that shall operate in various local fields in countries of interest. This policy has so far been implemented in Syria, where Turkey initially supported the Islamic State and then other radical Islamist groups, in Libya with the transfer and deployment of foreign mercenaries, and in the Sahel region with the indirect support of terrorist groups. In this manner, Turkey aims to create a nexus of military influence that will implement its neo-Ottoman vision, either through direct implication or with a network of proxies.

- Project the growing capabilities of its developing defence industry with the corresponding use of exported military equipment manufactured by Turkish companies.

- Project the capabilities of its state-owned petroleum company (TPAO) with the use of drilling ships and research vessels. In this manner, Turkey aspires to obtain an economic presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and potentially also in other seas in the future on a cooperation basis.

Turkey’s revisionist policy against the national interests of many states of the Eastern Mediterranean does not remain unanswered. New regional alliances are being forged gradually in the Eastern Mediterranean on a diplomatic, economic and military levels. On a diplomatic level, Greece, Cyprus and Egypt are working closely together for a considerable period establishing networks of mutual assistance. In the field of energy cooperation, the East Mediterranean Gas Forum has been founded by a network of closely working states in the region. Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Israel are members of the seven-member East Mediterranean Gas Forum formed in 2019 with the declared aims of creating a regional gas market serving the interests of its members by ensuring supply, optimising resource development, rationalising the cost of infrastructure, offering competitive prices and improving trade relations. On the military level, Greece, Egypt and Cyprus have conducted numerous joint military exercises projecting air and sea power over an extended area and in their respective Exclusive Economic Zones. This military cooperation could be significantly upgraded with the signing of extensive military cooperation memoranda. States of the region also enhance their capabilities individually, not in order to take part in regional antagonisms but to safeguard regional stability and their respective national interests. 

Egypt has over the last decade successfully overcome the negative consequences of the Islamist takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood with the establishment of the government of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. Egypt’s growing confidence and her leading role in the greater region is evident in a number of diplomatic initiatives and the strengthening of Egypt’s position in the Global Firepower Index for 2020, where Egypt occupying ninth place surpassed Turkey. 

Greece has intensified its diplomatic ties and military cooperation with the major Western sea power, the United States. In January 2020, Greece’s parliament ratified the updated Mutual Defence Cooperation Agreement with the United States for a major expansion of military cooperation, as tension between Greece and Turkey escalates. According to the new agreement, Greek military bases and facilities shall be used for increased joint US-Greece and NATO activities in strategic points of Greek territory (ie, in Alexandroupolis, a port at the border with Turkey that oversees the Dardanelles Straits, and at the Souda Bay US Naval Base on the island of Crete, the most important US base in the Mediterranean Sea). Greece also cooperates closely with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Greece has deployed some of its Patriot defence missiles to Saudi Arabia under a programme involving the US, Britain and France, in order to aid Saudi Arabia to deal with potential Iranian aggression. Cyprus has strengthened its links to both the United States and France which has increased drastically its military and diplomatic presence and initiatives in the Mediterranean.

The destabilising actions of Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean demonstrate Turkish revisionism and imperial ambitions. Still, they create a counterbalance by a network of states that aims to maintain international security on an inter-state level and the national interests of each state on a national level. In this context, the deepening of military, diplomatic and economic cooperation between Greece, Cyprus and Egypt benefits their national interest agenda and their interlinked strategic goals.

The writer is lecturer in geopolitics at the University of Athens, Greece. 


*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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