Erdogan’s Eastern Med folly
Sayed Abdel-Meguid, , Friday 21 Aug 2020
Turkish drilling activities off the coast of Cyprus have put the EU on high alert

CNN Turk was among the satellite TV news stations that, on 16 August, aired scenes of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis together with several high-ranking generals inspecting Greece’s F-16s. The military inspection followed Ankara’s announcement that it would expand operations of its drill ship Oruc Reis off the coast of Cyprus. Within a few hours, EU High Representative Josep Borrell denounced Ankara’s provocations. “What Ankara has announced is unfortunately fuelling tension and insecurity,” he said, calling on Turkey to cease its drilling activities “immediately”.

Both Turkish and Western analysts do not foresee an eruption of direct hostilities between Greece and Turkey. Heightened tensions do have segments of Turkish public opinion worried, however. The main opposition parties, which have supported the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) claim to the right to drill for oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, continue to urge efforts to reduce tensions. They have called for the restoration of relations with Egypt, “our old friend whom Erdogan has turned into an enemy”, as Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) put it, to reverse the tide of escalation and, secondly, prompt Cairo to serve as an intermediary to help bridge differences between Athens and Ankara. Whether or not Kilicdaroglu had a crystal ball, there have been reports of direct talks between Turkish and Egyptian officials.

Interestingly, CNN Turk featured a two-part documentary over the weekend on the question as to whether the sound of war drums between Greece and Turkey is receding. The programme cited softening rhetoric between the two sides and other evidence of a mutual desire to reverse the escalatory trajectory. Ironically, the programme, which itself may be a gesture towards this end, coincides with an incident that, in theory, should be highly embarrassing for the pro-AKP media and the presidential palace. According to Yeni Safak, a Turkish warship, the Kemal Reis, inflicted “heavy damage” on the Greek frigate Limnos on 13 August. The fanatically pro-Erdogan newspaper featured a photo featuring the Greek frigate with a gaping hole in its bow and crowed that the Greeks “paid a high price”. As Greek City Times demonstrated, the picture was a flagrant photoshop to cover up that it was the Turkish warship that had been “put out of service” by the 38-year-old Limnos in the course of what Reuters described as a “mild collision” between the two when the Turkish drill ship Oruc Reis strayed into others’ territory. Reuters added that the Limnos subsequently took part in joint naval exercises with France the next morning.

In the face of such developments, it is only natural for broad sectors of the Turkish public to feel depressed as the result of a leadership that continues to alienate countries that had once been Turkey’s closest friends. Support and sympathy for Greece would never have been so overwhelming had it not been for their government’s belligerent policies. As a result of these policies Turkey is finding itself increasingly hemmed in. To one side, it is staring at the historic maritime border demarcation agreement between Egypt and Greece, facilitating the construction of a natural gas pipeline from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe, a project that has engaged Egypt as well as the UAE and Saudi Arabia. To the other side, it faces mounting distrust and revulsion from Europe that is growing increasingly alarmed while watching a fellow NATO member working with Russia in order to undermine NATO while planning to divvy up the spoils in war-torn Libya in order to advance Erdogan’s hegemonic agenda.

It comes as no surprise that the EU reaffirmed its full support for Greece and that Charles Michel, president of the European Council, expressed the EU’s solidarity with Greece and Cyprus during a telephone conversation with the Turkish president 13 August. According to an official in Brussels, Michel reiterated the EU’s condemnation of the maritime boundary agreement signed last year between Turkey and the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, and he urged Turkey to refrain from provocative actions that escalate tensions in the region.

France, which has had direct experience of Turkish aggressiveness in the Eastern Mediterranean, is spearheading the drive against Turkey’s illegal drilling activities in that region and against its designs in North Africa. On Saturday, Andreas Papandreou Airbase in Cyprus welcomed two Rafale fighter planes and a French Air Force C-130 transport aircraft as part of a recently concluded defence agreement between Paris and Nicosia.

On the other hand, Europeans are still amazed by Washington’s inaction towards Turkey. In an opinion piece for the Greek Kathimerini newspaper, European Parliament member Nathalie Loiseau writes that Europeans “are struck by Washington’s continuous silence on Turkey. Ankara’s provocations against other NATO members such as Greece or France go unnoticed, as do its violations of a UN arms embargo and the obstacles it has put up in the fight against terrorism … No red lines, only green lights. This is the way the Trump administration has handled its relationship with Erdogan so far.”

Loiseau, who chairs the EU Parliament’s security and defence subcommittee, added: “The approach has only emboldened an illiberal regime and increased risks for the Middle East, the Mediterranean and the transatlantic alliance.”

Trump has certainly made life easy for Erdogan, but what will happen if Trump is not re-elected and Joe Biden moves into the White House? Biden has not concealed his distaste for the Turkish strongman. But it was not until a video was made of his criticisms of the Turkish president that his views on the subject attracted attention. Biden voiced concern on Erdogan’s treatment of the Kurds in Turkey, and on his military cooperation with Russia, among other issues. “He has to pay a price,” Biden said. Washington should embolden Turkish opposition leaders “to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan. Not by a coup … but by the electoral process,” he added.

The video went viral on Turkish social media over the weekend.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2020 edition ofAl-Ahram Weekly