Much to the dismay and fury of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the circle is closing in. No one is heeding his warnings against all who act on instructions from “certain groups” amid his announcements of more naval drills with live ammunition off the Cypriot coast. With US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Nicosia last Saturday, it now appears that the US has come off the fence to pit its weight alongside Brussels and squarely behind Cyprus and Greece. Speaking from Nicosia, Pompeo let it be known that Washington fully appreciates the threats looming over the island state that has been divided since the Turkish invasion and occupation of the north in 1974. “The Republic of Cyprus has the right to exploit its natural resources including the right to hydrocarbons found… in its exclusive economic zone,” Pompeo said, adding that the US remained “deeply concerned by Turkey’s ongoing operations” in the vicinity. He once again urged Turkey to withdraw its drilling ships and their escort military vessels from the vicinity, stressing: “Countries in the region need to resolve disagreements, including on security and energy resources and maritime issues, diplomatically and peacefully.”
News reports also relate that an agreement to establish a US defence training centre on the island was signed during this visit in which Pompeo met President Nicos Anastasiades and other senior Cypriot officials. Earlier this month, Washington announced that it would lift a 33-year embargo on “non-lethal defence articles” that was imposed on Cyprus in 1987 and deepen US security cooperation with Nicosia, Reuters reported.
Moreover, just the day before Pompeo’s brief stop in Nicosia, it was reported that the US had begun to step up preparations to withdraw from Incirlik Air Force in southern Turkey and that it is eying a Greek island as an alternative. The move looks immanent. The US already maintains a base at Souda Bay on Crete. On 11 September, US Senator Ron Johnson, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee for Europe, told The Washington Examiner, “we don’t know what’s gonna happen to Incirlik. We hope for the best, but we have to plan for the worst.”
Erdogan has often used the Incirlik base as a means to blackmail Washington, threatening to block US access to it several times since the 2016 coup attempt. His “disturbing” foreign policies have spurred more intense concern over US operations at the Anatolian base and inspired closer military cooperation with Greece “because our presence, quite honestly, in Turkey is certainly threatened”, according to the Wisconsin senator. In his remarks to the newspaper, which circulated rapidly across Turkish opposition newspapers and social networks, he said: “We want to maintain our full presence and cooperation in Turkey. I don’t think we want to make that strategic shift, but I think, from a defensive posture, we have to look at the reality of the situation that the path that Erdogan is on is not good… It’s disturbing. It’s very concerning, which is one of the reasons we certainly are increasing and improving our military cooperation with Greece.”
Erdogan’s options are clearly dwindling. Indeed, they may have been reduced to two. The first is to agree to conditional negotiations (as opposed to the unconditional negotiations Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu insists on). This would mean that Ankara would have to cease all its provocative behaviours, whether in Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone or in the abandoned town of Varosha in Famagusta. Negotiations would address maritime border questions but they would naturally extend to the controversial memorandum of understanding over maritime boundaries that Ankara signed with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in November 2019. Officials with the EU Commission have charged that the MoU does not comply with the Law of the Sea, and Greece, in particular, was angered by the fact that the pact violates its economic shelf which, according to Athens, includes large inhabited Greek islands such as Crete.
As for option two, it is to stay the course of his vaunted “Turanic” vision which, as he has said, is bound by the “borders of his heart”. His heart is currently set on revising the Treaty of Lausanne in a manner that would extend his country’s territory well beyond its present-day borders. If Erdogan “doesn’t come to his senses”, as Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis put it, his already strained economy will be battered by possible additional sanctions that the EU might adopt when it convenes 25 September in Brussels.
In preparation for that meeting, French President Emanuel Macron hosted six other European leaders on Corsica last week in which he appealed for a “responsible dialogue” conducted “in good faith” and “without naivety”, and called on Turkey to cease its unilateral activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. “Our Mediterranean is, today, the theatre of ongoing conflicts, in Syria, in Libya… The hegemonic games pursued by historic powers that seek to destabilise the entire region are of great concern to us in this regard,” Macron said, referring to both Turkey and Russia. If Turkey “does not move forward on the path of dialogue and end its unilateral activities, the EU is ready to draw up a list of additional restrictive measures,” he warned, stressing that European powers “need to be clear and firm with the government of President Erdogan, which today is behaving in an unacceptable manner”. He also stated that Turkey is “no longer a partner in the region” due to its unacceptable behaviour.
Ankara, naturally, lashed out at Macron’s “arrogant” remarks that smacked of “old colonialist reflexes”. A Turkish Foreign Ministry statement also accused him of stoking tensions and putting Europe’s greater interests at risk. The seven leaders gathered in Corsica held the opposite view. It was Erdogan’s policies that were putting European interests and peace in the Mediterranean at risk, and it is folly to attempt to appease a government that is bent on aggressive behaviour.
The charge is not misplaced. Erdogan’s confrontationist policies have alienated virtually everyone. While he claims that his actions conform with international law, the reverse is more the case. Turkey is the most flagrant violator of the UN arms embargo on Libya. It has violated UN Security Council resolutions on Cyprus. In Syria and Iraq, it has launched several unprovoked assaults and now occupies a significant chunk of Syrian territory. Erdogan’s human rights record goes from bad to worse. It is sufficient, here, to note that the European Court of Human rights has issued more than 3,645 judgements against Turkey since the court’s establishment in 1959, more than any other state in its jurisdiction. It is not surprising that the number of Turkish cases before European rights bodies are on the rise since Ankara suspended parts of the European Convention on Human Rights so that Erdogan could more ruthlessly carry out the sweeping purges that he set into motion in 2016. This summer, the Turkish parliament began discussing whether Ankara should withdraw from the Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which is also known as the Istanbul Convention.
Experts on contemporary Turkish politics maintain that Erdogan derives his strength from his constant quarrelling with adversaries at home and abroad. It gives him a defiant and pugnacious image that he believes wins him votes. What he apparently refuses to see is that it does very little to improve Turkey’s ailing economy at a time when Turkey should be looking for friends rather than driving away nearly all of its partners.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly