The competition of influences in the Eastern Mediterranean reached a climax in the summer of 2020 in the face of the affirmation of Turkish foreign policy in this zone with eminently strategic resources. Against the backdrop of old tensions linked to the sharing of territorial waters, relations between Athens and Ankara are once again becoming more heated.
On August 10, Ankara deployed a seismic research vessel, the Oruç-Reis, escorted by warships off the Greek island of Kastellorizo, in a so-called Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Greece. This small island, located a few kilometers from Turkey, is a major strategic challenge. Athens has placed its troops on alert and the situation is said to have gotten out of hand. A Greek ship and a Turkish frigate collided, six Greek F-16s were intercepted by Turkish fighter planes and Greek soldiers landed on Kastellorizo. Greek-Turkish relations had already experienced acute tensions. Since 1987, the two enemy brothers in the Aegean had been on the brink of armed conflict, and as recently as 1996 a Greek Mirage had shot down a Turkish F-16.
Oruç-Reis, whose mission was completed, was in charge of seismic prospecting in waters rich in natural gas. Reserves would amount to 5,500 billion cubic meters, or more than a quarter of Qatar’s reserves. Each of the protagonists is trying to enforce a delimitation of territorial waters according to its interests. Athens wants a solution under international maritime law. However, the international convention of Montego Bay has never been signed by Ankara. And for good reason, if this international maritime law were applied to the Aegean Sea, it would transform it into a “Greek lake”. Turkey would then have to renounce its blue homeland.
Turkey does not recognize the EEZ of Greece. The disagreement dates back to the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), then the Treaty of Paris (1947), which returned to Greece the island of Kastellorizo and those of the Dodecanese. Ankara never accepted it. The possibility of an adaptation of international maritime law in view of the singular geographical configuration of the region does not appear totally illegitimate. For Turkey, this zone constitutes a red line that should not be crossed because the stakes are so crucial: transit of natural resources from Cypriot and Israeli waters, the gas pipeline project (EastMed) between Greece, Cyprus and Israel concluded in January 2020.
The southern EU countries, led by France, have threatened Turkey with economic sanctions. The French president opted for the balance of power by declaring that Ankara is “no longer a partner in this region,” and the Turkish president responded less lyrically: “Mr. Macron, you’re not done having trouble with me yet.” The French position on this issue is far from unanimous. Angela Merkel, who presides over the European Union for six months, has chosen the path of mediation. The Europeans hope to push Turkey to discuss the terms of an agreement with Greece. President Erdogan calls for the organization of a regional conference including the Turkish Republic of Cyprus. If tensions seem to be easing, it is probably only the end of another episode of an age-old tug-of-war, Turkey clearly does not wish to give up its rights in the zone.
These tensions between Greece and Turkey over gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean take place in a broader geopolitical context, which includes in particular the Franco-Turkish rivalry in Libya and Lebanon.
During his speech to the armies, Emmanuel Macron evoked a “crucial issue for Europe” in the Mediterranean Sea, which “faces the return of the powers”. He aimed, among other things, at Turkish penetration of Libya. Ankara concluded an agreement in November 2019 with the Government of National Accord, recognized by the UN, of Fayez al-Sarraj, where Egypt and France support that of Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who controls eastern Libya. Turkey is said to have mobilized several thousand Syrian fighters to successfully counter Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli.
For the record, the Russians had tried, in 2013, to gain influence in Libya. They maintained illegal oil trafficking with a young warlord at the head of the Oil Installations Guard. The Americans had put an end to it. The head of the Turkish intelligence service (MIT), Hakan Fidan, spoke in mid-June 2020, after an Arab tour of Iraq, with Sarraj in Tripoli. This presence would illustrate Ankara’s military activism and desire to install bases in Libya.
Turkey seems to benefit from the support of NATO, and thus of the United States, in the Eastern Mediterranean. After France suspended its NATO patrols following the illumination of the Courbet (French frigate) by the Turkish navy, only eight (out of 30) NATO members had supported the opening of an investigation. The Courbet suspected a cargo ship (Cirkin) that had left the Turkish port of Haydarpasa of violating the UN arms embargo on Libya. It allegedly delivered M-60 tanks and Hawk air defense missiles to the Libyan town of Misrata. The town is controlled by GNA forces. The weapons were allegedly intended for fighters of the Sultan Murad Division, sent to Libya to support pro-Sarraj forces. Tripoli would probably have fallen without Turkish intervention.
Turkish activism is not limited to Libya; it is also deployed in Lebanon, where Emmanuel Macron is trying to “reimpose” French influence, in competition with that of Turkey.
Already in November 2010, Erdogan, then Prime Minister, inaugurated in Sidon, the Sunni region of southern Lebanon, a burn hospital financed by Turkey. There, he received a precious copy of the Quran from Saad Hariri and the deputy from Sidon, Bahia Hariri, sister of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and member of the parliamentary bloc of the Future Movement. Both emphasized Erdogan’s “Islamic leadership par excellence”.
He also met there with a Hezbollah delegation. A Hezbollah deputy declared that his bloc “has no reservations” towards a man particularly esteemed for his anti-Israeli positions. The deputy from Sidon is politically active. She received the leader of Hamas, Ismail Hanieh, who had earlier met the leader of Hezbollah in September. She supports “all initiatives going in the direction of inter-Palestinian reconciliation.” President Erdogan’s trickery with the entire Lebanese political class contrasts with the failure of the French initiative launched after the tragic explosion of August 4 in the port of Beirut.
Turkey would deploy a strategy of secret influence in northern Lebanon. According to the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television, Lebanese authorities are worried about Turkish interference in their country, pointing to a large shipment of arms. Two Turkish citizens, accompanied by two Syrians, were arrested on a flight to Beirut from Turkey on July 4. According to the Lebanese Interior Minister, they “tried to smuggle 4 million dollars which was to be used to finance urban demonstrations”.
According to the pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar on July 13, Turkish activism aims to strengthen its influence, especially among Sunnis. It would rely on the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and could provoke local militants. Turkey would also be active in eastern Lebanon. The Turkish offensive against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria was perceived as an attack on the interests of the Western allies. The Turkish lira is said to be increasingly used by extremist groups close to Ankara in northern Syria, through the political arm of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which claims to be the guardian of the Syrian revolution.
Turkey appears in the eyes of westerners as an increasingly unreliable ally, which prefers to play its own part, as its complex relationship with Russia shows. Driven by a neo-Ottomaniacal fever, it nourishes unprecedented ambitions in the region, taking advantage of the “vacuum” left by the United States. The illustration of this ambition is embodied in the transformation of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, in a provocation of Christians. Erdogan attended the first Muslim prayer in the basilica on Friday, July 24, a date that owes nothing to chance since 97 years earlier, the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne took place on that same day.
The return of the basilica to its mosque status is a symbolic victory. It embodies the victory of the Ottomans over the Byzantines by the Ottoman conqueror Mehmet II. Istanbul is the birthplace of Erdogan, the city where he entered politics, which his party, the AKP, lost in 2019. Under the Byzantines, Hagia Sophia crowned their emperors. Would Erdogan see himself as a neo-Ottoman emperor with the blessing of Hagia Sophia?
Brahim Kas is a PhD researcher in international relations.