Ankara’s leading party has set upon a mission to not only totally transform Turkey within, but also to export its power abroad. This is part of an attempt to co-opt politics from Libya to Idlib in Syria, and from Azerbaijan to the occupied area of northern Cyprus which Ankara invaded in the 1970s.
Over the years Turkey has gone through various manifestations of policies, from radical secularism aimed at joining NATO and then the EU, to pan-Turkish ethnocratic concepts and now to a toxic blend of militarism, an Islamist ruling party and Turkish nationalist policies. It is all stewed into a cauldron where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeks to stir the pot of crises every few weeks.
Just this year, Turkey created a crisis over an energy deal with the embattled Libyan government of Tripoli, sending drones and elite soldiers to help fight in Libya’s civil war. That antagonized and threatened Egypt and angered France at sea as Turkish naval vessels challenged the French. Then Turkey heated up a conflict in Idlib province, threatening Europe with a flood of Syrian refugees and clashing with the Syrian regime.
Bored of that crisis, it moved on in March and April with more battles in Libya and then in June and July with a bombing campaign in northern Iraq against alleged “terrorists” – even though there were no terror attacks from Iraq. In August and September Turkey pushed a naval crisis with Greece and Cyprus, harassing Greek F-16s and sending its navy around Greek islands. In October, Ankara pushed Azerbaijan to war with Armenia and sent Syrian rebel mercenaries to expel Armenians from Nagorna-Karabakh.
Now Ankara’s ruling party, which is rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood and closely allied to Qatar, has secured an ally in northern Cyprus where a presidential election saw “right-wing nationalist Ersin Tatar” win an election runoff, according to recent reports at the BBC. Northern Cyprus, which is Turkish and not recognized by other governments, appears to still enjoy the freedoms that most Turks in Turkey no longer have.
For instance Ankara has removed 60 of the 65 mayors of the opposition HDP Party and often imprisons rival politicians for years just for protesting or for critical tweets, accusing them of supporting “terrorism” just for critiquing the government. Almost all media is now controlled by the ruling party in Turkey or its supporters. What was once a country with a semblance of democracy is increasingly trending to be as authoritarian and extremist as Iran’s regime.
ENTER CYPRUS, which may be Ankara’s new place to push for a crisis with Europe. Ankara has acquired Russia’s S-400 air defense system and wants to challenge Europe at sea. It has done this by demanding energy rights over waters around Greek islands. This is not about energy because Ankara has new Black Sea energy finds: It is about giving Europe a “slap” as nationalists call it in Turkey.
While Ankara wants to teach the EU a lesson, constantly raging against Europe’s policies, it also wants what it calls a “blue motherland” or influence at sea between Turkey and Libya. This would cut Greece off from Cyprus and Egypt and put Ankara closer to harassing Israel by supporting Hamas in Gaza.
Ten years ago Turkey’s ruling party, which often hosts Hamas terrorists, sought to create a crisis with Israel by enabling a massive flotilla to sail to Gaza with hundreds of far-right pro-Hamas activists. This means Ankara’s push to determine the politics of northern Cyprus has potential ramifications.
Egypt’s president went to Cyprus on Wednesday for meetings with Greek and Cypriot officials. This is the 8th summit of its kind. Greece and Egypt signed a maritime deal in August and the UAE also sent aircraft to Crete in August. A recent drill dubbed Nemesis brought together up to eight countries in the Mediterranean and there have been increased connections between Israel, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece regarding an Eastern Mediterranean gas forum and other strategic issues.
Turkey uses a system called NAVTEX to exploit international maritime rules to harass Greece. The closer cooperation between Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt appears pegged to regional understandings, including Israel’s new relations with the UAE. Back in May the UAE, Greece, France, Egypt and Cyprus condemned Turkey’s actions at sea. Israel was noticeably absent from the condemnation. In September Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Jordan joined a gas forum related to the eastern Mediterranean.
In recent years, reports indicated that the IDF annual assessment was concerned about Turkey’s moves; an Israeli research vessel was harassed by Turkey near Cyprus in December 2019; the Times of London reported that the Mossad sees Turkey as a challenge; and Israel’s Defense Minister told Gulf media on October 4 that Turkey is playing a destabilizing role opposed to regional peace.
TURKEY HAS tried to cement its military role and occupation of northern Cyprus by calling itself a “guarantor” of the area. While Turkey claims to oppose other occupations, such as Israel’s annexation of the Golan or Armenia’s control of Nagorna-Karabakh, Ankara exploits agreements to claim it has a right to – illegally – occupy northern Syria and Iraq.
Its narrative now appears to be shifting on northern Cyprus to push for international recognition of the Turkish part of the island. This would mesh well with Ankara’s ambitions at sea. On Cyprus, Turkey’s opposition CHP Party agrees with Erdogan. Ankara’s pro-government Anadolu media now speaks of “other models” for Cyprus. That could give Ankara just the recipe it needs for an endless cycle of crises in the eastern Mediterranean, leveraging northern Cyprus to lay claims to waters around the island, under the guise of a “dispute.”
Turkey recently sought to take over the town of Varosha in Cyprus to change the status quo of the long-abandoned area that was made a ghost town by conflict in the 1970s. Ankara’s use of another NAVTEX maritime advisory off the coast of a Greek island angered Europe, but not enough to lead to widespread condemnation.
Ankara still has support from Germany, Hungary and Spain in Europe. Germany is the traditional armorer of Ankara; the countries have been close since the First World War when Germany transferred the SMS Goeben to the Ottoman Empire in October 1914 to bring the Turks into the war on Berlin’s side.
It is unclear if Italy is cooling on its view of Ankara’s continued crises in the Mediterranean. Italy is concerned about refugees fleeing Libya and may prefer Ankara’s version of rule there. Turkey has become an expert in keeping refugees away from Europe, in order to use them to secure cash support from the EU.