Turkey is preparing a new military adventure after its invasion of northern Syria in October. On Tuesday, Ankara threatened Cyprus, Greece, Egypt and Israel, claiming they cannot “establish natural gas transport lines in this region.” Then, Turkey’s leadership said they are prepared to act militarily in Libya to “achieve stability.” As usual, Turkey poses using its army as a way to “contribute to peace.”
Over the last few years Turkey’s ruling AKP party and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have been making more militaristic threats against countries in the region and backed up the threats through several operations in Iraq and Syria. Until now Turkey claimed it had to invade its neighbors to stop “terrorism,” but now it has extended these threats to the Mediterranean, asserting that it has a huge swath of drilling rights and that Turkey has “made it clear that international actors cannot conduct search and drilling activities in this region without our permission.” Ankara has thus gone from wanting to assert it has rights to drill off its coast to asserting that it controls waters between Cyprus, Greece and Libya, splitting the Mediterranean in two and meaning others will not be permitted there.
Turkey’s latest threats come after it signed a deal with one of Tripoli’s two warring governments, the Tripoli-based Government of the National Accord. Turkey has backed Tripoli with drones and armored vehicles. But it went further in December, seeking rights to demarcate economic zones with the Tripoli government. Even though Tripoli’s government controls only a tiny part of Libya, Turkey seized on this opportunity to make an agreement so it can lay claim to an area of the Mediterranean. In a speech to Turkey’s TRT the government claimed Turkey will challenge “unilateral drilling by the Greek Cypriot administration.” Turkey invaded Cyprus in the 1970s and supports Northern Cyprus. It claims Northern Cyprus has rights to resources. Turkey also claims it has the longest coastline in the eastern Mediterranean and that this means it has rights under international law to push out from the Gulf of Antalya to assert its drilling rights. The reality is that Greece has a longer coastline due to all its islands but Turkey has come up a new way of measurement.
Turkey claims it once worked with Muammar Gaddafi, the former dictator who was killed in 2011 in Libya. But now Ankara will go it alone and seeks to use a combination of threats and military forces to do what it wants.
Turkey openly says it is challenging Egypt, Cyprus, Greece and Egypt and that it won’t allow any pipelines across the new swath of water it claims links it to Libya. Now, Ankara is also hinting at “possible military assistance,” if Tripoli wants it. Turkey has sent troops to Qatar in 2017, when Qatar claimed it was threatened by Saudi Arabia. Turkey has also sent troops to Somalia, Africa, and this would be its third-such mission. Its largest overseas base was in Somalia but it also has up to 5,000 troops in Qatar. where Erdogan traveled in November to boast of how Ankara contributes to “regional stability.”
Turkey claims that Russia, Egypt and the UAE are supporting Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army in Libya, the main competitor of Tripoli for control of the country. But Turkey now needs to work with Russia on Libya as it has done with Syria, where it partitioned an area after a ceasefire on October 22. Erdogan will call Russia’s Vladimir Putin to discuss Libya, Hurriyet reported. Then, Turkey wants to host Putin in Istanbul on January 8 and discuss the TurkStream gas project.
Turkey’s communications director said, “we are also ready to help the Libyan government in any way we can, including militarily.” Turkey’s defense minister phoned his Russian counterpart, Sergey Shoygu, to discuss Syria on December 9. “The parties discussed the situation in the Middle East region,” read a statement.
Ankara’s comments about preventing a gas pipeline from Israel or Cyprus towards Italy appears to be a major strategic game changer in the Mediterranean. Israel, Greece and other states had been looking at an “EastMed” pipeline that could stretch thousands of kilometers. It’s clear that the real message is about sending Turkish forces to Libya. Ankara claims that the arms embargo on Libya doesn’t prevent it sending forces if the government asks. Turkey uses international law when it suits it. It ignores the fact that Northern Cyprus is not recognized to claim huge areas of the Mediterranean, but then works with Tripoli and claims the Haftar government is unrecognized. Turkey’s real aim is to get the Russians on board with its latest muscling into the Mediterranean. It wants more drilling ships, not because it has found any gas– it hasn’t– but because it wants to use them as a fact on the ground. Turkey has studied carefully how Russia was able to get Crimea in 2014 and what Russia does in the Donbas in Ukraine, or in Abkhazia in Georgia, and it has examined how China pursues claims in the South China Sea, and Turkey wants to move up to the status of Russia and China in its global and regional ambition.
The long-term strategy of Turkey is to dominate the eastern Mediterranean, and also reach around to Qatar and Somalia so it has a footprint in the Gulf and east Africa, as well as carving out statelets in northern Syria and Cyprus to pressure the EU and Syria. It wants to showcase its warplanes and special forces with raids on the PKK in Iraq and show that wherever Turkey wants bases it can have them in weak neighboring states. All this comes with an emerging special relationship with Russia, the purchase of S-400s from Moscow and a trade relationship with Iran designed to keep Iran and Turkey on the same page. In the larger proxy conflict Turkey has pushed up against Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Turkey also wants to champion the Palestinians against Israel and support Hamas. Unsurprisingly, Hamas also has access to the sea in Gaza; Turkey may one day even seek an agreement with the Palestinians to rights off the coast in the Mediterranean. Such a scenario, after two weeks of Turkish attempts to place itself astride the Mediterranean, may not be far-fetched.