Turkey’s changing security environment

The current situation highlights increased, intensive integration between the political agendas of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean affairs.

Turkish nationalists wave flags in Istanbul 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish nationalists wave flags in Istanbul 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The time has come for Turkish strategists to adopt a greater strategic vision for the Eastern Mediterranean basin and the Cyprus dispute which must be more integrated with the Middle Eastern affairs. As a matter of fact, such a new paradigm should cover a wide array of issues including the Turkish-Israeli relations, energy security, and the possible rise of a pro-Tehran/pro-Hezbollah Alawite state in Syria.
Throughout recent political history, Turkish strategists mostly perceived the Cyprus issue and the Eastern Mediterranean basin within the framework of Turkish-Greek competition, NATO and the EU agenda. A quick scan of several Turkish think tanks’ geostrategic categorization would confirm this assertion. Moreover, most of Turkey’s Cyprus experts prefer Greek as a regional foreign language skill and focus on Turkish-Greek relations, EU affairs, and international law. Practically none of Turkey’s Cyprus experts are skilled in Arabic or Hebrew languages, naval strategy background, and Turkish-Israeli or Turkish-Arab relations.
In brief, regardless of their ideological differences, a wide spectrum of Turkish strategists consistently reduces the Cyprus issue and even Eastern Mediterranean affairs to a simple Turkish- Greek confrontation reading.
However, assessing the Cyprus issue within the narrow framework of Turkish-Greek relations or EU affairs is geopolitically flawed. The island of Cyprus is located at the intersection of Anatolia, the Middle East and North Africa. It is in the easy reach of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Israel. It should especially be noted that Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Israel are geographically closer to the island than Greece.
Furthermore, the island is located in the Levant sea basin of the Mediterranean which covers the area between North Africa (Libya, Egypt), Turkey, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and Israel.
Therefore, Cyprus possesses geopolitical integrity with the Greater Middle East or the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Furthermore, past events related to the Eastern Mediterranean have prompted additional political, economic and military tensions in the region. First, Greek Cypriots signed Economic Exploitation Zone (EEZ) agreements with Lebanon in 2003, then with Egypt in 2007 and recently with Israel in 2011. Additionally, by declaring an EEZ with 13 Exploration Blocs in 2007, they attempted to consolidate their licensing authority. In particular, Greek Cypriots’ cooperation with Israel in the energy field can bring about additional tensions to Turkish- Israeli relations.
In parallel, it was meaningful that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stressed Turkey as “the longest coastal state to Mediterranean” when he reacted against the leaked Palmer Report in September 2011. Due to international law, coastal parameters hold special importance in EEZ calculations.
As a matter of fact, following the flotilla incident in 2010, the high-level diplomatic contact between Israel and Greek Cypriot administration is noteworthy. In February 2012, for the first time, an Israeli prime minister visited the Greek Cypriot administration, right after President Peres’ visit in November 2011. Moreover, the visit of Demetris Eliades, the defense minister of Greek Cypriot administration, in January 2012 and signings of two agreements on defense cooperation, and “exchange of classified information” is a developing concern for Ankara.
The turbulently changing security environment in the Eastern Mediterranean is not limited to Israeli-Turkish tensions, and is far from over. Indeed, a set of interrelated military-political factors continue to make the sea basin further engaged in the current troublesome Middle Eastern agenda.
Firstly, Moscow’s steady support for the Ba’athist tyranny in Syria is directly related to the future of a Russian naval base in Tartus. Due to the historical paradigm, which is a remnant of Tsarism, Russian strategic thought seeks to avoid being caged in the frozen seas.
Secondly, some argue that one of the Damascus’ objectives in its bloody crackdown is to pave the way for keeping the geostrategic necessities for a possible Alawite state on the Mediterranean coast, in case of a limited defeat against the uprising. According to this point of view, the Assad dictatorship focuses on isolating Sunni-dominated areas from the Mediterranean shores of the country, and more importantly, encouraging Alawite migration toward the shores. Thus, by depending on Russian and Iranian support, a lower-scale Ba’athist rule may survive in a divided Syria.
If this scenario comes true, then a pro-Tehran Alawite state will be established as another shareholder of the Eastern Mediterranean. It should be emphasized that such a political structure will be in close accord with Hezbollah which currently controls the energy ministry in Lebanon. And it should also be emphasized that such an anti-Turkey Ba’athist state would have geopolitically superior naval projection capabilities toward Northern Cyprus than would Greece. A Turkish fighter jet shot down by the Syrian air defenses when flying over international waters in June gives some idea of the significance of the pressing danger.
Furthermore, the Greek administration of Southern Cyprus has always been a safe haven for the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) militants, thus, the seizure of Syria’s Mediterranean shores by Ba’athist elements might be tantamount to the establishment of a PKK terrorist maritime crescent against Turkey from the Southern Cyprus to Latakiya. Moreover, Egypt has opened the Suez Canal to Iranian warships since February 2011.
Therefore, Ankara’s main rival in the sectarianpolitical tensions of the Middle East, Tehran, is now in capable of acting in the Mediterranean where it has key and rogue allies like Syria and Hezbollah. Thus, the sea basin has become a key component of the Middle Eastern regional security environment.
In brief, the current situation highlights the increased and intensive integration between the political agendas of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean affairs. This integration necessitates a new geopolitical understanding and new geostrategic imperatives. In the future, Middle Eastern conflicts are expected to have strong reflections and implications in the sea basin.
In addition, hereafter either worsening or restoration of Israeli-Turkish relations has to cover the Eastern Mediterranean affairs. Finally, from now on, the Cyprus dispute will not be defined by the romantic and revisionist character of Hellenistic fantasies, but the true geostrategic facts of the Middle Eastern turbulence.
The writer, who served as a post-doctoral fellow for the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, holds a PhD from the Turkish War College, and a master’s degree from the Turkish Military Academy.