Containment of Turkey a far better strategy than confrontation

Containment of Turkey a far better strategy than confrontation

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A handout photograph taken and relased by the Turkish Defence Ministery on July 9,2019 shows a Turkish Navy warship patroling next to Turkey's drilling ship "Fatih" dispatched towards the eastern Mediterranean near Cyprus. (AFP)

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas last week warned Turkey over its drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean. The latest Turkish project is taking place in areas Ankara considers part of its exclusive economic zone, according to the maritime demarcation it agreed with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) last year. Tensions between Turkey and many other nations have reached new highs recently. Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia this month joined Greece and Cyprus in presenting a note verbale to the UN secretary-general outlining why the maritime delimitation jurisdiction agreed between Libya and Turkey should not be registered. The question is what went wrong? In 2016, Arab militaries were conducting maneuvers at the Incirlik airbase in Turkey. What happened? Did Turkey’s behavior change, did Arab states’ behavior change, or did circumstances change? A little of each of these factors happened, but they fed off each other and resentment piled up, leading to a deadlock in relations.

Turkey is perceived by certain Arab countries as an interventionist and expansionist state. The memory of Ottoman domination is haunting many Arab leaders. Arab states have many points of contention with Turkey. Beyond its intervention in Syria, Turkey has also reached Libya and is expanding in the Eastern Mediterranean. On top of that, the support Turkey has offered to Qatar following the boycott by the Anti-Terror Quartet has strained relations between them and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Nevertheless, the most important perceived danger of all is its support to the Muslim Brotherhood and the threat it poses to existing Arab governments. Istanbul under Erdogan has become a center for all dissidents from the Arab world. 

Having said that, dealing with Turkey as the ultimate enemy and adopting a zero-sum perspective will only result in more regional instability. A zero-sum perspective will drive toward full mobilization to counter Turkey, which will have a backlash on the Turkish side and result in proxy conflicts that will start in Libya but could extend to other areas and lead to more bloodshed in the region. In these difficult circumstances, deconfliction is essential and diplomacy is key.

Dealing with Turkey as the ultimate enemy and adopting a zero-sum perspective will only result in more regional instability

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

Preventing a possible military conflict is necessary. Instead of looking at Turkey as the enemy, it is better to look at it as a frenemy, i.e., a foe on certain fronts and a partner on others. Instead of sinking into the argument of who is right and who is wrong, it would be better to start negotiations that are conducive to a mutually agreed solution. Hence, it is important to compartmentalize relations with Turkey and focus on the issues on which, as Arabs, we have a common interest with Ankara. Turkey should be approached in a strategic manner, with regional stability as the driver of relations. Starting with areas of common interests, in which cooperation is possible, will thaw the freeze in relations and facilitate negotiations on other issues. Containment is a far better strategy than confrontation.

On Syria, the Arab states and Turkey have a common interest in countering Bashar Assad. The Syrian president is Iran’s paw in the Levant. All the Iranian support for non-state actors goes through Damascus. Assad’s defeat would greatly reduce Iran’s influence in the region, which is the prime threat to Arab Gulf countries. The Idlib front is heating up and Turkey and its local partners are the main force that can push back against Assad’s advances.

The other front that is a major point of contention between Arab states and Turkey, in which a clash should be avoided, is Libya. Turkey has found in the GNA an ally in the Eastern Mediterranean. An agreement between Greece, Cyprus and Israel to demarcate their exclusive economic zones left Turkey with a smaller area to explore for resources than it wishes. The three nations have also agreed to build a pipeline to transport gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe via Greece, bypassing Turkey. Ankara’s agreement with Libya would outflank this agreement, as no energy company will conduct exploration activities in contested waters. A maritime demarcation line with Libya will change the balance in the Eastern Mediterranean. Additionally, Turkey’s intervention in Libya is supposed to reward it with many reconstruction deals once stability is restored. 

There is a standoff on Sirte. A potential Egyptian incursion in response to any Turkish-backed GNA assault would be costly and probably risky for Cairo, which also has the problem of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The dam will create a huge water problem that Egypt needs to address. Nevertheless, Egypt has concrete security concerns regarding Libya. It fears that mercenaries brought to the fight can infiltrate its borders. On the other hand, if Turkey chooses to proceed east, it needs reinforcements that will be costly and not necessarily sustainable.

The US has delegated the Libya problem to Europe, which it accuses of not doing enough. Europe could use its leverage on Greece to reach a settlement with Turkey on the Eastern Mediterranean in return for concessions on Libya. In this regard, Egypt can play an important role due to its coastline in the region. In addition to that, the Turkish and Arab media should reduce the rhetoric. A scaling down of the media war could be used as a confidence-building measure between Arab states and Turkey. Later, other issues can be addressed one by one as their relations improve and as trust builds up. 

It is better to contain the animosity with Turkey and treat it rather than let it grow, otherwise, in a few years, Arab states might have relations with Turkey similar to those they currently have with Iran. Arab states need more regional friends, not more foes. The points of contention should be addressed and solutions should be reached in order to decrease tensions. Using might to deal with the problems will not solve them, nor will a stalemate make them go away. In the end, stability is in everyone’s interest.

  • Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a PhD in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
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