Isolated Turkey aware that pressure is growing
At an informal meeting in Berlin late last month, EU foreign ministers debated the Turkish-Greek tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. At the heart of the issue is Turkey’s initiative to drill for oil and gas in a disputed maritime jurisdiction area that it considers to be its own.
The ministers were divided on how to handle the conflict. France supported Greece and Cyprus against Turkey, while some other EU countries, such as Germany, Spain and Italy, showed slightly more understanding for Ankara’s position. After the meeting, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc was expressing solidarity with Greece and Cyprus.
Under the EU’s Treaty of Lisbon, member states have an obligation to side with a fellow member state in any conflict with a non-EU nation. Therefore, there was nothing surprising in EU ministers supporting Greece and Cyprus. Furthermore, in a meeting where only one side is represented, the decision will always be against the party that is not allowed to explain its case.
Until recently, France was extending only verbal support to Greece, but last month it took an additional step: It decided to sell it 10 Rafale fighter aircraft, together with eight more that it will donate. In order to accelerate the delivery, Paris started negotiations with Egypt with a view to delivering to Greece aircraft that were being manufactured for Cairo.
Also last month, French President Emmanuel Macron said he had set red lines with regards to Turkey’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean “because Ankara respects actions, not words.” It is unclear whether Macron will declare war on Turkey in case Ankara remains undeterred in carrying out seismic research in what it claims to be its own maritime jurisdiction area.
The EU announced after the Berlin meeting that it is preparing to sanction Turkey over the drilling issue.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the members of his Justice and Development Party’s parliamentary group that Turkey may negotiate with any country in the Eastern Mediterranean except Cyprus, which it does not recognize as a state. He may have decided to focus on the areas where Turkey has a better chance of success. Reiterating Turkey’s rights regarding its maritime jurisdiction area, which is constrained by the Greek island of Kastellorizo, may be one of them. This could be an important stage in Erdogan’s prioritizing of the Eastern Mediterranean crisis. Emile Hokayem, Middle East security expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, described Turkey’s situation in clearer words by saying: “Erdogan’s adventure in the Eastern Mediterranean probably has more support than any of his other regional adventures.”
Greece announced before the informal EU meeting that it would insist on coercive sanctions being imposed on Turkey because of the seismic research it is carrying out in zones also claimed by Athens. It must have reiterated this attitude during the meeting. Ankara maintains that the boundaries of the Turkish-Greek maritime jurisdiction zones are contested.
The EU announced after the Berlin meeting that it is preparing to sanction Turkey over the drilling issue. According to the initial indications, the sanctions would first target persons identified as participating in what they consider to be illegal drilling activities. These sanctions could be expanded to cover assets such as ships or the use of EU member states’ ports, technology and supplies.
The US no longer plays the role that it used to in the conflicts between Turkey and Greece. That role is now taken up by Germany, and indirectly by the EU. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seems to have confined his role to further pushing Ankara to make more concessions on bilateral issues, such as Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system and the related blocking of the delivery of F-35 fighter jets. As if it wanted to further irritate Ankara, Washington has now proposed selling the F-35s that were being manufactured for Turkey to the UAE.
Greece can be expected to be as active as possible in the Eastern Mediterranean in a bid to lead Turkey to take a wrong step. It is up to Turkey not to fall into this trap. Ankara seems determined to carry on with its exploration in the area, but it will probably avoid any step that goes beyond clear-cut legitimacy because it is aware that the circle around it is tightening.
It will likely learn the lesson of Iran, which has been subjected to severe sanctions over the years, either unilaterally by the US or as a consequence of UN Security Council resolutions. Turkey may be more resilient to sanctions than Tehran because it is more or less self-sufficient in terms of basic commodities and is surrounded by neighbors that would easily volunteer to break any EU sanctions. However, to be right may not always be sufficient to win, especially now that Turkey finds itself isolated.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar