Turkish strategy in the Mediterranean

The fall of the Ottoman Empire marks the end of an era lived for some with great nostalgia but also with resentment. Time should soothe, but not forget, the memories of the past. Yet feelings of frustration, resentment and revenge are being fostered by President Erdoğan. His policies are conducted with the Ottoman past as background music to give credibility to his actions. Separatism, division and provocation are modes of action of the Turkish strategy in the Mediterranean to advance its interests.

The abolition of the Ottoman caliphate on 3 March 1924 was validated by decree by the Turkish Grand Assembly. This historical event was materialised by the application of the clauses of the Treaty of Lausanne on 24 July 1923. The treaty also specifies the borders of today’s Turkey. For the Turkish President, this treaty is not acceptable and must be challenged. He believes that the clauses are unfavorable to the country’s interests, especially economic ones. To mark the spirits, the first collective prayer in the Saint Sophie Mosque took place on 24 July 2020. The choice of this date sounds, symbolically, like the beginning of a revenge on the past. Mixing politics and ideology, the Turkish strategy in the Mediterranean serves the exclusive interests of Ankara.

The stated ambition of Turkish foreign policy is to develop its interests by reaching out to many nations in Africa, Central Europe, the Caucasus… This is in line with Turkey’s 2023 foreign policy objectives. Turkey’s sense of imprisonment and encirclement amplifies its need for development and outreach beyond its borders. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is thus capitalising on the Sevres syndrome that affects the entire Turkish population. In the Mediterranean, the desire to develop its footprint goes beyond its policy of influence. The questioning of the maritime space in the Mediterranean is part of the president’s agenda. After Sultan Mehmed VI signed the Treaty of Sevres, Mustapha Kemal Atatürk led a war of independence that brought about the more advantageous Lausanne Treaty. Does Recep Tayyip Erdoğan think he is the third man to shake up the Lausanne Treaty and the Montego Bay Convention, a vast undertaking…

Historical and ideological references are cultivated by Turkey to justify its objectives in the Mediterranean. For example, the Ottoman past brings Turkey back to a part of the population that makes up the Libyan nation. The community of Libyan Kuloglu Turks3 represents more than one million members or about 16% of the population. This community includes influential key figures in the Muslim Brotherhood. Fayez al-Sarraj is part of this community. He was President of the Council of the Government of National Unity of the State of Libya based in Tripoli against Marshal Khalifa Haftar based in Tobruk. Libya is thus ideologically divided by the origins of the leaders who make up the country. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s argument to justify his intervention in Libyan affairs is based solely on Turkey’s connection to the Kuloglu community. Thus, on 27 November 2019, the two countries signed a security and military cooperation agreement against the opposing side. In return, a maritime delimitation agreement was signed on the same day. This agreement provides for a maritime territorial continuity of Turkish and Libyan waters. The division is thus part of Turkey’s political strategy to assert itself and its interests.

Turkey did not ratify the 1982 Montego Bay Convention in order not to have an international limitation imposed on its exclusive economic zone due to the natural proximity of Turkish, Greek and Cypriot territories…

Turkish unilateralism was awakened on this issue when huge offshore gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean were discovered. In 2015, Egypt with the Italian group ENI discovered the Zohr gas field. Since then, Egypt has announced that it has discovered new fields. With these latest discoveries, Egypt hopes to be able to export gas for about 12 billion dollars. This situation exacerbates the rivalries with Libya and therefore Turkey over the definition of maritime borders. In the Cypriot sector, Turkey recognises only the north of the island4 but claims full control of Cyprus. In this spirit, Ankara did not hesitate to obstruct gas exploration vessels that were heading towards the Exclusive Economic Zone of Cyprus. Some time later, Turkey did not hesitate to send its exploration ships to encroach on the disputed areas. Turkey is thus taking an aggressive and provocative stance. It is betting that its opponents will play avoidance games in order not to enter into an open conflict. In this way, Turkey seeks to impose itself by applying a strategy of fait accompli. Consistent with its international policy objectives, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean allows Ankara to position itself as a key leader and precursor of a pro-Turkish “new regional order” to ensure its energy security and development.

In order to forget its precarious economic situation, Erdogan’s Turkey is redoubling its activism on the international scene. It cultivates communalism and divisions by provoking situations that are critical to its own interests. Turkey uses the grandeur of its Ottoman past to claim rights that it no longer has and that it does not want to negotiate with regional actors. Turkey is going it alone without regard for international rules, cultivating power relations with its partners, which it considers alternately allies and adversaries.

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