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For a number of years the EU has been hoodwinked by Turkey’s leader, now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is a master practitioner of the art. Likewise, the US president, Barack Obama, who once spoke of a model partnership between a predominantly Christian and a predominantly Muslim nation. The penny has not yet dropped for Donald Trump, who frequently takes the Turkish president’s calls.[1]

While the Europeans were talking about shared values and EU membership, Recep Tayyib Erdogan was pursuing his own “make Turkey great again” agenda. A keynote speech held by Professor Ibrahim Kalin, now Erdogan’s spokesman, at the Istanbul Forum in October 2012 was a rejection of the European model of secular democracy, politics and pluralism and a blueprint for Turkey’s role in a new geopolitical framework.

The following year Turkey’s ruling AK (Justice and Development) party abandoned all pretence at being a liberal democracy. As the Istanbul party chairman made clear: “The Turkey that we will construct, the future that we will bring about, is not going to be a future that they [Turkey’s liberals] will be able to accept.” This was cemented in a constitutional referendum in April 2017, which led to the creation of an executive presidency.

Two years ago, President Erdogan’s head of international relations, Ayse Sözen Usluer, also noted: “For the last 10-15 years in particular, Turkey has not felt the need to choose between the West and the East, or between the US and Russia. Turkey no longer sees its foreign policy within the framework of the Cold War or East vs. West alliances.”[2] In other words, Turkey felt free to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. This is, for example, apparent both in Syria and Libya.

Turkish foreign policy under Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been marked by considerable outreach and through TIKA (Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency) Turkey has extended its influence to Central Asia, the Balkans and Africa. The Gülen movement’s worldwide network of schools, which were earlier backed by the Turkish foreign ministry, has also played a role.

In addition to Turkey’s demonstration of its soft power, such as providing covid-19 aid to 125 countries, it has become increasingly reliant on hard power to reach its foreign policy goals. In 2017 as part of its aid package to Somalia, Turkey opened a military base in Mogadishu to train Somali soldiers. The same year Turkey stationed 5,000 troops in Qatar and constructed a military base after Qatar’s standoff with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Emirates and Bahrain.

In 2018 Turkey leased Suakin Island in the Red Sea from Sudan, where it plans to build a port and berths. Under the guise of humanitarian aid, it has also gained a foothold in Yemen, where Turkish officers are training local militias.[3] In February, Turkey and Djibouti, which occupies a strategic position at the entrance to the Red Sea, concluded an agreement on maritime cooperation.

At the same time, Erdogan Administration has used Turkey’s declaration of the TRNC (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) in 1983 to justify its exploration and drilling activities in the ROC (Republic of Cyprus)’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This has been strongly condemned by the EU and the US has stated it is “deeply concerned”. The threat by Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to terminate Turkey’s EU candidacy will cut no ice.

Last year two massive naval exercises, Blue Homeland and Sea Wolf, which included the Black Sea and the Aegean, made it clear that Turkey regards the Eastern Mediterranean as ‘mare nostrum’. Its naval build-up includes a combined light aircraft carrier and assault ship, which is being fitted out, as well as frigates and submarines. There is also talk of establishing a naval base in Cyprus.

In January last year Egypt together with Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Italy and the Palestinian Authority formed the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, but Turkey was excluded. The US has asked to be a permanent observer and France has requested to join.Two months later US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took part in the sixth summit of the tripartite alliance between Cyprus, Greece and Israel, where in a joint declaration the leaders agreed to support energy independence and security and to “defend against external malignant influences” in the Eastern Mediterranean and the broader Middle East.[4]

In December 2019 the US Congress passed a bipartisan bill on Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership, which recognized Greece as a valuable member of NATO and a key pillar of security in the region. Israel was also recognized as a steadfast ally and Cyprus a key strategic partner.[5] However, at the same time Turkey upped the ante and agreed with Libya on a joint EEZ, which will block plans by the tripartite alliance for a gas pipeline to Europe via Cyprus, Crete, Greece and Italy.

Greek defence minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos said that his country was ready for a military conflict with Turkey to defend its sovereign rights in the Mediterranean. Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar dismissed this as “a slip of the tongue” and added: “I want to underline as a mathematical certainty that Greeks would not want to wage war on Turkey.” [6]

The EU is currently preoccupied with the covid-19 pandemic and agreement on a recovery fund but the growing conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean is an issue that demands attention. The EU’s response to Turkey’s occupation of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria was muted and likewise the lack of response to what Genocide Watch has termed “the full ethnic, religious and demographic destruction of northern Syria”. [7]

French president Emmanuel Macron has warned against the emergence of authoritarian powers, essentially Turkey and Russia, and has called for Europe to become autonomous in terms of military strategy and capability.[8] Now that Donald Trump has begun the retreat from Europe with the withdrawal of 9,500 US troops from Germany, it is about time the EU thinks along those lines.