Turkey's growing aggression shows growing ambitions - analysis
The island of Kastellorizo is usually known as a small, tranquil Greek island just off the coast of Turkey. With crystal-clear water and an uncommon blue cave where tourists enjoy a swim, it is the smallest of the Dodacanese islands, served by ferries that take up to five hours from the nearest large Greek island of Rhodes. On July 21, the idyllic island, with its colorful historic mansions, was at the center of a military alert after Greece learned that Turkey planned a “seismic survey” nearby.
Greek opposition leader Alexis Tsipras held emergency meetings with former defense officials and the head of Greece’s armed forces, Konstantinos Floros, who rushed back from Cyprus. The Hellenic Navy – some 30,000 sailors and 121 ships – was put on alert.
Turkey’s behavior has become increasingly aggressive, according to Greek media. There have been threats by Ankara to use surveys as a cover for energy explorations.
Turkey seems to be everywhere these days. The country has sent soldiers and Syrian mercenaries to Libya to bolster the embattled government in Tripoli. It says it is bombing Kurdistan Workers Party positions in northern Iraq, and it has invaded and occupied northern Syria.
In late July, to cap it all off, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan changed the ancient Church of Hagia Sophia from a museum back into a mosque where prayers could be held. Filled with the pageantry and religious symbolism of a renewed Turkish militancy not seen since the Ottoman era, the lead cleric opened the repurposed mosque while brandishing a sword, after which Erdogan spoke about liberating Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque.
Nowhere are Turkey’s ambitions growing more quickly than in the Mediterranean. Back in November 2019, Turkey signed a deal with Tripoli. Libya is in the midst of a civil war in which Egyptian-backed Gen. Khalifa Haftar is fighting the Government of National Accord in Tripoli.
Overextended and arrogant, Haftar claimed in the spring of 2019 that he would finally take Tripoli. Backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, the general pushed forward, while Turkey and Qatar poured in money and resources to stop him.
Turkey is hostile to the Egyptian government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Erdogan was a supporter of former Egyptian leader Mohammed Morsi and both are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. For Turkey, therefore, Libya was a prize to be seized to humiliate Egypt and gain bases in Africa. Turkey had already tried to insert itself into Sudan and also was building a base in Somalia. Now it was time to grab the Mediterranean.
ON NOVEMBER 28, 2019, Turkey said it was signing a deal with Tripoli to give itself rights across the Mediterranean, linking it with Libya. It would counter Greek drilling in the area by doing this, the media said at the time.
Pressured to accept, Libyan leader Fayez al-Sarraj began making frequent trips to Turkey. Turkish Special Forces arrived in Libya armed with Bayraktar drones, and soon the tide was turned against Haftar, as 3,000 Syrian mercenaries recruited by Turkey were offloading to fight.
Erdogan phoned US President Donald Trump four times – on January 28, May 23, June 8 and July 14 – to pressure the US to back its plans in Libya. Turkish naval frigates were dispatched, and in July, Adm. Adnan Özbal met with the Libyans.
The Turkish deployment to Libya started small but has grown since. Turkey’s parliament agreed with the deployment on December 30, and the first official troops arrived on January 5, days after Israel, Greece and Cyprus had signed a pipeline deal.
Electronic warfare vehicles came as well. On July 4, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar made a triumphant visit, more like a Roman proconsul who had come to survey a dominion than as an equal partner of Libya. He toured Al-Watiya Air Base and Misrata, where Turkey wants a naval base.
But not everyone was happy with Akar’s visit. Egypt was threatening to send forces to Libya and planning a massive naval drill. Greece, Cyprus, the UAE and France slammed Turkey. Shuttle diplomacy between Greece, Egypt, the UAE, Cyprus and France was bringing them closer.
Akar said Turkey would do whatever it wanted under international law in Libya. That night, unidentified warplanes bombed Watiya Air Base, destroying Turkish equipment. Someone was watching the Turks.
At sea, Turkey was laying claim to what it calls a “Blue Motherland,” a huge swath of water that would negate Greek and Cypriot claims, potentially sink the carefully constructed blocks of exclusive economic zones they claim, and give Turkey rights to drilling for energy across the sea and off the coast of Libya. France was so disgusted by Turkey’s aggressive moves that it pulled out of a NATO naval mission and complained about Turkish threats to its ships. It wasn’t the first harassment of ships by Turkey; Ankara had also harassed an Israeli scientific vessel in December.
Turkey is clear in its intentions. It claims historic rights to Libya based on the supposed presence of ethnic Turks, Ottoman-era relations and this new maritime deal. It has shown off a new anti-ship missile called the Atmaca in early July, as if to say that this is what awaits anyone who challenges Ankara at sea.
Turkey has already received one Russian S-400 air defense system and is acquiring more, which it could use to threaten Greek jets over the islands off Turkey’s shore.
ANKARA’S 112-SHIP navy is also growing, as the country wants to put a new light aircraft carrier to sea and use its new Bayraktar drones to project power. Ankara seeks to add 24 more ships to its fleet, according to the Turkish radio and television corporation TRT. There will be new Type 214 submarines and frigates. Turkey also bought a new $37 million drill ship, its third, in February.
Turkey also uses research vessels and drilling ships to lay claims to the Mediterranean. On July 30, it sent its Barbaros seismic research vessel toward Cyprus. Meanwhile, the Oruc Reis research vessel left Greek waters where it had been sailing 200 kilometers south of Kastellorizo.
This is a high-stakes game in which Turkey can put pressure on Greece and Cyprus whenever it feels like it by inserting ships into their waters and then moving them to cause alerts and crises. Ankara appears to thrive on these kinds of crises. It heats them up every month, either in Syria, Iraq or Libya, playing regional countries like a violin to get favors from the US, Russia or the European Union, depending on Erdogan’s needs.
Turkey is also moving with a full-court press toward Libya. As it uses its ships at sea like chess pieces to pressure the Greeks, it ferries men and arms via C-130 military transport planes from Turkey to Libya. This “air bridge” has grown in recent months.
It is matched by a similar air bridge from the UAE and Russia to stop the Turks at the gates of Sirte in Libya. This is prime real estate with oil and strategic value. Egypt’s Sisi has thrown down the gauntlet to Erdogan here on these windswept shores of Libya. This area, where Roman Legions once marched and German Nazi Gen. Erwin Rommel once swept the British toward Egypt, is now a new battleground.
Sisi secured the support of his own parliament and generals as well as regional Arab states, except Qatar, to stop the Turks. For Sisi, this could be an existential challenge. He has watched his friend Haftar suffer reverses. For the US, the Russians coming into Libya set off alarm bells.
There is a silver lining. Most in the region want Turkish ambitions and constant stoking of crises to stop, but they don’t want an Egypt-Turkey confrontation that will draw in countries from Europe to the Gulf. Already Turkey has tried to pressure Italy and Malta, which potentially hold the keys to stopping migrants from Libya sailing for Europe.
Tunisia is on the brink of political chaos as UAE-backed politicians slam the Turkish-backed Muslim Brotherhood in that country. On July 29, reports indicated that Turkey might pause its energy exploration and hold talks with Greece. For the few hundred residents of Kastellorizo, already suffering from lack of tourists due to COVID-19, the reduction in tensions would be welcome news.