It is encouraging that the German government has finally taken a stand on Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy, writes Robert Ellis and argues that Thursday’s debate in the European Parliament on Turkey’s negative role in the Eastern Mediterranean and Monday’s Foreign Affairs Council meeting will indicate which way the wind blows.
Robert Ellis is a member of the Advisory Board at Vocal Europe, a Brussels-based think-tank dedicated to research on EU diplomatic actions, enlargement policy and democracy.
With regard to Operation Peace Spring, Turkey’s invasion of the Kurdish area of Rojava in northeastern Syria in October last year, the State Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Development, Maria Flachsbarth (CDU), has stated that the Federal Government cannot find any grounds that would legitimize the operation under international law.
Apart from the presence of the Turkish army in Idlib province, there have been two previous Turkish incursions into Syria, in 2016 and 2018, which have led to the occupation of the areas concerned: the Manbij pocket and the Kurdish enclave of Afrin.
The first has been ‘Turkified’ with Turkish schools, hospitals, university faculties and even a Turkish post office. The Turkish lira is also the preferred currency and not the Syrian pound.
Operation Olive Branch in Afrin and Peace Spring east of the Euphrates have resulted in more than 367,000 Kurdish refugees and accusations of ethnic cleansing, as the intention is to resettle Syrian refugees in Turkey in what previously were Kurdish areas.
In both cases, Turkey has made use of motley bands of jihadis, who in Afrin have terrorized the local population with murder, rape, looting, seizure of property and olive groves, where the olive oil is transported to Turkey and sold to Europe.
To begin with, Turkey relied on soft power, that is to extend its influence to the Balkans, Central Asia and Africa through TIKA (Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency) as well as the Gülen movement’s schools, but in recent years there has been an increasing military dimension.
In 2017 Turkey sent troops and constructed a base in Qatar, which has underpinned a number of President Erdogan’s enterprises. It also opened a military base in Mogadishu as part of Turkey’s aid package to Somalia.
The following year Turkey leased Suakin Island in the Red Sea from Sudan and in February this year concluded an agreement on maritime cooperation with Djibouti at the entrance to the Red Sea.
The bone of contention with Europe is Cyprus. Already in 1964 the UN’s Security Council sent a peacekeeping force, UNFICYP, to keep the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots apart, and it is still there.
In 1974 Turkey intervened after a coup by Greek Cypriot extremists and has since occupied northern Cyprus. In 1983 Turkish Cypriots declared the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is only recognized by Turkey. Now the issue is the exploitation of the natural gas reserves in Cyprus’ EEZ (exclusive economic zone), which Turkey does not recognize.
Licences have been granted to a number of foreign companies, including Eni (Italy) and Total (France), but exploration vessels have been harassed by Turkish warships. In addition, Turkish vessels with a naval escort have begun drilling operations in Cyprus’ EEZ, as Turkey claims this belongs to its continental shelf.
However, as Turkey has not signed and ratified UNCLOS (UN Convention on Law of the Sea), a disagreement cannot be settled by its Court of Arbitration.
At the same time, the situation has been further complicated by Turkey’s “Blue Homeland” naval doctrine, which lays claim to 462,000 square kilometers in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean and the Black Sea as Turkish territory. This was reinforced in February and May last year with two massive naval exercises to project Turkey’s hard power.
Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn has pointed out that in Middle Eastern politics everybody tends to overplay their hand, and the same applies to Turkey’s Libyan adventure.
Driven by the need for better ratings – support for Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) has fallen to 30%, and to prop up a sagging economy, Turkey has backed Tripoli’s GNA (Government of National Accord) militarily, including the import of thousands of Syrian mercenaries.
In November Turkey agreed on a joint EEZ with the GNA which not only spans the Mediterranean, blocking a planned gas pipeline from Cyprus to Europe via Crete, Greece and Italy, but also violates Greece’s maritime rights.
Defence minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos has said Greece is ready for a military conflict with Turkey but Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar has dismissed this as “a slip of the tongue”.
In February the EU imposed symbolic sanctions on Turkey because of its drilling activities off Cyprus but France has called for a sterner response. In return, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has warned of retaliation if the EU takes additional measures.
Thursday’s debate in the European Parliament on Turkey’s negative role in the Eastern Mediterranean and Monday’s meeting in the Foreign Affairs Council, where Turkey is the main item on the agenda, will indicate which way the wind blows.
But as French President Emmanuel Macron has said, we are at a moment of truth, when the EU has to decide whether it is a political project, with everything that implies, or a market project.