Turkey, whose government attempts to create regional crises every month in order to stoke tensions from Libya to Armenia, is now running into increased pressure to stop its escalation of activities in the Mediterranean. It comes as the US Air Force agreed to acquire the F-35s that were meant for Turkey but which Ankara lost because it prefers Russia and Russian S-400s to working with US NATO members.
Ankara is increasingly dominated by a militarist, nationalist and extremist government that has recently sent thousands of Syrian mercenaries to Libya, has been bombing minorities in Iraq and has also threatened to involve itself in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. Turkey has also been involved in northern Syria, stoking extremists and spreading instability in areas from Afrin to Tel Abyad. But it is in the Mediterranean that the next clash may come.
Let's start with the F-35 fiasco. Turkey was a partner in the F-35 program, was supposed to have had its soldiers training on the planes and was going to receive them. However, Ankara decided in 2017 to buy Russia's S-400 air defense system instead. The US urged and begged Turkey not to, with one US senator even proposing that America buy the Russian system from Turkey to help Turkey save face. Now it is official: The US will buy eight F-35A warplanes that were meant for Turkey, according to Defense News. This also includes "six F-35As built for the Air Force and modifications that will bring the Turkish jets in line with the US configuration."
Meanwhile, Turkey has been criticized by the US for Mediterranean activity that has raised tensions with Greece. The US State Department, which is usually very pro-Ankara, critiqued Turkey's plans for operations around the Greek island of Kastellorizo and any work in disputed waters off the island. Kastellorizo is just two kilometers from the Turkish coast and around 40 km. from the larger Greek island of Rhodes. The island is the easternmost edge of Greece and is considered one of the prettiest and smallest of the Dodacanese islands. It has a population of several hundred, and Turkey likely views it as low hanging fruit to test Greece, because Greek fighter pilots have to fly furthest to get to it.
Turkey says it is merely doing a seismic survey. But Ankara has been increasingly claiming a huge swath of the Mediterranean – and claiming it is a "blue motherland" for Turkey. Ankara has sent drilling vessels and naval drills to test Athens and signed a deal with the embattled government in Libya to lay claim to a huge area of water between Cyprus and Greece.
Germany has also warned Turkey about straining EU-Turkey ties over the continued attempts to pressure Greece. German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass made comments Tuesday. Turkey has exploited the COVID-19 crisis to try to get more areas from Libya to Iraq, thinking that the EU is weak and won't respond. Turkey in February and March tried to pressure the EU by threatening to force Syrian refugees to cross the border into Greece.
Ankara creates a new crisis every month to distract from what it is doing. For instance, it is building a TurkStream pipeline to eastern Europe and is trying to sabotage an Israeli deal with Greece and Cyprus for a similar pipeline. Israel has approved that pipeline deal; Greece warned Turkey about it two days ago. Greece, the UAE, Egypt and France have all critiqued Turkey's maritime role in the past.
With the EastMed deal moving forward six months after the trilateral signing, reports also said Chevron was buying Noble Energy, which will mean new progress for offshore energy fields along Israel's coasts. This may all be linked, but Ankara's role in destabilizing the Mediterranean is therefore more important.
Ankara's role has to be seen as an arc of potential conflicts. That means tensions with Greece, which is tied to its S-400s and Russia and Syria, as well as its role in Libya. Turkey is only in Libya because of its energy deals; it sought to get Libya and the waters off the coast in one deal.
Now Egypt says it may intervene in Libya to stop Turkey. Ankara is backing Tripoli, but Cairo backs the Libyan National Army in eastern Libya. Ankara sought to exploit Tripoli's weakness, and a supply of poor Syrian rebels who needed a new place to fight, to secure its water claims. Berlin, Rome and Paris have all threatened sanctions on countries interfering in Libya. Meanwhile, Turkey has held meetings with Malta and Italy about its views.
It's not clear if Turkey's recent actions around the Greek islands, as well as demands to do drilling and underwater surveys, are just to test Greece and the EU, or if it will proceed. There has been increased air activity, including Turkish drones allegedly flying off the coast of Greek islands, and more Turkish ships are apparently moving their Aksaz naval base.
Greece is on alert for violations of its airspace and waters. The social media user @ItaMilRadar wrote on Tuesday that these tensions included Turkish F-165s being intercepted by Greek pilots near Kastellorizo. If only Turkey had acquired the F-35 rather than the S-400s, it might have been Turkish F-35s overflying the waters off the island.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.