Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan creates a crisis every month with different countries as a way to fan nationalism and religious extremism at home and distract from mishandling of the economy. Last November Turkey signed a deal with the embattled government of Tripoli in Libya and laid claim to a massive swath of the Mediterranean. Turkey set itself on a collision course with Egypt, Greece and Europe over its new claims. But this is what Ankara wanted and why it continues to go forward this week with new crises on the water.
How does the 'crisis-of-the-month' strategy work for Ankara? Every month the leadership chooses either a new invasion of Iraq, or Syria, or to push up against Greece or Egypt or Cyprus, to stir the pot. For instance, on June 15 Ankara launched Operation Claw-Eagle, bombing villages across northern Iraq claiming to be "neutralizing PKK militants." There is no evidence that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) had carried out any recent attacks.
Turkey simply began bombing with F-16s and drones because it needed to keep the military doing something every month. Ever since a July 2016 coup Ankara has been using the military as much as possible to keep it fighting somewhere. For instance it invaded Syria with Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and 2017. Then in January 2018 it invaded peaceful Afrin, in northern Syria, causing 160,000 Kurds to flee. Afrin is now a center of human trafficking and ethnic cleansing where minorities have been forced to leave by Turkish-backed Syrian rebel extremists.
Turkey then began the invasion of northern Syria's Tel Abyad in October 2019. Then it signed the Libya deal and began to heat up its roles in Idlib, northern Iraq, Libya and the crisis at sea. Turkey sent drones and soldiers to Libya in December 2019. In April 2020 it helped rout the forces of the Libya National Army and Egypt had to threaten to intervene in June and July to stop Turkey. Meanwhile Turkey had fought the Syrian regime in Idlib in February and March and pressured Russia toward a new deal, asking for more S-400 air defense systems. Then Turkey shifted focus to Iraq in June and then to converting the historic Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque. It then said it would "liberate Al-Aqsa" in Jerusalem, perhaps hinting at a new crisis with Israel.
But before targeting Israel, Turkey sought to push its claims in the Mediterranean. This had already caused a domino effect, causing Greece, Egypt, the UAE and France to come together to condemn Turkey's aggression. Then Greece and Egypt signed a deal on August 6. This deal cuts the Libya-Turkey water deal in half. It also comes after Israel, Cyprus and Greece signed a deal in January for a pipeline and then finalized aspects of that deal in July.
Turkey is sending its navy to sea with drilling and survey ships this week to challenge these deals and put its facts on the ground. Turkey sent the ship Oruç Reis to conduct "survey activity" far in the Mediterranean between Cyprus and Crete. Turkey says it will "defend the rights" of itself and Northern Cyprus, an unrecognized country that Turkey factors into its claims at sea.
Turkey's ultra-nationalist foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who is known for tweeting that Europeans are "spoiled racist children, who should know their place" went to Beirut this over the weekend to try to push Ankara's agenda in the wake of the explosion there and then met Azerbaijan's foreign minister.
Now he says Greece has not reciprocated Ankara's calls for discussions. Turkey will thus send ships where it likes. European Union countries, which are afraid of Turkey because they pay Turkey billions of euros to keep refugees from coming to Europe since 2015, have nevertheless critiqued Ankara's actions in the Mediterranean.
Turkey has sent the Oruç Reis, a large seismic research vessel that looks like a floating whale, to conduct "research" at sea. This is a research mission with a lot of military muscle behind it. Turkey issued a "Navtex" to warn countries where the vessel was going and then sent the Oruç Reis, two logistic vessels, three frigates, gunboats and several submarines to sea. To stoke nationalism Turkey's media shows the box-like research boat surrounded by the pride of Turkish naval ships. It looks to some like a historic naval move, conjuring up memories of the battle of Lepanto and other naval spats with the West and Greece.
Athens is livid. Greece says it won't accept NATO's "hands-off approach," and it wants more European countries to do something to stop the provocations. It has already had to sound alarm bells due to Turkey's harassment of the tiny Greece island of Kastellorizo in the last months. The US State Department, despite many pro-Turkey voices like former Ambassador Jim Jeffrey present, has said it is concerned. There is a lot of naval posturing with Turkish ships sailing near Greek islands off the coast of Turkey, and Greece talking about alerts and putting naval ships to sea. Egypt also had a naval exercise. Turkey says it has new missiles for its ships.
The current crisis at sea looks to be a lot of posturing that will give Ankara's pro-government press and state media something to write about. Ankara is the largest jailer of journalists in the world so its media is entirely sympathetic to the ruling AK Party. Dissidents in Turkey are often imprisoned for years just for critiquing the government on social media, often labeled "terrorists." There is no check on the militarist decisions in Ankara, and Ankara knows that weekly military drills or appearing to be challenging Greece, Egypt, Iraq, the PKK, EU, NATO, Syria, the US and basically everyone, makes Turkey's leadership seem important. This comes as Turkey's currency continues a disastrous decline and questions are raised about its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The stories of drilling, where a research ship is sent with a massive naval escort, may be more about distracting from the economic crisis than actually fighting Greece at sea. Ankara's track record shows that it usually uses Syrian rebels to fight for it in Libya and Syria and only conducts military campaigns against those who can't shoot back, such as Kurds in northern Iraq; when it comes up against an Egyptian red line in Libya or Russia in Syria, it generally stops. It's unclear where that red line may be in the Mediterranean. Ankara is trying to find out.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.