Endy Zeminedes, executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC), spoke to a July 24th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) in an interview with Cliff Smith, director of the Washington Project at the Middle East Forum, about issues concerning Turkey, Greece, and the wider Middle East. The following is a summary of his comments:
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's recent reelection poses a challenge for world powers and their policies in dealing with Ankara and the Erdoğan regime. Erdoğan's agreement to admit Sweden to NATO, of which Turkey is a member, is now conditioned on a new demand, namely the West's support for Turkey's accession to the European Union (EU).
In the wake of Sweden's concession to Erdoğan's demand to curb the freedoms of Kurdish expatriates, Erdoğan should not be rewarded, and Sweden's concessions should have been sufficient to change Erdoğan's behavior. Instead, "Turkey decided that they're going to play the blackmail game in NATO." The U.S. is responding by holding up the F-16 deal Ankara is eager to secure. The State Department had previously pursued sales of the fighter jets to Turkey in the "interest of NATO unity."
The central issue to HALC is that Turkey must back away from its belligerent stand against Greece. Because Greece has a "qualitative military edge" with its upgraded F-16, F-35, and Rafale fighter jets, Erdoğan faces a short-term quantitative and qualitative disadvantage should he persist in his intransigence. Talk of a "reset" between Turkey and Greece is part of a pattern with Erdoğan. When talks look promising, he pulls back to extract further concessions. During the second half of 2022 and into 2023, when there was a marked number of "Turkish incursions and violations of Greek airspace," Erdoğan manufactured reasons to excuse his aggression. Turkey's provocations escalate tensions as "a matter of policy," as indicated by its stoppage of overflight violations of Greece's airspace after Greece provided humanitarian aid to victims of Turkey's devastating earthquake.
Greece is amenable to an agreement with Turkey "delineating our continental shelf, our maritime zones, which include both the territorial waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZ)." While Greece is a signatory to the international law of the sea, Turkey is not, which is why Erdoğan interprets maritime zones to suit his needs, regardless of international law. Greece's success in negotiating EEZ's with Italy and Egypt points to Turkey as the impediment to resolving this issue.
Greece and Cyprus "both hold vetoes in Brussels," and Erdoğan is fully aware that if he does not deescalate tensions with the two countries, concessions from the EU will not happen. This is one of the reasons he "put the EU back on the table." Although Erdoğan talks about seeking EU membership, with Turkey's weak economy and massive debt payments, "he doesn't want the responsibilities of an EU member; he wants just the rights." Full EU membership would rein in Erdoğan's "kleptocracy" and restrain his control of the Turkish economy.
"I think [Erdoğan's] real play here is to get an enhanced customs union and some type of visa liberalization for Turks to travel within the Schengen area." The fact that Germany and France were the countries which broke off negotiations with Turkey strongly suggests there are significant "hurdles" to Turkey's negotiation of visa liberalization, which would enable "88 million citizens of Erdoğan's Turkey . . . to freely run around Europe." It is a reach, given the extent to which Europe has "revolted against migration."
Erdoğan's relationships with Israel, the Arab nations, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are also part of his charm campaign. His overtures to Israel are based on Turkey's security and energy needs. The long history of robust commercial relations between the two nations presents Israel as the most viable country among the key energy players of the Eastern Mediterranean for Erdoğan to approach. Talks are underway, but as long as Erdoğan may plausibly be seen as effectively the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in the Middle East, and as long as Turkey shelters Hamas and cooperates with Iran, the closeness between Jerusalem and Ankara decades past will remain out of reach.
Whether Erdoğan is willing to jeopardize his support for the MB will similarly determine whether a real rapprochement with Egypt's president al-Sisi is possible. Given al-Sisi's animus towards the MB after having deposed it, Egypt will exact "stringent conditions" before such a rapprochement could occur.
A different dynamic is unfolding between Turkey and the GCC. Relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia are thawing, and the United Arab Emirates is easing some of Turkey's economic strain by buying up its assets "on the cheap." The GCC sees an opportunity to "break Erdoğan off of Qatar" and exert some influence over him in the aftermath of Turkey's aid to Qatar during the 2021 GCC blockade.
Erdoğan's charm campaign involves "shift[ing] the goalposts" as a negotiating tactic to pressure the EU "so he can settle on what it is he really wants, which is some type of enhanced special economic relationship that may be even unique to Turkey."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.