Turkey’s relationship with the West has become increasingly deadlocked in the past few years and especially in the past few weeks. Lately, the relationship between Turkey and Europe, especially France, has further soured after Ankara’s actions in the eastern Mediterranean, where a number of countries are vying for rights to drill for hydrocarbon resources.
Turkey, Greece and Cyprus are engaged in an escalated dispute over rights to territorial waters and natural resources in the eastern Mediterranean since plans emerged for a natural gas pipeline to transport Israeli gas to Europe via Cyprus and Greece. In response to its exclusion from the project, Turkey has repeatedly sent out research vessels to explore hydrocarbons in internationally recognised Cypriot and Greek territorial waters since last year.
The increased tensions between French President Emmanuel Macron and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began in June, when a French frigate on a NATO mission enforce a U.N. arms embargo on Libya and was harassed by Turkish naval vessels escorting a cargo ship suspected of moving weapons, according to France. Ankara rejects this account and says the ship was carrying humanitarian aid.
On Sept. 10, Macron said that Europe needed to be “clear and firm” with Erdoğan’s government over its actions, during a meeting with the leaders of six other southern EU member states, dubbed the “Med7”, in Corsica. He said that at the moment Turkey was “no longer a partner in the region”, and Ankara had “intensified provocations in a way that is not worthy of a great state. The Turkish people are great people and deserve something else”.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry described Macron’s comments as “arrogant” and “colonialist” and a sign “of his own weakness and despair”. Erdoğan’s top aide, Fahrettin Altun, meanwhile labelled the French president as a “wannabe Napoleon” on a Mediterranean campaign.
Ankara has been manoeuvring to drive Paris into a corner in Africa. Turkey throws its weight behind Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), which recently pushed back a 14-month assault on capital Tripoli by the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) and its commander, rebel General Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and France.
In July, Turkey signed a military agreement with Niger, signalling Ankara’s interest in maintaining a foothold in the oil rich, war-torn Libya next door.
Separately, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu became the first foreign diplomat to visit the Mali after mass protests against corruption, economic mismanagement and a dispute over legislative elections led to a military coup which overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on Aug. 18.
Niger and Mali are both former French colonies and members of an international anti-insurgent operation spearheaded by France to back up local forces against jihadists in the Sahel region.
However, France has been giving Turkey a dose of their own medicine. Last month, Macron invited GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj to visit Paris.
Paris sent air and naval units to the eastern Mediterranean to join military exercises with Italy, Greece and Cyprus and to deter Turkish navy-escorted surveying activities in the sub-region. Macron has repeatedly called for European Union sanctions against Turkey, accusing the county of attacking the sovereignty of EU member states.
Then, earlier this month, Macron visited Iraq where he met a delegation of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, led by President Nechirvan Barzani, which underscored the sudden ubiquity of Turkey-France disputes. The French leader announced his efforts to launch an initiative alongside the United Nations to support a process of sovereignty for the Kurdish region, an indirect message to Turkey, whose cross-border military operation into northern Iraq in June – aimed at disrupting Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants – angered Baghdad and Erbil.
France, Germany and the United States sided with Greece and the Greek Cypriot government on the eastern Mediterranean crisis. Washington urged Ankara to stop any plans for explorations off the Greek islands in the sub-region, and Berlin has repeatedly reaffirmed full solidarity with Athens and Nicosia on the matter.
The U.S. and the Greek Cypriot government signed a memorandum of understanding to create a training centre on Saturday after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Nicosia. The new centre, funded by the United States, will provide expertise on border security and non-proliferation. And this month, Washington lifted a decades-old arms embargo on Cyprus for the purchase of non-lethal defence equipment, a decision that outraged Turkey.
These moves that harm Turkish national interests are not by accident. These crucial diplomatic defeats occur because Erdoğan’s Turkey is too weak to defend its interests in foreign capitals. No reputable think tank in Washington, for instance, is willing to cater to Turkish officials apart from places like the Atlantic Council, which has established a reputation in the representation field as the ‘Foreign Money Talks’ school.
Erdoğan’s warm relationships with U.S. President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Merkel and Russia’s Vladimir Putin surely help to reduce tensions and prevent the worst in international affairs from happening, however, the leaders are way too ineffective in curbing the resistance of their countries’ institutions against Erdoğan’s demands. So, as a solution, Erdoğan shovels millions of dollars to the foreign lobbyists to get elected officials offices by backdoor agreements. Until now, this tactic is not working either due to Erdoğan’s bad reputation; nobody wants to be seen or known as Erdoğan’s friends in Western capitals.
The Turkish president has focused on headline-grabbing issues, such as the aforementioned foreign policy brawls, as he is having a hard time crafting a domestic message for an increasingly troubled population that will get the country back on the straight and narrow. So far, they are only helpful to a certain extent.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry is now being ridiculed as Turkey’s ‘Condemnation Ministry’ following its never-ending statements of either ‘’slamming” a foreign government or ‘’scolding” another one.
According to the ministry’s statements in the first 11 days of September, Turkey denounced about a dozen countries, in addition to the Med7 and the Arab League, the latter of which condemned Turkey’s regional activities. Turkey has also rebuked the UAE and Bahrain for recognised the state of Israel, despite Ankara doing the same in 1949.
Not only in the Middle East, Erdoğan has issue with the peace agreements being signed in the Balkans as well. Trump has announced that Kosovo and Serbia will pursue closer political and commercial relations and that the former will establish relations with Israel. One of the conditions of the deal is for Serbia and Kosovo to move their embassies to Jerusalem. Kosovo’s decision to locate its diplomatic presence to Jerusalem was immediately denounced by the Turkish Foreign Ministry; likewise for Serbia in moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Apart from condemning all these accords being arranged by various countries in different geographic locations, Turkey was disturbed by maritime delimitation agreements regarding areas around its seas. Ankara said the historical deal signed between Egypt and Greece to establish a joint exclusive economic zone was ‘’void and null”.
On Friday, credit rating agency Moody’s downgraded Turkey’s debt rating to ‘B2’ – lower than in 2002 when Erdoğan’s party came into power – citing rising geopolitical risks, among other concerns.
The Turkish head of state took the throne in 2002 after Turkey’s last big crisis swept away his rivals. He has won every national and local election since, largely on the back of rising living standards. But 2018 was the year his growth model, fuelled mainly by cheap money, finally ran out of speed.
On top of it all, the relationship between Turkey and Russia has taken a turn for the worse in Syria, Ankara’s earlier major battlefront. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made his first visit to war-torn Syria since 2012, when he reaffirmed support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, Erdoğan’s archenemy. In an indirect message to Turkey, Lavrov was pictured on Monday with a delegation from Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish political party designated a terrorist organisation by Ankara, in Moscow, in a meeting that coincided with a visit from a high-level Turkish delegation to the Russian capital.
If the current course of events is maintained, it may well drag Turkey into economic and political turmoil, instability and polarisation. That could render the country more like a post-Arab Spring Middle Eastern nation dragged into sectarian strife and instability, rather than one building economic wealth, pluralist democracy, consensus building and tolerance – qualities it was known for a decade ago.