The aggressive Turkish maritime policy destabilizes the Mediterranean

02/11/21

Recent Turkish threats to expel ten Ambassadors1, "Guilty" of having signed an appeal for the release of Osman Kavala, have brought to the attention of the media and the international community the situation of Turkey and the entire eastern Mediterranean area, which has become extremely hot due to the drift authoritarian and the numerous provocations of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Specifically, after a few days the threat of expulsion was withdrawn by the Turkish leader who, in view of the G-20, wanted to avoid a very serious diplomatic crisis, but the fiery declarations remain and further affect the alliance relations, increasingly only formal with NATO countries.

Turkey has, in fact, been a strategic ally of Westerners since the end of the Second World War, even if relations with allies have not always been idyllic, mainly due to the well-known internal human rights issues,1973 Turkish invasion of Cyprus and continuing tensions with Greece, another strategic member of NATO (read article).

The first moves of President Erdoğan, immediately after his election in 2002, had given the international community hope, thanks to the inauguration of the strategy of the "No problem with the neighborhood", which had led to a ceasefire with the Kurds of the PKK, the signing of a protocol to normalize relations with Yerevan, an easing of tensions in the Aegean, an intensification of trade with Arab countries and continuation of the negotiations for accession to the European Union, with a view to further approaching the West. Instead, despite this promising start, one has subsequently emerged neo-Ottoman vision of a recovery of regional influence, which made it clear that Erdoğan would have interpreted the role of president of Turkey in a significantly more unscrupulous way than his predecessors.

The need to secure the home front, after the failed coup d'etat of 15 July 2016, then led the Turkish leader to call new elections in June 2018, a year and a half ahead of schedule. Elections that raised some criticisms from the EU and the OSCE, which underlined that the electoral campaign took place in conditions quite far from democratic standards.

Having secured the home front, Erdoğan was thus able to continue his foreign policy aimed at recovering the ancient Turkish role in the Muslim world, but also at a relative decline in relations with the United States and Europe (the country has now become culturally different from the European vision on civil rights), in favor of a multi-directional vision that also includes the ambiguous relationship with antagonistic ex-empires such as Russia (see military orders on S-400 and nuclear missiles for the Mersin power plant) and the development of relations with the emerging Chinese economic and military power, due to the diversification of economic, energy and security relations.

He therefore decided to accentuate his international activism, especially in the Mediterranean-Middle Eastern area, to materialize the maritime policy called "Blue Patria" (Mavi Vatan), conceived by retired admiral Cem Gürdeniz, aimed at protecting the borders and Turkish maritime interests by any means.

The migratory aspect

In this context, in the summer of 2020 Turkey managed to acquire control of the Libyan Coast Guard patrol boats (donated by Italy), a maneuver that contributed to significantly worsening relations between Rome and Ankara, up to three years earlier relatively good. It was an event that goes far beyond the simple "changing of the guard" on the operation of the Libyan coastal naval component. The Libyan patrol boats, which now host Turkish instructors together with Libyan crew, officially to teach how to patrol the search and rescue area of ​​competence, in fact also affect European issues, given that those ships represent a means of controlling migratory flows which, right from those coasts, they sail towards Italy and Europe (even if some EU countries continue to turn a deaf ear… deaf). And to think that the Libyan SAR zone was wanted, designed and paid for by Italy, like the aforementioned patrol boats that now ply its waters and whose operational use is now decided by "mutual agreement" between Tripoli and Ankara.

If we consider that the other great migratory corridor runs by land from the Anatolian peninsula to the Balkans and central Europe, we understand how, in essence, the two main and potentially destabilizing migratory flows affecting the Mediterranean area, which is extremely sensitive to the balance. geopolitics ranging from Europe to the Persian Gulf, are essentially managed according to the neo-Ottoman vision of Turkey.

A Turkey that has already shown that it is increasingly aggressive, intolerant and completely indifferent to the requests of the international community, that it does not like diplomatic mediations and that it considers international rules and agreements (especially those concerning sea routes) good only for archives.

The energetic aspect

At the origin of Turkish aggression and its maritime expansion there is also the need to grab the energy resources present on the sea. In exchange for military support against Tobruk, in fact, on 27 November 2019 Ankara formalized two bilateral agreements, one of military cooperation and one concerning the delimitation of the borders of the respective maritime EEZs (read article).

The second agreement, in particular, has enormous economic implications, as the Levant Sea is dense with gigantic gas fields (among others, Leviathan of 450 billion m3, Zohr of 850 billion m3, Noor estimated the triple of Zohr). Billions of cubic meters of natural gas on which Turkey is making claims, declaring them to belong to the EEZ of Northern Cyprus, illegally occupied in 1978 and not recognized by the international community.

Claims considered illegitimate by both the European Union and the United States and which have raised legal doubts and perplexities by many coastal countries. Claims that have already made Ankara and Rome collide when, in 2018, the Turkish military vessels prevented the Italian Saipem 12000 (ENI) from drilling in the areas around Cyprus (block 6), duly authorized by the legitimate government of Nicosia. Claims that have risked and are likely to heavily influence the military balance in the area as well.

On the basis of this agreement, in fact, last year Ankara carried out oil and natural gas exploration operations near the Greek island of Kastellorizzo. At the time, the unauthorized presence of 17 military ships close to the Greek island was perceived by Athens as a serious threat to its national sovereignty, leading it to denounce the violation of its territorial waters. The diplomatic protests were followed by the dispatch of Greek military ships to the southern and south-eastern Aegean and the elevation of the alert status for the Greek armed forces. The conduct of a joint US-Greece exercise (with the presence of the aircraft carrier Eisenhower), temporarily brought to an end the Turkish explorations, which resumed immediately as soon as the US left the Aegean.

With regard to the block 6, of which the Italian ENI and the French Total are still legally concessionaires, who are regularly paying their respective shares, in the case of new drilling attempts in the area (currently announced for the first half of 2022) it is likely that the Turkish reaction , following the same aggressive line of conduct, it could be that of having its military ships intervene again to remove the Italian and French exploration ships. In the case of refusal, some observers believe that, to reaffirm its claims, Turkey could be attracted by the possibility of stronger actions, going so far as to board "non-cooperating" ships to seize them or even open fire with medium-caliber armament, first for intimidation and then, possibly, directing the shot against the hull. Other sources, on the other hand, would indicate that Turkey is preparing to carry out new research and drilling precisely in block 6, in order to occupy the area before any initiatives by legally authorized dealers, further damaging the economies of Italy and France.

The situation has become so incandescent that, as early as the summer of 2020, the French foreign minister made it clear that Turkey was drilling "... off the coast of Crete, in violation of international maritime law ...".

In carrying out its provocations Ankara is confident that no NATO ship will ever fire on Turkish ships, yet formally allies. So far the ignorance of many European allies has therefore played the game of Turkey since, while stigmatizing Erdoğan's destabilizing behavior, it has not gone beyond diplomatic protests and the sending of military ships to patrol or exercise in the Mediterranean Oriental with rules of engagement, therefore, aimed at containing Turkish aggression rather than aimed at reaffirming international maritime law.

It will be interesting to see if Turkey will maintain its aggressive approach even when the planned drilling by the US company Exxon Mobile begins in the block 10, which should start this month. In this context, it should be emphasized that the Turkish units have always shown a conciliatory attitude when it came to facing US, Egyptian, Israeli, Russian, British, Qatari or South Korean units, much less compliant or submissive towards attitudes that harm their respective national interests. .

But there are not only interests related to the extraction of subsea resources. The Exclusive Economic Zone claimed by Ankara, in fact, would also be an obligatory passage for gas pipelines directed to Italy or Europe, such as the future pipeline EastMed, which should make Israel, Cyprus and Greece suppliers of natural gas to Europe and whose route would pass through the new “Turkish” EEZ. This would allow Ankara to enter the profitable business.

In a nutshell, this is a potentially explosive situation with considerable economic implications, which would require a firm stance on the European side but which, on the other hand, is highlighting all the inertia of the European Union.

For his part, President Biden, probably too focused on the American detachment from the Mediterranean in favor of the Indo-Pacific area, does not seem particularly interested in intervening to restore reason to an important ally, whose muscular policy is seriously destabilizing the whole 'area and is raising more than one doubt about the real Turkish role in the basin.

Turkey, on the other hand, could find in Egypt an obstacle to its expansionist policy. The important Arab country, in fact, has already shown its opposition to Turkish positions by openly and resolutely supporting General Haftar and threatening to intervene harshly if the armed clashes spread east of Sirte. Promises that Ankara knew would be honored and this contributed greatly to stabilizing the situation on the ground.

On the sea, Cairo has entered into an agreement with Athens regarding their respective EEZs, an agreement that does not take into account the self-proclaimed Turkish EEZ. At this point the question is whether Ankara will still dare to provoke Cairo as it is doing with Europe. Erdoğan's cherished dream of a new Ottoman empire, rich in energy resources, already downsized on the sands of Cyrenaica, where he aspired to control all the enormous hydrocarbon reserves present in the Libyan subsoil, could therefore encounter new obstacles or shipwreck in the waters around Cyprus.

The geopolitical aspect

The aggressiveness shown by Ankara in foreign policy and on maritime issues must not, however, be read with the only foreign-economic policy keys. The vehement, and overbearing, Turkish activism must also be read in an internal key at a time when, as a result of the numerous purges and the increasingly serious economic crisis, the figure of President Erdoğan is rather tarnished. Turkey, in fact, is experiencing a particularly dramatic moment, with the Turkish lira having lost about 25% of its value since the beginning of the year, causing the prices of the main goods to soar and further compromising the country's economic situation. (read article). The use of increasingly harsh nationalist propaganda, therefore, has the main purpose of diverting public attention from internal problems.

Added to this is the attempt to present itself to the Muslim world as a political reference, capable of challenging Western power also in the religious field. In fact, the decisions of summer 2020 must be interpreted in this sense, which led to transforming the Hagia Sofia museum, a place of immense historical, artistic and religious value, into mosques, and an important reliquary of the Byzantine Christian tradition in Istanbul, the church of San Salvatore in Chora. Indeed, Turkey seems to have by now embarked on a path that, in Erdoğan's intentions, should allow Ankara to continue the path of distancing its political and military interests with the West and rapprochement with the Middle East, with the aim of returning to be an important actor even in those areas from which it had been removed after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, in the aftermath of the end of the First World War.

However, it seems that the attempt not to remain politically marginalized by compacting the Arab-Islamic world around the Turkish territorial / maritime claims is not going well, given that Ankara has found in Cairo an antagonist determined to contain its expansionist aspirations. Egypt, as mentioned, has strongly opposed Turkey both on the sea (agreement with Greece on the respective EEZs) and on land (support for General Haftar). An Egypt that also has the United Arab Emirates on its side, which last year sent some F-16 fighters to Crete, and another political and religious giant of the Arab-Islamic world, Sunni Saudi Arabia, which balances the Shiite Iran, which instead seems to be lukewarmly supporting Turkey. A divided Arab-Islamic world, therefore, whose compact support would instead be indispensable to Turkey in order not to remain isolated and to be able to successfully pursue the neo-Ottoman expansionist policy that characterizes this historical period.

Erdoğan is a man of bombastic words, we know by now, as we know that he is very careful to measure his declarations and actions, in order to obtain the maximum effect. So far he has always managed to stop before the irreparable but, and this is the real danger, it is not certain that, with the serious deterioration of the Turkish economic and social situation, his "sense of proportion" will remain unchanged. The loss of internal consensus, determined by the serious economic crisis that is gripping the country, could in fact lead the Turkish leader to accentuate the aggressive traits, to a point of no return, which would upset the delicate Mediterranean balances in a difficult way.

Not only that, if Erdoğan's maneuvers do not achieve the desired results, the Turkish leader could decide to use all the possibilities that the Mediterranean offers him to destabilize his north shore. If not promptly removed from Ankara's destructuring influence, by downsizing its aggressive Mavi Vatan policy, the connecting routes between the north and south banks would in fact be an additional tool available to Erdoğan to further undermine the entire theater and to put pressure on it. on Europe, indiscriminately opening up migratory flows to Italy and the Balkans. A Europe that is slowly and painfully emerging from the pandemic but, above all, a Europe still divided by cynical and opportunistic political divisions that make it mute and deaf in foreign policy and, above all, strategically blind.

The fact that Turkey is immersed in an area characterized by extreme instability has so far suggested to Western diplomacies to avoid antagonizing a country that is still crucial for NATO or to further erode its relations with the European Union, risking a laceration that is difficult to heal. in economic and political relations, with the hope that this would lead Erdoğan to a partial review of his foreign policy objectives and to greater restraint on domestic issues.

However, the perhaps excessive phlegm so far shown by the European Union on Turkish issues has given Ankara a lot of "leeway" and other ample opportunities for expansion. This caused the overall situation to deteriorate further, adding further concern to an already complicated context in a fairly unstable theater.

In this context, past experiences and recent provocations have led Greece to assume a significantly more active role in the area, also involving France, which is also interested, as mentioned, in the resources of the block 6.

In such a situation, Italy must take into account all the variables of the puzzle, from the importance of natural gas extraction in the Levant Sea to the interest in continuing oil extraction with the plants already present in Libya, in areas in whose Turkish influence is growing, sometimes to the detriment of Italian interests. To this, as already mentioned, it should be added that Ankara, now that it manages the operations of the Libyan patrol boats "jointly" with Tripoli, holds the keys to the flows of illegal immigration by sea, directed towards Sicily.

From a geopolitical point of view, it has therefore become indispensable that our political leaders understand as soon as possible that a game is being played on the Aegean waters and whose results will have important implications for our energy policy and the affirmation of international maritime law. Therefore, they must stop showing an incredible strategic blindness and being absent players in a theater, such as that of the Mediterranean, which in the past has always represented our main director of political attention and which still plays an irreplaceable role today because it is the seat of a dense network of relationships and numerous strategic, economic and political interests, which go far beyond its geographical borders.

The possible persistence of the lack of an adequate maritime strategic vision (read article) would entail not only a drastic reduction of our prestige in the international arena, but would also represent a very serious economic vulnerability, as our role in the enlarged Mediterranean would be greatly reduced, with all that this entails at the economic and safety level of maritime routes. .

And since geopolitics does not admit power gaps, if Europe and Italy find it hard to make their voices heard, the spaces left free are filled by actors who apply an assertive policy with determination.

Conclusions

At a time when many major crises unfold in a sea large enough to host different peoples with different interests, but still small enough for all events to eventually influence each other, add up and produce universal consequences, it is essential to allow our fleet to navigate in full operational efficiency to protect national political and economic interests, acting jointly with allies and with determination where necessary, without leaving other countries the possibility to intervene individually in matters also of our interest, allowing them to increase its role in the Mediterranean chessboard and to fill a void left by our strategic blindness.

In this context, should it be decided to send Italian military units to the Levant Sea, even jointly with allied naval groups, in order to reaffirm the rules of international law and to protect our legitimate interests, it would be necessary first of all to authorize consistent rules of engagement. to the assigned mission (read article).

This would have a high geopolitical significance and would demonstrate the will to return to the defense of national interests in the round, especially on the sea, the main route for world trade, indispensable for us, and a source of important energy resources. A significant and decisive presence of military ships in the Eastern Mediterranean would also send a clear signal to Erdoğan that the recreation is over and would urge him to implement a less muscular and more inspired by a reasonable dialogue policy, while proposing us as reliable interlocutors and mediators in that area of ​​our greatest economic and political interest.

But in order to develop a foreign policy that protects national interests, it is first of all necessary to have clear what are the objectives to be pursued and what are the limits beyond which any negotiation is impossible. The sole purpose and mission of every government and political leaders is to guarantee the security of the nation in the international context, promoting its values ​​and principles, increasing the prestige of the state and the economic and social well-being of its citizens. This is even more true in a world like the present one, extremely fluid and with changing, flexible and unpredictable scenarios, which always bring out new threats to security and freedom. A more assertive international posture and on the sea would allow to better fulfill the mission of protecting the prestige and interests of the country and a credible, trained and operationally ready military instrument allows to better support the national foreign policy, having the ability to use effectively force and being willing to employ it should deterrence and diplomacy prove inconclusive.

To do this one should, therefore, reverse the approach of the last ten years, manifesting a strong political will to protect our legitimate needs against those who arbitrarily threaten our security and our economic interests, whether it is linked to the freedom of navigation endangered by the presence of pirates or the kidnapping of compatriots or which is connected to the protection of search for energy sources.

Whether we want to admit it or not, the greatest threats to our economy, security, prestige and freedom do not come from crises developed in the hinterland of the various continents, but from the coasts and the sea and it is in this particular three-dimensional operational environment that they must be countered. , promptly providing adequate tools to those responsible for carrying out this mission. Pretending nothing does not solve the problems and allows the threat to grow and thrive. As the popular saying goes: the wolf eats whoever makes sheep.

History, in fact, teaches us that it is often necessary to demonstrate that we are determined to use all the force at our disposal, if indispensable, to support (and not replace) diplomatic initiatives. The current prolonged crisis in the Levant Sea, triggered by Turkish provocations and claims, is no exception. Only a skilful balance between diplomatic dialectic and military determination on the part of ours and of the most advanced countries, Mediterranean in particular, will be able to induce Turkey to abandon the route that leads to confrontation, helping to lay the foundations for a shared stabilization of the Mediterranean. to a primary national interest of Italy.

Renato Scarfi (CESMAR)

1 United States, France, Germany, Canada, Finland, Denmark, Holland, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden

Photo: Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri / web / presidency of the republic of Turkey / US Navy / Twitter

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