The two faces of the Turkish attitude

09/11/21

Last week we talked about the aggressive Turkish posture in foreign policy and, in particular, on the Levant Sea, where enormous economic interests related to the exploitation of underwater energy resources and the passage of strategic gas pipelines for Italy and Europe are converging. . Turkish interests, however, are not expressed only on the sea, but also in other directions, towards Central Asia (through Azerbaijan and Afghanistan), towards the Persian Gulf (through closer relations with Iran), towards the Red Sea (naval base near Mogadishu), towards the Balkans (Albania, Bulgaria and Hungary) and in the eastern and central Mediterranean (naval bases and airports in Libya). The goal is to secure energy and raw material supplies while, at the same time, expanding its political (and military) influence.

Furthermore, in the eastern Mediterranean, Ankara is extremely active both on land and on the sea, as I have already had the opportunity to underline (read article).

An all-round activism, characterized by methods that have not failed to arouse perplexity and friction, including important ones: from the position taken in the Syrian crisis, which in 2019 led Ankara to carry out military operations across the border, to the continuous muscular interventions on the sea to to prevent the research and extraction of marine resources in the eastern Mediterranean by other countries, to the active military and naval support in Libya in support of Fayez al-Serraji, just to mention a few episodes that have had more global resonance.

The hunger for energy and raw materials

During the last conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, for control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Turkey actively supported Baku by sending military advisers, weapons and airplanes. The Turkish air force also reportedly participated actively in military operations against Armenia.

In this regard, it should be emphasized that relations between the two countries have been very solid for some time and Ankara was the first capital to recognize Baku's independence in 1991. But, above all, friendly relations allow Turkey to access extremely favorable conditions to the rich Azerbaijani natural resources present in the Caspian Sea.

Besides the purchase of natural gas, Ankara also participates in infrastructure projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. However, the most relevant project is the trans-Anatolian pipeline, known as Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) which Azerbaijan has as its destination Europe, bypassing Ukraine and Italy and crossing the Balkans.

In Afghanistan Turkey was among the first to welcome the new Taliban political course, despite the numerous question marks about individual freedoms. Question marks that find dramatic answers every day, such as the barbaric murder of Frozan Sagi, the Afghan activist recently killed with three other women. Nevertheless, Turkey continued on the path of approach / support to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and was one of the very few presences at the inauguration ceremony of the new government, together with China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and Qatar. A clear signal as to which countries the Afghan executive intends to collaborate with. An executive whose composition has not, however, contributed to dispelling the doubts of international observers, quite the contrary. The composition of the executive, in fact, stands out for its monopolistic conception of power and for presenting itself, if possible, even more compact than the previous one from an ethnic, ideological and gender point of view.

With all due respect to the much-publicized "inclusive" government, the premier is Mohammad Hasan Akhund, whose name is included in the UN blacklist of international terrorists. Then follow other names of wanted terrorists, who have been given the leadership of key ministries such as Defense (to Mullah Yaqoub, son of Mullah Omar) and the Interior, who will be led by Serajuddin Haqqani, on whose head there is a bounty. of $ 10 million from the FBI. An Interior Minister whom many observers place very close to al-Qaeda and theintelligence Pakistani. Among the 33 exponents of the executive there are five other ex-prisoners of Guantanamo, now placed in the Information, Culture, Tribal Affairs, Foreign Affairs and Deputy Directorate of Defense. To what was interpreted by many as an obvious provocation, there was added a fact that did not appear casual but rather a macabre symbolic reference to the challenge launched in 2001: the government took office on 11 September, at twenty years after the attack on the Twin Towers.

But support for the Taliban executive is not without interest on the Turkish side. Indeed, Afghanistan is the territory under which they hide very rich deposits of rare earths and minerals, for an estimated value of approximately 1.000 billion USD. A treasure that could prove to be of fundamental importance, in the coming decades, for global technological innovation, in particular the West. This makes it clear that Erdoğan's Turkey does not go too far when it comes to broadening its economic and political horizons.

Not even the Turkish interest in Libya is ideological, since a game is being played around those stretches of sand in which the possibility of exploiting the enormous hydrocarbon reserves present in the subsoil is at stake. Reserves that are coveted by both the supporters of the Tripoli government and that of Tobruk. At the moment, the unscrupulous Turkish activism in that country seems to be winning, as it is slowly leading to the replacement of historical international collaborations with elements of Ankara (see, for example, the training program for the crews of Libyan patrol boats, up to summer 2020 assured from Italy).

But Libya is also important because with that Arab country Ankara was able to sign the agreement concerning the delimitation of the borders of the respective maritime Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). An agreement that, although considered by many to not adhere to the rules of international maritime law, has enormous economic implications, as the Sea of ​​the Levant is dense with gigantic gas fields, estimated at almost 4.000 billion cubic meters. The area claimed by Ankara would also be an obligatory passage for any future gas pipelines directed to Italy or Europe, such as the gas pipeline EastMed.

The Turkish attitude

After the failed coup of 15 July 2016, Erdoğan, in parallel with the repressive actions in his homeland, showed an activism that has become increasingly aggressive and intolerant of international rules.

An aggression also demonstrated in the Levant Sea in 2018, on the occasion of the long standoff between Turkey and ENI for mining rights off the south-east coast of Cyprus where Ankara, with an intimidating move and without any legal basis , prevented the drilling, duly authorized by Nicosia, by the ship Saipem 12000. In that case, the aggressive Turkish political will was expressed by making its military ships sail in the waters assigned to ENI, preventing them from carrying out their operations and forcing it to give up the search for hydrocarbons in that area.

On May 27, 2020, during the NATO maritime surveillance operation "Sea Guardian", the French frigate Forbin (photo), on patrol in front of Libya, tried to carry out an inspection on board the merchant ship Cirkin, sailed from Turkey and whose destination was clearly Libya. Two Turkish frigates immediately intervened, preventing the inspection. The next day the Cirkin it “regularly” landed in Misrata, where it landed mercenaries and heavy armament material. The following 10 June the Cirkin was intercepted by the Greek frigate Spetses but, once again, two Turkish military vessels prevented on-board inspection. Later, the French frigate Le Courbet retried the inspection but, this time, the Turks directed their firing radar at the French ship (being the target of the firing radar means that the opponent is preparing to fire their weapons), adding the call of their crew at the fighting post. An extremely provocative and aggressive behavior, to which the French responded by renouncing the inspection and suspending, in protest, participation in the NATO “Sea Guardian” operation. The satellite tracking then confirmed that the destination of the Cirkin it was Libya.

The French version has been contested by Turkey which, however, has been accused by several parties of violating the UN embargo on arms supplies to Libya, delivered to al-Sarraj by merchant ships escorted by military ships from Ankara.

Regarding the Syrian conflict, Turkey supports the factions that oppose President Bashar al-Assad. Opposition groups are present in the northwestern region of Idlib and oppose the Syrian government forces backed by Russia, Iran and Lebanese militias from Hetzballah. Furthermore, the difficult cease-fire agreed on March 5, 2020 appears increasingly staggering due to the continuing tensions in the area. On both sides, in fact, there is talk of bombing and mutual breaking of the truce.

The origin of the dispute lies in the presence on the Syrian-Turkish border of the troops of the "Syrian Democratic Forces" (SDF), a multi-ethnic and multi-religious alliance made up of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Armenians and Chechens, which played a role fundamental in the fight against ISIS. This led Ankara to carry out several military operations beyond its borders, the last of which took place in 2019 (operation Source of Peace), with which Turkey took control of some cities in northeastern Syria.

Earlier this month, Turkey was preparing for a new military operation on Syrian territory, in the direction of Kobane. However, considering who he was facing (Russia), negotiations were initiated as a precaution to ensure Moscow's neutrality. A neutrality that was not guaranteed as the Russian counter-proposals were not accepted by the Turks. Therefore, the planned Turkish offensive was not triggered for fear of violent reactions from Moscow and Washington, an actor who does not have forces on the field but who is still politically present on the theater and manifests himself with active support for the Kurdish forces ( supply of material). A Russian convoy then arrived in the same area. Some observers believe that the Kurds, in exchange for aid, have given Moscow the possibility of building an air base, from which they could control all of southern Turkey. The SDF stated that, in the event of a Turkish attack, a devastating reaction would be triggered in the direction of Idlib, which would also lead to the occupation of an important road artery.

In the meantime, there is a gradual rapprochement between Syria, Jordan and other Arab countries, which would portend a political strengthening of the Syrian government at the international level, to the detriment of the rebels supported by Turkey. In this context, some analysts believe that Erdoğan would have participated in the G20 but not in the COP26 precisely in order to be able to be there and be able to evaluate the possible options, in view of a possible military operation. However, in the face of the unexpected political evolution and the decisive reactions of the counterparts, at the time of the publication of this article the Turkish offensive did not take place.

Conclusions

Erdoğan is proving to be anything but insane. In fact, he uses the military instrument in an unscrupulous way but carefully evaluates his moves and sinks the blow only where he has a credible possibility of obtaining the result. He is essentially a ruthless dictator who plays his role by often making over the top statements in an attempt to attract attention, instill fear and stay in his place.

The different attitude found in the episodes previously illustrated therefore makes clear the limits of the political and military action of Ankara, which absolutely cannot be allowed a clash against better prepared forces, with the risk of a sensational military setback and a strengthening of the internal opposition, fueled by the serious economic crisis in progress.

Ankara is, therefore, desperately seeking political victories (with the concrete support of the military) to strengthen its image, which is now significantly more opaque.

In this context, the question of the EEZ claimed by Ankara, which includes the passage area of ​​the pipeline EastMed, becomes of primary economic and political importance for the Turks but also for the Europeans (and Italy).

The pipeline EastMed it is, in fact, a project that the United States (but not only them) consider strategic as it would allow Europe to reduce its dependence on Russian gas. Although pro-Turkish European lobbies have always insisted that the project would be too expensive and unprofitable, the calculations belie their claims. EastMed in fact, it would have a cost of around 7 billion euros, compared to the much more expensive one Nord Stream 2*, valued at approximately 9,5 billion euros. Furthermore, when fully operational, the capacity of the Mediterranean gas pipeline will be around 20 billion cubic meters / year. The importance is such that in 2013 the European Commission defined EastMed as a project of common interest, in which Italy will be present with a 50% stake in IGI Poseidon (owner of EastMed) with Edison-Italia. The other 50% sees the participation of DEPA International, 65% owned by Greece and 35% by Hellenic Petroleum. Italy, therefore, will be the main beneficiary.

Secondly, it should be emphasized that other benefits will come if the tender for the laying of the gas pipeline is won by Italian companies. In this context, Italy, with SNAM, could be an authoritative competitor with excellent chances of winning the order.

The gains deriving from the extraction of gas from the huge Cypriot and Israeli fields, for export to Europe, will also have to be counted. An activity that sees the presence of ENI together with Total, Chevron, Exxon, Shell and Energean. In this context it will be of vital importance to maintain our drilling rights in "Block 6" with Total as Exxon is present in "Block 10" and Energean is in the Israeli EEZ. I remember that we are talking about fields with estimated reserves of billions of cubic meters of gas.

From a political-economic point of view, it should not be overlooked that Puglia (landing point of EastMed) would become one of the great European energy hubs, with everything that can be understood from an economic, industrial and occupational point of view.

The Israelis have never hidden their determination to defend, possibly even with weapons, the construction of EastMed, a project for which the financing is absolutely not in question, nor is its profitability in question. Turkey, the USA and the other actors who act on this fundamental theater know perfectly well what their strategic interests are and they pursue them no ifs and buts.

In this context, the slowness with which Europe reacts to the Turkish statements on the issue of the self-proclaimed EEZ, no longer appears accidental if we consider that in the event of a delay in the implementation of the project EastMed, who could earn a few billion would be Germany, thanks to gas pipelines Nord Stream 1 e 2. If we also consider the close link that has always existed between Berlin and Ankara, with the former welcoming a large number of Turks on its territory, we understand better why Erdoğan does not feel too worried by the statements coming from Brussels. .

When there are tug-of-war involving the economy, it is always good to ask yourself a question: cui prodest?

It's Italy? He seems to stammer and play the subject, without having clear his goals and, therefore, without using all the means at his disposal to protect his national interests (read article). Above all, it leaves ample space for other actors to maneuver and, often, to replace our country in some sectors.

It is enough to look at the figures and it is clear that a battle is being fought in the Levant Sea but which, unfortunately, should be supported with weapons to prevent the Turkish bullying could cause damage of billions of euros to the national and European economy, precisely at the moment when the need to recover from the crisis caused by the pandemic is greatest.

EastMed it is not only a strategic project, but also a vital one for our country. Taking into account its potential and its economic and political implications, Italy too must have a clear policy and should demonstrate its determination to ensure that the oppression suffered by the SAIPEM 12000. The logical consequence should be a policy aimed at protecting our rights in the area, secured by a legitimate concession issued by Nicosia and for which ENI is paying, despite not having the possibility to drill.

A policy aimed at protecting, even contemplating the possible use of weapons, both the construction and operation of the pipeline, against all threats from both terrorist organizations and sovereign states little inclined to multilateralism and respect for international law.

The Eastern Mediterranean is increasingly becoming a crossroads of fundamental geopolitical interests and is now an established source of important energy resources. The energy projects underway could definitively solve the problem of supplying the Old Continent, pending more environmentally friendly energy sources.

While the Turkish interest in entering the big gas pipeline business is clear and understandable, the method adopted is much less justifiable. An extremely aggressive method that has led to a bleak overall picture and that makes us understand how this attitude risks setting fire to the Levant Sea and dragging with it many other actors, perhaps not yet fully aware of the economic and political implications of their indifference. , which translates into a bank for Turkish claims. As mentioned, Erdoğan is anything but insane and has proved that, in the face of a credible harsh reaction, does not show the arrogance and arrogance that shows in front of fearful or undecided opponents.

Consequently, if there is no firm international stance against Turkish provocations in the eastern Mediterranean, similar aggression is to be expected also on the occasion of the planned resumption of drilling by both ENI and Total (first half 2022) and by US and Qatar side (November 2021).

The control of maritime routes and international legality on the sea is vital for the well-being and progress of a nation and, while many important crises unfold in front of our home, on a sea of ​​fundamental importance it has become indispensable, parallel to a very strong national and multilateral diplomatic action, to allow our fleet to navigate in full efficiency and with suitable rules of engagement, to protect national and European political and economic interests.

Renato Scarfi (CESMAR)

* The Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines come from Russia, skipping the Baltic countries and Poland. Nord Stream 1 has been operational since 6 September 2011, while Nord Stream 2 it was completed last September and is expected to become fully operational in December 2021.

Photo: presidency of the republic of turkey / Texas Air National Guard / web / Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri / Marine nationale