Turkey increasingly aggressive. Italian interests in the Eastern Mediterranean

(To Renato Scarfi)

Since the economic and health problems caused by the pandemic weren't enough, the aggressive foreign policy of a Turkey increasingly looking for areas in which to expand its political, economic and (probably) religious influence continues to rage in the Mediterranean area.

Indeed, the provocation of Turkish military ships against French military ships was not enough1 (nation still formally allied to NATO), the highly symbolic (and religious) provocation of a Hagia Sofia converted into a mosque was not enough, the previous provocation launched with a Navtex was not enough2 last July, which announced a phantom search for oil in the waters adjacent to Kastellorizzo, a Greek island just three kilometers from the Turkish coast3.

We also needed the last (in chronological order) Turkish provocation which, again with a Navtex, announced the return in force to Greek waters for other oil explorations, this time connected to naval exercises. A series of provocations that is risking to set fire to the Levant Sea and to drag many other actors with it. But let's go in order.

On 10 June, during the NATO maritime surveillance operation "Sea Guardian" (which replaced NATO "Active Endeavor" from November 2016), a Turkish military ship aimed its firing radar at a unit French military (photo). A provocative and extremely aggressive action that triggered the formal protests in Paris and the temporary French withdrawal from the NATO operation starting from 1 July, but which could have triggered much more serious reactions and counter-reactions.

It is also known to all that, starting from July 24, the Hagia Sofia museum is no longer a museum of immense historical, artistic and religious value, but a mosque. Pressure from the international community to revise this highly symbolic decision was not followed up. To the damage was also added insult since Erdoğan, who had tried to reassure the world about the maintenance of the precious and stupendous Byzantine mosaics of Christian inspiration, contained within the museum, claiming that they would not be touched, obscured them, subtracting them at the sight of those who would have liked to admire those splendid works of art. It is not hazardous to think that they will not be subject, in the future, to any kind of maintenance or restoration and that they will probably be destined for irrecoverable deterioration, guilty of not being Muslim.

The most recent maritime claims, on the other hand, are inspired by the agreement signed with Libya by al-Serraj on 27 November 2019, concerning the delimitation of the borders of the respective maritime Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). An agreement that is considered illegal by both the European Union and the United States and has raised legal and economic doubts and perplexities on the part of many other coastal countries. Nonetheless, Ankara has decided to launch military activities in the area that clearly represent a provocation and a threat to Greek national sovereignty, as they also appear to be conducting without prior authorization into Hellenic territorial waters. This led to harsh formal protests from Athens, which denounced the violation of its territorial waters.

Only the intervention of the US naval group of the aircraft carrier Eisenhower (photo), engaged in joint exercises with the Greek ships, calmed the "waters", suggesting to Turkey to conclude the "research" in advance of the declared times. Unfortunately only temporarily because, as soon as the US moved away from the Aegean, at the beginning of August Ankara returned to the same area of ​​Kastellorizzo for a new campaign to search for energy sources, an activity carried out in conjunction with a naval exercise in the area. southeast of the islands of Kastellorizzo and Rhodes, close to the Greek air and sea space. Athens immediately urged the urgent convening of a European Union meeting on the issue and Brussels “promptly” replied that it would be convened for… the end of August.

The inadequate European phlegm has led France to intervene in an area of ​​its strong economic interest (Total) and in a worryingly deteriorating situation, strengthening its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean area and launching a joint exercise with the Greek Navy, which has also been joined by a unit of the Italian Navy, finally released from the snares of a policy in recent years too intent on national quarrels and often blind outside our borders. A participation, that of the Italian Navy, with a high geopolitical significance and which wants, together with the other allied navies, to urge Turkey to a less muscular and more inspired by dialogue policy, but which also has a strong meaning of the will to return to defense all-round national interests, especially on the sea, the main route for world trade, which is indispensable for us, and a source of important energy resources.

It is known, in fact, that the eastern Mediterranean is home to enormous natural gas fields that ENI, despite having obtained concessions for drilling by Nicosia in the past, was unable to exploit due to the decisive obstructive intervention of Turkey which has prevented, with its military ships, the drilling operations by the Italian ship SAIPEM 120004.

Waiting for a necessary position by the European Union, Germany, the rotating president of the Council, sent its Foreign Minister to Athens and Ankara to meet the Greek and Turkish counterparts and to probe their real negotiating intentions, to then report the impressions received during the aforementioned meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the European Union on 27 and 28 August in Berlin.

Meanwhile, Turkey has released a new Navtex, with which it warns that new naval exercises will be conducted in the eastern Mediterranean at the beginning of September. According to some media reports, the maneuvers will involve several military units that will be engaged in shooting training activities.

The maritime aggression demonstrated by Ankara must not, however, be read with the only political-economic key that made it take the course of the "Navtex" policy, a sort of new "gunboat diplomacy", used to protect and expand aggressively its maritime borders. The vehement and overbearing Turkish activism at sea and in foreign policy must also be read in an internal key at a time when, due to the numerous purges, the figure of President Erdoğan does not seem to shine in a particular way. Added to this is the attempt to propose itself to the Muslim world as a political reference, capable of challenging Western power also in the religious field. In this regard, I still remember the decisions relating to the aforementioned Hagia Sophia, last July, and the transformation into a mosque last August 21 of a reliquary of the Byzantine Christian tradition in Istanbul, the church of San Salvatore in Chora.

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 to be successful, given that Ankara has found in Cairo an antagonist determined to contain its expansionist aspirations. In fact, Egypt is opposing Turkey both on the sea, with the recent agreements with Greece on the respective EEZs, and on land, where in Libya it supports General Haftar. An Egypt that also has the United Arab Emirates on its side, which have recently sent some F-16 fighters to Crete, and another political and religious giant of the Arab-Islamic world, Sunni Saudi Arabia, which balances Shiite Iran , which instead seems to support 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.

And, while a game is being played on the Aegean waters whose results will have important implications for the affirmation of international law, our defense military leaders continue to show incredible strategic blindness and to penalize our presence in a theater, such as that Mediterranean, which in the past has always represented our main direction of political attention, but that lately it seems to have become less important than the power games that take place inside the Roman palaces.

Perhaps too intent on cultivating the culture of power this is not used, for example, to facilitate the achievement of the full operational capability of the aircraft carrier Cavour (the F-35B aircraft destined for the Navy were unexpectedly acquired by the Air Force) but to carry out apparently useless redeployment exercises of those same aircraft in Pantelleria as a "power projection" (sic!), tracing a vision very much in vogue in the past twenty years of a "natural aircraft carrier peninsula extending into the Mediterranean"5 but that, in times such as those we are experiencing, seems more like a representation to justify nostalgic decisions, without in the least improving the operational efficiency of the military instrument, of the naval one in particular. An exercise that did not in the least answer the question that many observers ask themselves: "What are the F-35Bs, short take-off and vertical landing aircraft designed and built for naval use for the Air Force?".

At a time when many important crises are developing in a sea where all events influence each other and produce important global consequences, instead of allowing our fleet and our aircraft carrier to navigate in full efficiency to protect national political and economic interests , you prefer to continue to look at the limited horizon of your own backyard.

Among the Mediterranean countries, only Italy and France have the aircraft carrier, a ship that has amply proved to be a very valid tool for effective power projection, extremely useful also in providing immediate and adequate support for naval operations.6. At a time when serious crises are looming in the Mediterranean, preventing Italy from deploying its aircraft carrier and playing its part in the theater in this fundamental world political and economic area, to protect national interests, consequently appears illogical, anti-economic and anti-historical.

History, in fact, teaches us that it is often necessary to demonstrate that you have a compact and united military instrument, and to be determined to use all the force at your disposal, if necessary, to support (and not replace) diplomatic initiatives. The current crisis in the Levant Sea, triggered by Turkish claims, is no exception.

Only a skilful balance between diplomatic dialectic and military determination on the part of the most advanced countries, Mediterranean in particular, will be able to induce Turkey to abandon the course that leads to confrontation, helping to lay the foundations for a shared stabilization of the Mediterranean, corresponding to a primary national interest of Italy.

1 Some considerations on the Mediterranean, Online Defense of 27 July 2020

2 Navtex ("NAVigational TEXt Messages") is an automatic international service, broadcast on medium frequencies, of direct printing for sending warnings to navigation. It is mainly used to convey urgent safety information to ships.

3 Some considerations on the Mediterranean, Online Defense of 27 July 2020

4 Defense of our interests in the Mediterranean, Online Defense of May 14, 2020

5 Mediterranean less and less “nostrum”, controlled how and by whom? su https://www.remocontro.it/?s=RENATO+SCARFI

6 The importance of aircraft carriers in a modern Navy, Online Defense of 29 June 2020

Photo: Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri / US Navy / Ministry of Defense