East Med row also underlines a crisis in Turkey’s domestic politics


The row in the eastern Mediterranean encompasses issues of maritime jurisdiction in the region as a whole. The underlying problem is not new and is something Turkey has been facing for decades.

However, due to the foreign policy of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), these issues have grown into a giant snowball embracing virtually all of the country’s foreign affairs, including with the European Union, NATO, the United States, Russia, Israel, Egypt and almost the entire Arab world.

Now the Kurdish problem, too, is a part of this bind, as the AKP could not resolve it within the confines of democratic values; Ankara’s inappropriate Syria policy also turned the matter into an item on the international agenda. As a matter of fact, this outcome by Turkey is a long-desired goal of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Turkey maintains justified position in much of its disagreements with its neighbour, Greece. Greece’s envisaged expansion of its islands’ territorial waters to 12 nautical miles would effectively turn the Aegean Sea into a Greek lake, and no government in Ankara would accept that. Nor is it equitable that Kastellorizo island would have maritime legal status same as the mainland Anatolia.

Being right is seldom enough, though. It should be supported by effective diplomacy, a strong legal basis and appropriate military balance.

On the diplomatic front, Turkey is at odds with almost everyone and at the bottom of its diplomatic history. Diplomacy shouldn’t be a practice where those holding the power try to realise their ideological dreams.

Kerim Has, an expert on international relations, comments sarcastically that the Turkish Foreign Ministry has turned into a Condemnation Ministry, with over half of its official announcements in recent weeks dealing with condemnation and reprimand of large number of countries.

The Egypt policy is a case in point. Ankara severed its ties with Africa’s largest country because the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) government was toppled by a coup d’état in 2013. AKP spokespeople took every opportunity to bash Cairo both at home and abroad and changed domestic perception that Egypt was a major, hostile country.

I have yet to receive an answer for a question I’ve asked innumerable times: Which of our country’s interests call for such a harsh stance against Egypt on the premise of the Ikhwan regime’s ouster? 

Turkey’s ruling party maintains an anti-coup and pro-democracy discourse. But it has not shied away from being the greatest protector of Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, who seized power through a coup, nor from being one of the first to congratulate Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who recently stole the elections bluntly and nonchalantly. There are simply so many cases illustrating the AKP’s unprincipled stance, including with Venezuela, Crimea and Uighur Muslims in China.

The same Ikhwan obsession led to the AKP antagonising two important countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for reasons unrelated to Turkey’s interests. In the regional struggle between these Arab allies and pro-Ikhwan Qatar, Ankara adopted a partisan stance for the latter. However, that diplomatic row between Gulf states had nothing to do with Turkish interests, and even close neighbours like Kuwait and Oman didn’t take on such a biased posture.

Turkey’s relations with Israel also turned sour, mainly because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yes, Israel grabs the Palestinian people’s land and rights. Palestinians have a just cause. But it is unlikely for Turkey to serve that cause through conflict with Israel. As a matter of fact, apart from a huge amount of rhetoric, the AKP has hardly made any significant contribution to the Palestinian cause since it came to power 18 years ago. This issue requires a different kind of diplomacy.

In Syria, the AKP has been following an ill-conceived policy of regime change by cross-border military intervention. It has failed to bear results and Turkey has been paying a heavy price while turning Syria into its arguably the biggest foe.

Turkey needs to make maritime legal status agreements in the eastern Mediterranean with five countries: Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Libya. For the purpose of this article, I set aside Greece and Cyprus as they are more complicated political issues.

The AKP is at loggerheads with four of the five countries. An Egypt-Turkey agreement may seem to be a foregone conclusion as both countries will gain maximum jurisdiction; however, the AKP has demonstrated such a rigid ideological stance that Egypt preferred to shake hands with Greece – despite receiving a smaller piece of the pie.

The only agreement Turkey has achieved so far is with Libya, but its legal validity is still unclear because the AKP is in conflict with half of Libya. The U.N.-sponsored political agreement (Skhirat, 2015) constituting the basis of legitimacy in the country requires that international agreements be endorsed by the House of Representatives, located in the not-so-friendly half of Libya (Article 8.2.f). The House has yet to endorse the agreement.

Military balance in the region is changing – and not in Turkey’s favour. The United States, in an unprecedented fashion, is openly supporting Greece, with reports emerging that Washington is assessing the establishment of naval and air bases in Greece or even moving the critical Incirlik and Kürecik bases in Turkey to Greece.

The purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system has been the most ineffective arms procurement in Turkey’s defence history. The move has deprived Turkey of the fifth-generation F-35, clearly the most advanced military aircraft in service today, while the $2.5 billion S-400 systems are kept in deep-freeze. Even if and when S-400s are activated, they will only function at a very small percentage of their capacity because they can’t be connected to the electronic surveillance network in Turkey.

AKP spokespeople insist that Turkey’s decisions in which weapons to purchase is a matter of national sovereignty. Turkey is a sovereign country without doubt, but the matter here is somewhat different.

As a sovereign country, Turkey can part ways with NATO if it so decides. But, if it wants to remain in the organisation, it must act in reasonable harmony with the military alliance’s defence and weapons system.

If you choose to become a member of a bridge club, you cannot insist on playing blackjack. This is not what sovereignty is about.

There are now reports that Greece is in negotiation with the United States to purchase F-35 jets, along with others that say the UAE is inching closer to a similar agreement.

Greece is in also talks with France to purchase the Rafale – among the most effective military jets in the Western world, after the F-35. With these procurements, the military balance in the Aegean will tilt in Greece’s favour, especially at a time when Turkey is deprived of the F35.

Over the past month and a half since the beginning of August, when Turkey sent the Oruç Reis to waters contested with Greece and Cyprus, there have been intensive developments on the issue in capitals including Moscow, Baghdad, Berlin and others. Meanwhile, the AKP’s top-level spokespeople made policy statements in a near-daily basis.

Turkey’s political opposition, however, seems to be in a confounded state. In the face of vital issues the country is facing, it is not really clear what they think nor what their position is. One would expect opposition parties to take stance vis-a-vis such vital issues and try to influence developments. Politics mean taking positions. However, our opposition mostly chooses to merely watch on in silence.

Throughout this period, the leader of the main opposition party (CHP) has not made any public statement, press conference, rally speech or anything else indicating a position on the eastern Mediterranean issues, save for briefly touching upon disagreements with Egypt in a TV programme. Other CHP spokespeople have not articulated any position on these matters either.

The situation is more or less the same for other Turkish opposition parties. In short, the eastern Mediterranean row underlines a crisis of Turkish domestic politics as well.

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