What Erdogan Really Wants in the Eastern Mediterranean
Turkey’s adventures abroad are about more than hydrocarbons. They’re a bold and expensive attempt at geopolitical revisionism.
In an episode that has tediously repeated itself several times since July, Turkey’s seismic-survey ships and navy vessels clash with Greek authorities while probing for hydrocarbons in waters off the small Greek island of Kastellorizo. Turkey and Greece—perennial foes—don’t see eye to eye on the Mediterranean’s maritime boundaries. Yet, each time they bicker, pundits are quick to reduce the Greek-Turkish standoff to a bilateral kerfuffle over natural resources. In reality, the dispute over Kastellorizo—and Turkey’s incursions in the Eastern Mediterranean more generally—are merely proximate symptoms of a deep-rooted conflict over sovereignty. That fight has been brewing for decades, and it was recently exacerbated by the abandonment of long-held Turkish foreign-policy principles based on caution and an aversion to adventurism.
Nothing that happens in the Eastern Mediterranean is separable from the wider dynamics in a region where Europe, Asia, and Africa meet. The region has always been ground zero for great-power politics, but it has developed a new vulnerability in the aftermath of Washington’s ill-fated Iraq War, which prompted a reconfiguration of U.S. foreign-policy priorities around the world. Today, the United States is increasingly unwilling to intervene decisively abroad—making space for other actors to scramble in pursuit of their individual agendas, trying to carve out their own spheres of influence.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Turkey’s environs, where Ankara has sought to capitalize on these changes to pursue what amounts to a revisionist geopolitical agenda. Domestically, this about-face has been buttressed by a move toward Islamic populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism—away from what some Washington policy wonks used to call the “Turkish model”: a perceived synthesis of economic liberalization, pro-Western democracy, and Islamic values that many believed could be a model for the Arab world. Now, rather than going for a clean and quick divorce, Ankara is leveraging its various institutional, economic, and security ties with the West to climb the power ladder of the regional system while embracing illiberalism at home.
Since 2015, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has exuded historical revanchism in justifying Turkish interference in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia—his discourse peppered with flowery mentions of “geography in our heart” and “our spiritual borders.” But a nostalgic policy of neo-Ottomanism doesn’t begin to explain Ankara’s geopolitical reasoning under Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Turkey today seeks to become a great power able to negotiate on equal terms with the rest of the great powers and, wherever possible, impose its will by resorting to faits accomplis. In order to maximize its stature, then, Turkey has invested in its national security apparatus and military-projection capabilities while also ramping up its global soft power in everything including entertainment, religion, and commerce.
All in all, Erdogan’s agenda encompasses much more than mere defense and survival. His ultimate goal is to alter the geopolitical status quo in ways he believes benefit Turkey. In this sense, Turkey is now a revisionist state: It embarks upon military interventions and seeks to control foreign territory, as in Syria and Iraq; challenges land borders and maritime boundaries, as with Cyprus and Greece; engages in demographic engineering and political interference, as in Syria and Northern Cyprus; maintains bases overseas, as in Somalia and Qatar; and galvanizes dependent proxies, as in Libya, northern Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
All this may be needlessly provocative and eventually prove counterproductive in bolstering Turkey’s stature vis-à-vis erstwhile allies. But it’s a vindictive path informed by Ankara’s current foreign policy, which is instilled with Turkey’s own brand of political Islam: Necmettin Erbakan’s Milli Gorus (National Outlook) movement of the 1970s. Chief among Milli Gorus’s tenets is that Turkey was—and continues to be—ripped off by the West.
Erdogan’s worldview hasn’t always mirrored that of Erbakan, his former mentor. In fact, Turkey’s now-president split with Erbakan and his old guard at the turn of the century after a Kemalist coup ousted Erbakan’s Islamist Welfare Party, of which Erdogan had been a member while serving as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s. One of their main differences was orientation toward the West. In 2001, when Erdogan founded the AKP, his new party was a staunch proponent of eventual European Union accession, while Erbakan favored integration with the Islamic world.
But things changed as Erdogan and the AKP began to consolidate their grip on the state. The party also faced frustrations in its ongoing deliberations with the EU, particularly as the bloc accepted the Republic of Cyprus as a member in 2004 while Germany and France poured cold water on Turkey’s own candidacy. In 2015, Erdogan formed an alliance with Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which harbors hard-line views on issues like Turkey’s ongoing war against Kurdish militants and the status of Cyprus. The MHP’s anti-Westernism hastened the AKP’s own shift toward a more nationalist stance; once the two parties formed a coalition, there was no going back.
Today, Ankara views the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne—which founded the Turkish Republic and drew its modern borders—as anathema, an outrageous concession to which Turkey should have never agreed. AKP elites lament the treaty’s required concession of territories in northern Syria and northern Iraq, which Turkish nationalists had claimed in their 1920 National Pact.
This is a departure from Turkey’s revered founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who depicted Lausanne as a historic victory. But for Erdogan and his followers, anything that yielded the abolition of the Caliphate and Sultanate amounts to a betrayal—especially when followed by a radical secularization project. For this reason, Erdogan sees a revision of the Treaty of Lausanne as integral to his political ambitions.
The revisionist undercurrents of Erdogan’s worldview indicate that the Eastern Mediterranean crisis is not primarily about natural gas but decades-old sovereignty issues—infused with old and new geopolitical ambitions alike. Material gain has motivated Turkey’s expansionism, but it is also animated by identity and ideology. That’s because Turkey’s current approach to underwater exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean actually offers a low probability of commercial discovery; no hydrocarbons have been found off of Libya and Greece thus far, and Turkey’s attempts off of Cyprus have proved unsuccessful. Turkey also views the sea as a stepping stone for acquiring more influence in the Maghreb, the Sahel, and West Africa.
A Kemalist government would have never contemplated such risk-laden adventures. On the contrary, Kemalist foreign policy (which has its roots in resisting foreign invasions of Anatolia as the Ottoman Empire fell) was, for the most part, haunted by the fear of losing—not gaining—sovereign territory. Yet for Erdogan and his followers, there’s always more to be desired—and that’s how Turkey ended up embroiled in a civil war over 1,000 miles from home.
In 2019, Turkey intervened militarily in Libya’s ongoing civil war. It is not yet known whether Ankara’s ongoing operation will prove sustainable, or even useful, to Turkish national interests. But given Erdogan’s revisionist inclinations, the stakes are high.
In April 2019, eastern Libya-based commander Khalifa Haftar launched an unprovoked ground offensive on Tripoli—the nation’s capital and seat of the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA)—that the United Arab Emirates backed up with an illegal airstrike campaign. The operation was destructive but ineffective, and it gave Turkey—which backs the GNA—a golden opportunity to step into Libya and transform what had been for many years a mere shadow presence into a more tangible, formidable apparatus.
In addition to backing the GNA militarily, Turkey also signed a controversial memorandum with the U.N.-recognized government on the delimitation of continental shelves and exclusive economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean. The agreement wasn’t so much an avenue for Turkey to extract natural gas off of Libya’s coast as an attempt to subvert existing maritime boundaries by creating an arbitrary yet legal-sounding precedent that disrupts the internationally recognized claims of other states, including Cyprus, Egypt, and Greece. Simply put, the (as yet unratified) pact aims to legitimize Turkey’s expansionist aspirations—and controversial claims like Kastellorizo—in its immediate neighborhood.
In 2020, Turkish-backed GNA forces succeeded in expelling Haftar’s brigades from Libya’s northwestern quadrant—where Ankara took advantage of the ensuing lull to further entrench its presence. Today, from naval facilities to airfields to ground troops to drones, Turkish assets in the region are hard to miss. It’s clear that Erdogan has no intention of leaving anytime soon.
But a robust military presence cannot be maintained on the cheap, if only because other powers meddling in Libya remain bitterly opposed to Turkey’s continued presence there. While Russia and Egypt—which have backed Haftar’s forces but now are keen on trying a more pragmatic approach—could eventually be swayed to accept, and coexist with, Turkey in Libya, the UAE, France, and Greece will continue to thwart Turkey’s strategy. Last year, Haftar and his Emirati sponsors implemented an eight-month-long blockade, which wasted nearly $10 billion in oil revenues so as to prevent money from reaching Libya’s Central Bank, in GNA territory. It’s is a reminder that Haftar’s forces control most of Libya’s hydrocarbon reserves and begs the question of how Turkey can ensure the economic viability of its presence in Libya going forward.
If no money can be found in the sea, money must be captured on Libyan soil. A decade ago, before NATO and Arab powers intervened militarily against dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime, Turkey had about $20 billion in outstanding contracts with the North African country, primarily in infrastructure, engineering, and onshore energy. Now, with Libya in acute need of reconstruction, Turkish companies are intent on clinching several billion dollars’ worth of business deals in GNA-held territory—and cashing in.
Unlike Syria, Libya is a wealthy nation, and Turkey feels entitled to money-rich contracts there—a demand it is willing to act on. Ankara also can’t afford to remain on the sidelines for too long: Turkey is undergoing an economic crisis at home, and its banks, saddled with debt, need relief soon. But after a failed June 2020 offensive into Sirte, just to the west of Libya’s Oil Crescent, Turkey has made efforts to avoid fighting, favoring a diplomatic solution to the conflict instead.
In August 2020, Ankara demonstrated its interest in collecting hard-currency payments from the GNA by signing an agreement with the Central Bank of Libya. But that alone won’t deliver Turkey its dues. Since 2014, Libya’s financial sector has been paralyzed by dysfunction and infighting, and its last remaining hope of rescue is a U.N. reform proposal introduced last year. Only if Libya’s rival factions agree to the plan can Turkey cash in.
Though Erdogan has expressed skepticism about the U.N.-led peace process in Libya, in recent months he and his proxy forces have refrained from brazen military provocation. In fact, in November 2020, Ankara allowed high-profile west Libyan politicians to visit Egypt—which backs Haftar. Clearly—though Erdogan may be hesitant to say so—Turkey doesn’t want the peace process to collapse.
Still, mild gestures won’t be enough to bring peace. And the Central Bank’s overhaul could very well end up working against Turkey’s interests. Even more worrisome for Ankara is the distinct possibility that Haftar may reinstate his blockade; there’s no guarantee the U.S. and Russian-led pressure campaign that ended the previous one will be there to save the day again. Should the UAE and its allies succeed again at marginalizing Turkey economically, Ankara will see it as reason enough to launch new military advances.
In August 2020, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas observed “a deceptive calm in Libya”; war could reignite any day—and regardless of who sparks the next round of fighting, Turkey will likely exploit that circumstance to advance into the country’s oil-rich regions, like the Oil Crescent or Fezzan.
But that’s not because Ankara itself is hungry for hydrocarbons. For Turkey, oil and natural gas are a means to an end: In Libya, oil guarantees the GNA’s survival by reducing its economic dependence on enemies. Because it’s only with strong partners that the revisionist Turkish project can really find footing.
Zenonas Tziarras is a researcher at Peace Research Institute Oslo Cyprus Centre and a co-founder of Geopolitical Cyprus.
Jalel Harchaoui is a senior fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a Swiss-based institute. His work focuses on Libya—in particular, the country’s security landscape and political economy. Twitter: @JMJalel_H