What does Erdoğan want to achieve by inventing crisis after crisis?
As the international reactions to the escalating crisis between Turkey and Greece start to show a pattern of going in circles, the issue is whether or not a disjointed stand from within the European Union will continue to embolden Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the group of ex-officers pushing his administration towards a stand-off with Athens.
What does Turkey’s strongman want, as he displays a stop-go approach to the seismic surveys in a naval zone which Greece says falls into its territorial waters? What is the endgame?
The overall picture remains complicated, creating a context of “balance of terror” that keeps the Turkish and Greek fleets head-to-head, raising concerns that the dispute can easily get out of control. Yet the gravity of the situation seems to be met by a remarkable aloofness by the EU - with the exception of, perhaps, France.
Greece, backed by Cyprus, called for an emergency meeting with the EU, which was accepted. The Foreign Affairs Council Meeting will take place on Friday.
We also know that Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias will meet U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Vienna on Friday.
It is worth noting that Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador in Athens, has become a key figure in managing the crisis, through his intense diplomatic activities.
More recently, Israel has also broken its silence and offered its “full solidarity” with Greece.
There is no sign, at the moment, of Turkish seismic survey activities being paused. The deployment of the research vessel, Oruç Reis, escorted by nine Turkish warships, is keeping things on edge.
Last month, Erdoğan had halted the activities, on the request of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but resumed them furiously last week after Greece signed a exclusive economic zone deal with Egypt, which Ankara argues overlaps in large parts with the agreement it had signed with Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.
Given the conflicting attitudes and ambiguity within the EU vis-a-vis the eastern Mediterranean, Erdoğan and his team feel they have been given significant scope to continue to play a cat-and-mouse game with the EU’s scattered members.
The Turkish president is fully aware of the lack of leadership of the EU, and he knows very well that its member states may never come to a unified stand to defend the territorial integrity of their union.
This sheer fact is also carefully watched in Moscow, which has never come to terms with the retreat from the Baltic states. Brussels may not be fully aware of the current conjuncture, but whatever its choices they will have far reaching consequences, possibly emboldening international adventurism.
Now that we know that the dancing around the East Med crisis has fallen into a vicious circle, back to the question I asked above: What is Erdoğan after?
He is expected to have a telephone conversation with Merkel on the issue. This phone call will be noteworthy.
Erdoğan, it is reported, wants to raise his proposal for a commonly accepted “formula” among the states of the eastern Mediterranean. On Tuesday, he spoke of a “formula that is acceptable to everyone and protects everyone’s rights”.
There are, though, three reasons that may turn the phone call into a blip.
First, Turkey doesn’t recognise the Republic of Cyprus, and the position of the EU vis-a-vis the Turkish breakaway statelet in Northern Cyprus is very problematic.
Second, as we know from the beginning of the conflict, Turkey has not signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) dating back to 1982, which the Greek-Egypt deal is based on.
Third, the issue is whether or not Germany is truly up to the task.
“The question is whether Germany would have enough weight for results in the region - I doubt that,” Stephan Roll, the head of the Middle East and Africa research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said in a recent interview with Deutsche Welle.
“Take the Berlin Process, which Germany launched to resolve the Libyan conflict. There was no follow-up. Germany was not able to influence the parties to stick to the agreement. Germany is not powerful enough. At the moment it can only help in the short term in an urgent situation, like Chancellor Angela Merkel's telephone conversation with Turkish President Erdoğan a few weeks ago,” he said.
So, the reasonable conclusion may be that this highly risky game will continue to be staged for some time.
For Erdoğan, it is useful on two levels. On the home front, he wants to appear to be the leader and commander-in-chief in control, guarding Turkey’s regional interests - which he says are under severe threat.
He has managed to split further some parts of the opposition bloc, winning the backing of at least one member of the so-called “National Alliance”, with the fiercely nationalist İyi Party (Good Party) declaring its full support for the assertive acts in the eastern Mediterranean.
With such divisions within the opposition, Erdoğan has high hopes of continuing his rule - a strategy that may very well be successful.
On the second level, the Ankara-Washington relationship will be decisive. Erdoğan has placed all of his eggs in Donald Trump’s basket, so the upcoming U.S. elections has gained existential dimensions for him and his administrative structure - currently a cartel of power composed of nationalist officers, expansionist far-right “grey wolves”, and Islamists.
Erdoğan will hope that Trump wins a second term - which will embolden him immensely - but may have already calculated that he may lose. Yet, in any case, what he seems to aim - and hope - for is to extend his military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean and in Libya, in order to be able to negotiate - from a superior position - his further legitimacy with the new U.S. president and NATO.
The EU, so far displaying meekness, has not offered enough of a challenge to him and will probably fall short.
Erdoğan will continue to be obstinately maximalist and defiant against the requests of the EU, because he doesn’t have the luxury of being seen as concessional at home.
He needs to reproduce his swashbuckling image every day. The devilish tactics in eastern Mediterranean will therefore continue to be on a “stop-go” basis, as long as Erdoğan feels he has leeway until the November 3, 2020 U.S. elections.
This is the reality the EU is facing.