For the first time in five years Greece and Turkey began a round of “exploratory talks” yesterday. The talks are termed exploratory because they are non-binding, but the issues on the table are serious. From 2002 to 2016 Greece and Turkey held 60 rounds of these bi-lateral talks. This round, the 61st, is especially critical. Over the last three years Turkey and Greece have had several dangerous incidents that went far beyond their usual diplomatic posturing and rhetorical threats. The issues confronting the 61st round include air space control, the extent and division of continental shelf rights in the Mediterranean Sea and the status of several islands in the Aegean. The Aegean islands issue is complex and has several facets. For example, Turkey contends at least one Greek island should be demilitarized. Since some Greek islands are very close to Turkey’s coast, air space violations occur regularly. The most critical current issue, however, are conflicting territorial claims in the Mediterranean Sea and Aegean Sea that involve sea-bed energy development rights (i.e., oil and gas reserves and pipeline construction).
As for the dangerous incidents on the agenda, many have occurred. Perhaps the most dangerous was the August 2020 collision of Turk and Greek ships in a contested sector of the Mediterranean that has significant oil and gas prospects. Turkish naval forces have made a show of tracking Greek naval forces in the eastern Med, particularly around Cyprus. In turn, Greek naval forces have made a show of tracking Turk warships but the Greeks pay special attention to Turkish seismic survey and oil exploration vessels. French naval forces have appeared and made it clear they are there to support the Greeks. NATO member Turkey engages NATO members Greece and France in “show of force” theater. The August collision didn’t lead to war. However, hot heads in Greece and Turkey screamed that the territorial waters issue in the Aegean is cause for war. The hot heads must not be in the travel business because Aegean Sea vacationers and sightseers are moneymakers for both Turkey and Greece and a war would savage that industry.
The oil and gas development issues are also multi-dimensional and raises the unresolved but still hot button issue of Cyprus. Turkish forces still occupy about 40 percent of Cyprus and they protect the Turkish Republic of Cyprus statelet. Cyprus is a member of the European Union, and since the state of Cyprus argues that the Turkish statelet is still part of Cyprus, technically the Turkish statelet would be part of the EU – at least that argument has been made. But who has the maritime rights to offshore oil and gas and mineral deposits? Israel and Egypt would like to build an undersea pipeline to ship natural gas to Europe. Greece supports it. A likely pipeline route runs through Cypriot waters – or are they Turkish waters? Greece also has sea bed claims extending from Crete and other islands.
Pro-Erdogan Turkish media continue to tout 2020 as a successful international political year for Turkey. There is reason to treat that as spin and propaganda, and president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s critics in Turkey and beyond its borders do just that. Erdogan, also known (behind his back) as Sultan Recep, contends Turkey has stabilized Libya and the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. His critics say Libya is a quagmire – it was for the Ottoman Empire and it is for 21st century Turkey. Within Turkey supporting the Azeris is popular, but many Turks regard Turkey’s involvement with suspicion. Both interventions put Turkey at odds with Russia. Add Syria and essentially Turkey is waging three shadow wars with Russia. We use the term shadow war because the Azeris aren’t Turk proxies. Armenia is a Russian ally, one of the few. The Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) forces are a hybrid, since several thousand Syrian mercenaries supplied by Turkey back the GNA. The Libyan National Army (LNA) forces are supported by Egypt, the UAE, Russia and France. Italy and other NATO countries dependent on Libyan natural gas tend to support the GNA. However, many Turks wonder why Erdogan would want to make enemies of Egypt, the Emirates and fellow NATO member France. Erdogan’s fencing with the U.S. has also been counter-productive. In December 2021 the U.S. imposed economic sanctions on Turkey for procuring the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile system. Washington argues Turkish acquisition of the S-400 gives Russia a potential electronic intelligence asset that could threatens NATO aircraft and air defense systems. The U.S. says the S-400 could reveal the positions of stealthy NATO aircraft, like the F-35 stealth fighter. The U.S. has already removed Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
The issue of Iraq’s instability continues to trouble Turkey. It’s not an afterthought. Iraq still provides a haven for the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). Turkey calls the PKK a terrorist organization for good reason. The PKK began as a Marxist revolutionary group created supported by the USSR (Russia) during the Cold War.
Perhaps 2020 really wasn’t so good. Erdogan proclaims 2021 as “the year of democratic and economic reform.” Why? Turkey’s economy is increasingly shaky. Look for Erdogan to seek better relations with NATO members and the UAE. As for democratic reform – Erdogan also knows he isn’t as popular as he once was. (Austin Bay)
January 24, 2020: International lenders warn that Turkey’s economy faces a “triple” economic crisis – a combination of banking, sovereign debt and currency problems. High inflation and big deficits aren’t the only issues. The value of Turkish lira to the U.S. dollar decreased 40 percent during 2020.
January 20, 2021: The Turkish Navy announced it will be commissioning several new ships in 2021. The big news is the Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) Anadolu. The warship was “indigenous manufacture” meaning designed and built in Turkey. It is an amphibious assault ship, designed to carry naval infantry and helicopters. However, if equipped with jump jets like the Harrier or F-35B, it can be configured as a light aircraft carrier. At the moment Turkey is no longer able to procure F-35s. Still, the Anadolu is definitely a power projection vessel. This year the Turkish Navy will also commission a new guided missile frigate, a replenishment tanker and an electronic intelligence warship. The frigate and tanker could serve as components of a power projection naval task force. In late 2021 the Turkish Navy plans to commission an Air Independent Propulsion-capable (AIP) diesel-electric submarine. AIP subs are ideal for operations in the Black Sea, Aegean and eastern Mediterranean.
January 18, 2021: Background on Cyprus; In 1974, Greek Cypriot guerrillas with links to the Greek "Colonels" junta in Athens attempted a coup aimed at "enosis" -- the unification of Cyprus with Greece. The coup collapsed when the Turkish military garrison in Cyprus was reinforced by troops from mainland Turkey. The Turkish response was generally portrayed in the western media as an aggressive invasion akin to Saddam attacking Kuwait. That's a malicious slander. Protocols from 1960, when Cyprus became independent, gave Greece, Turkey and the former colonial power Great Britain the right to guarantee Cyprus' sovereignty. The Turk intervention left Turk Cypriots (20 percent of the population) controlling 40 percent of Cyprus, with a "Green Line" snaking through the capital, Nicosia.” (Austin Bay)
January 14, 2020: In mid-2020 the Islamic State released a propaganda video that named the U.S. as militant Islam’s primary target. However, the Islamic State propagandists also designate Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Germany, France, Canada, Egypt and Iran as worthy targets.
January 13, 2021: Turkey may be reconsidering its August 2020 decision to hold Muslim prayers at the historic Chora Museum (Kariye in Turkish). The museum was originally a cathedral, The Church of the Holy Savior, before being turned into a mosque and then a museum. The building contains unique Byzantine paintings and mosaics. UNESCO, art scholars and several European governments objected to the Erdogan government’s decision. The decision to Islamize the Chora Museum followed Erdogan’s July 2020 decision to re-convert the Hagia Sofia Museum into a mosque. This was formerly the Byzantine era Church of Holy Wisdom. The decision outraged Christians world-wide but also offended Kemalist Turks in Turkey. Kemalists are Turks who support the separation of mosque and state advocated by Kemal Ataturk, the found of the Turkish Republic.
January 12, 2021: In the east (Bitlis province) security forces killed three PKK terrorists. The PKK has long operated in Bitlis. The term terrorist, when used by the Interior Ministry, usually means a PKK separatist rebel.
President Erdogan announced that Turkey intends to improve its relations with European nations and its frayed relationship with the EU (European Union).
January 11, 2021: Greece announced plans to extend its western territorial waters maritime boundary from 11 to 22 kilometers. The move is sly. It initially impacts Italy in the Ionian Sea and adds over 5,000 square miles of sea bed to Greece. However, if applied to the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, it would directly challenge Turkish claims to sea beds with potential oil and gas reserves. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), created in 1982, allows countries to set a territorial waters boundary of up to 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles). (Austin Bay)
UAE (United Arab Emirate) diplomats informed Turkey that they seek normal relations. However, the two nations must “respect mutual sovereignty.” The UAE, however, stipulated the Turkish government must agree to stop backing the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s where the UAE’s phrase “mutual sovereignty” has bite. Erdogan’s government has played rhetorical games, expressing support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has extremist factions dedicated to toppling Gulf Arab monarchs. For that matter, the radical factions oppose Erdogan’s Turkish government. The UAE is asking Erdogan to choose between a productive economic and diplomatic relationship and political Islamist rhetorical posturing. Additionally, the UAE urged Turkey to “recalibrate its relations with Arabs”. That statement is loaded, but it implicitly urges Turkey to reconsider its support for Libya’s GNA faction. Meanwhile, Qatar announced it is prepared to mediate disputes between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. (Austin Bay)
January 7, 2021: Turkish and French diplomats confirmed they are holding discussions with the goal of normalizing relations. Turkey’s foreign minister said that his nation wants to improve relations with France. Turkey and France remain at odds over Libya, Syria, maritime boundary issues in the eastern Mediterranean and the Azeri-Armenia war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
January 4, 2021: Since the mid-1950s, thousands Muslim Turkic Uighurs have fled Chinese persecution. Many became refugees in Turkey. In 2020 an estimated 50,000 Uighurs, refugees and their descendants, lived in Turkey. This means Turkey has one of the world’s largest Uighur diaspora communities. On December 26, 2020, communist China ratified an extradition treaty with Turkey. Now Uighurs fear Turkey will permit the extradition of Uighur activists to China. Erdogan agreed to the treaty in May 2017, while on a visit to China, which claims the ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement) has conducted violent attacks in Xinjiang and elsewhere. For the record, Uighurs in Turkey tend to refer to western China’s Xinjiang province as Eastern Turkestan.
January 2, 2021: Almost a decade after the Syrian civil war erupted, over 3.5 million Syrian refugees remain in Turkey. Over 500,000 Syrian refugee children are enrolled in Turkish schools. Turkey has spent over $40 billion on Syrian refugee support. This effort includes 26 Syrian refugee centers located in ten different provinces. Turkey also hosts an estimated 700,000 Iraqi Arabs.
January 1, 2021: Today Turkey took command of NATO's VHRJTF (Very High Readiness Joint Task Force). This NATO quick-deployment unit has 6,400 troops. Turkey will lead the task force throughout 2021 and provide the majority of the task force’s personnel. The Turkish Ministry of Defense said the Turkish Army’s 66th Mechanized Infantry Brigade Command will have 4,200 soldiers in the task force. Other NATO nations, including the U.S., Great Britain, Spain and Poland, will provide the other 2,200 troops.
On the domestic front, Turkey raised its minimum wage by 22 percent. The pay raise is an attempt to keep up with the country’s rising rate of inflation. Economists blame the Erdogan government’s monetary expansion policies.
December 29, 2020: Turkey’s defense minister called Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar a war criminal. He also issued a direct threat to the LNA, saying its forces are legitimate targets “everywhere.” The threat could be read that Turkey is willing to strike LNA support facilities. Some of these are reportedly in Egypt. On December 27 Haftar disdainfully called Turkey a colonizer of Libya. Give the general credit for being historically correct. Until 1912, following Italy’s 1911 invasion, Libya was a colony of the Ottoman Empire. As the 20th century began, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and most of the Arab Gulf states were under Ottoman Turkish rule. Until the First Balkan War (1912-1913) the Turks controlled Macedonia and its key port Salonika (Thessalonica). In fact, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, was born in Salonika. (Austin Bay)