With a view to understanding how Erdogan’s Turkey thinks strategically, we need to analyse the recent evolution of Turkey’s political system, together with its historical geopolitical determinants, which are always defined.
As Napoleon used to say, you only need to look at a country’s map to define its foreign policy.
The first government of the AKP – an Islamist party that was reorganized and refounded after some of its members were not considered regular by the Constitutional Court – lasted from 2002 to 2010- and later, as we all know.
In 1970, however, the first truly Islamist party was established in Turkey, the “National Order Party” (MNP) led by Necmettin Erbakan.
As mentioned above, the MNP was disbanded by the Constitutional Court, but it re-emerged a year later under the name of “National Salvation Party”, which won as many as 48 Parliamentary seats in the 1973 election.
In 1981 it was again dissolved by the National Security Council, along with all the other political groups, none excluded, due to the military’s “constitutional” coup.
In 1983, when it was again allowed to form the various political parties, the “Welfare Party”, always led – behind the scenes – by Erbakan, was born from the ashes of the MNP and the “National Salvation Party”.
It was always Erdogan’s explicit and revered model.
Not even this party, however, had the military’s consent to participate in the 1983 election.
Throughout the 1980s, the “Welfare Party” did not exceed the 10% threshold and hence was not represented in Parliament. Nevertheless, it began to grow considerably and unexpectedly in the 1990s, until its victory in the 1997 election and the subsequent and then inevitable intervention of the Turkish Armed Forces.
In 1998 the Constitutional Court “disbanded” the Welfare Party again, which then re-emerged in 1999 as the “Virtue Party”, but it reached little consensus in the 1999 election and was anyway banned again as unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court.
Later the “Happiness Party” emerged from a traditionalist split of the “modernist” wing – so to say – that would be found later in the AKP. It did not go much far.
The ideology was the Milli Gõruş, i.e. the “national perspective”, which saw a very clear separation between the Western materialist, colonialist and repressive civilization vis-à-vis “third” countries, all destined to a quick death, and the Islamic civilisation, based on an essential and typical factor, namely justice. That was an important feature.
Therefore, based on that ideology, not even the modernising reforms which, starting from Ataturk, had secularised Turkish society and politics, were good at all.
But the nationalism which also characterised the Turkish “secular” tradition in the early 20th century was fine.
No accession to the EU, of course, nor any relations with Israel, if not aggressive, at least in words.
However, the mainstay of the AKP’s new ideology we could generically define as “Islamism” was that only Turkey should lead the new united Islamic world.
Secularism was in fact accepted only because it allowed freedom of religion, but it was rejected in the name of Islam which was the only truth.
Another aspect of Islamist ideology, which was later encompassed almost entirely in the AKP, was the “just order” (adildűzen), a “third way” model superior to capitalism and Socialism.
No interest in trade, although the financial mechanism is often currently organised according to the Islamic banking system, modelled on the policy lines of Al Qaradawi, Al Jazeera’s major preacher and one of the most important personalities of the Muslim Brotherhood.
A figure that currently both Saudi Arabia and al-Sisi strongly question.
In January 2020, Moody’s verified that the Islamic banking transactions in Turkey now account for approximately 15% of total transactions.
Much more than in many Middle East countries, but less than in Saudi Arabia or even Malaysia.
Hence, again, massive hatred for the International Monetary Fund, the EU, even NATO, but we will talk about this later on.
The Turkish Islamic parties, however, are the only mass parties left today, after the post-modern political era has also infected the Middle East or even the Eastern countries.
“The AKP is the conservative democracy” Erdogan said when he won the 2002 election. But he also made explicit reference to free market, privatisation and foreign investment in Turkey and to the strong relationship between Turkey and the United States, and even with NATO and the central Asian Republics, sometimes of Turanian origin.
Democracy is mainly regarded as a shield against the secular State’s interference.
On the geopolitical level, Erdogan reaffirms – by mixing them – the pieces of the traditional Turkish global strategy: firstly, careful control of Mediterranean ports to avoid the sensitive areas of Ankara’s territory being the target of easy enemy operations; secondly- and this is the core of the issue – Cyprus.
It was Bulent Ecevit, the secular and centre-left Turkish Prime Minister, who ordered the invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
It is true that, shortly before, Greece had overthrown Archbishop Makarios and declared enosis, i.e. the union with Greece.
Now there is Turkey’s clear refusal to anyway accept an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Greek Cyprus, and then the agreement with Muslim Brotherhood’s Libya,i.e. that of Tripoli, for a Turkish EEZ stretching from the Libyan coast of Tripoli to the (Greek) island of Kastellorizo and the whole Cypriot sea, with parts of the possible future new Greek EEZ.
As is well-know, EEZs are areas spreading up to 200 nautical miles from the baseline of a coastal State and, from a legal viewpoint, they are the “territorialisation of the sea”, as they allow to exploit the seabed natural resources.
Italy and Greece have recently ratified an agreement, which is still to be signed by the Italian President of the Republic, although Italy already has a “quasi-EEZ” in the Tyrrhenian Sea, stretching from the Ligurian Sea to the above-mentioned Tyrrhenian Sea, especially for the protection of marine fauna.
Considering the great fear that Italy has of Turkey and the obsession – already certified by Cavour – for favouring anyone on a diplomatic level just to “be present and have a say in the matter”, Greece and Italy, however, have already established that in the future the Italian-Turkish EEZ will most probably be the one defined by the 1977 Treaty.
The agreement on the Greek side to allow 68 Italian fishing boats to have access to Greek territorial waters, pursuant to EU Regulation 1380/2013, is also valid for the future.
Italian politicians think only about fishing – which is certainly important – but they never think about Internet cables, remote defence positions of relevant areas of the Italian territory, commercial lines, first or second response channels to adverse operations. They are cabin boys, in essence. Or fish freezers.
Certainly Greece has silenced Italy, which deals only with mullets, mussels and tuna fish, with a favourable agreement, but it is looking above all at the proclamation of its “great EEZ”, which will spread as far as Egypt and most of Cyprus, as is well-known by Turkey.
Greece’s next move will be an arrangement with its neighbours, again for its “big” EEZ, particularly with Albania.
But also Egypt, which has the great gas field of Zohr, which was discovered the ENI but which I would not be surprised if it were “shifted” to Greece, for the typical generosity of the poor wretched people, since for the time being Italy has no effective EEZ negotiations in place with Egypt.
I would not want Italy to end up in the mire, as was the case with the Treaty of Caen in 2015.
With the “wrong maps” coincidentally spread by France, which were then declared false. I wonder why.
Certainly the Treaty of Caen is still a secret with seven seals. As far as we can read, the “median line” of waters and all the other UNCLOS’ legal nonsense are safe, but doubts remain about the effective protection of our economic, military, commercial, political and tax borders.
When it comes to EEZs and borders, there is always a backside available, namely Italy’s.
Hence this is the primary scenario: at the beginning of August – after Turkey conducted naval exercises throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, with the extension of its seismic analyses of the seabed and Greece considered these “observations” and military exercises totally illegal – clashes between Turkey, Greece, France and even Italy began, initially diplomatic ones and later also maritime military confrontation.
There have also been Italian and French ships operationally supporting the Greek ones, but Turkey has already placed all its pawns in the Eastern Mediterranean.
It should be noted that the 2019 agreement between Turkey and Tripoli’s Government of National Accord (GNA) mainly concerns military cooperation and maritime jurisdiction.
Between the two countries, namely Tripoli’s GNA and Turkey, the EEZ already defined bilaterally overlaps with the Greek Exclusive Economic Zone both in the south and in the north and Turkey can make explorations – on an exclusive basis –in the sea in front of the very weak State of GNA and al-Sarraj.
As stated by the Turkish Defence Minister, the Turkish Mediterranean strategy, known as Mavi Vatan (the “Blue Homeland Doctrine”), is based on the fact that the great spreading of Greece’s Peloponnese islands” cannot have the effect of excluding Turkey from the rest of the Mediterranean, and with the agreement with GNA’s Libya we have shown that we cannot accept any fait accompli“.
Defending Turkey’s autonomy and “hands free” in the Eastern Mediterranean is an absolute strategic priority for Turkish strategists.
Let us see, however, how Turkey reacts to the U.S. and Russian gas policies, which is the real plot to understand what is currently happening.
On June 15, 2020, the U.S. Department of State developed a restrictive policy for companies operating in Nord Stream 2, the Russian pipeline, and also for Turk Stream 2.
The sanctions on Turk Stream 1 and 2 are essential to currently understand Turkey’s maritime reactions.
As already noted, TurkStream sends gas from Russia to Turkey, with minor sections to Bulgaria, Greece and North Macedonia. It is a pipeline that started operating in January 2020.
Gazprom, the well-known Russian company and BOTAŞ, the Turkish state-owned company, are still completing the final phase of TurkStream2.
The Turkish interests in the TurkStream 2 network, however, are currently marginal.
They are only rights-of-way, which do not solve the Turkish economic crisis and the sometimes colossal projects of Erdogan’s regime.
Turkey, however, has three real goals in the gas sector: firstly, the quick development of the gas field in Sakarya, Black Sea, accounting for 320 billion cubic metres. Secondly, Turkey also wants to stop gas competition from Russia and the Mediterranean and finally favour the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, which brings Azerbaijani gas through Turkey to the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline towards Greece, a line that could be expanded also with gas from Israel, the Iraqi Kurdish country and Turkmenistan.
Turkey also favours the passage of ships containing LPG through the Istanbul Canal, a project consisting of the construction of an artificial canal connecting the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea for 28 miles towards Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine.
It is supposed to be completed in 2025, or maybe sooner.
The ships’ rights-of-way should be much more than those of the pipelines, and could even slowly change the Turkish State’s financial equilibria.
Therefore, Turkey has little interest in the U.S. sanctions against TurkStream2 – or probably it even likes them.
Coincidentally, it was precisely when the United States began to become a major exporter of liquefied gas everywhere that the legislation against Russian pipelines to Europe was developed.
NordStream2was hit by the United States in July 2018, but TurkStream was not sanctioned until June 2019.
The gas industry is now undergoing a very complex phase.
From January to May 2020 the EU demand for gas fell by 8%, also for the well-known pandemic reasons, but there is a real possibility that natural gas can fully participate in the next hydrogen race, considering that the methane extracted from natural gas can produce hydrogen, which can also be easily transported in the old pipelines.
Therefore, given the world market’s volatility, no more new gas explorations are made. This keeps the future of Mediterranean gas and, above all, of the Eastern Mediterranean on hold.
Turkey, however, has been reducing its dependence on Russian gas since 2018.
Turkey imports gas also from Qatar, the United States, Algeria and it is currently the third largest importer of U.S. natural gas in Europe after Spain and France.
Turkey has recently discovered a new underwater natural gas field in the Black Sea, namely the Tuna-1.
Hence Turkey is no longer dependent on gas from the old pipelines, but Israel has now won its geoeconomic battle with the agreements with Egypt and Jordan as stable importers of its new natural gas.
Only if Cyprus remains far from Turkish influence in the newly-prospected gas area, it will remain a reserve that cannot be banned – except in special cases – by Turkey’s hegemonism, even vis-à-vis Egypt or the Lebanon.