Turkey’s Ottoman ambition

A silhouette of the Hagia Sophia Mosque.
A silhouette of the former cathedral Hagia Sophia recently declared as the active grand Mosque of Istanbul.

After a recent visit of the US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo to Cyprus on September 12 the escalation of the Greco-Turkish conflict has officially accumulated US diplomatic involvement. In Nicosia, the United States delegacy led by M. Pompeo met with President Anastasiades and Foreign Minister Christodoulides to discuss the ongoing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and deepening the U.S.-Republic of Cyprus bilateral relationship, as well as to affirm U.S. support for a comprehensive settlement to reunify the island as a bizonal, bicommunal federation, which would benefit all Cypriots as well as the wider region as officially mentioned in a U.S. government statement. 

A following response was issued on the 25 of Sept., by the EU. In a typically late fashion, the heads of the 27 European Union nations were ment to assemble at the European Council in Brussels to vote on sanctioning Turkey. The EU had previously declared Ankara’s Mediterranean advance as illegal actions against Greece and Cyprus, both EU members. This act was issued against Turkey’s continuous distribution of ships to explore for undersea energy resources in those countries’ sovereign waters. The vote has now been pushed back a week due to a quarantine of the council’s president, but for Ankara, the delay only represents a postponement of the inevitable: a more likely political estrangement from Europe. The slowed political response in terms of EU’s united foreign policy on the issue has been countered on a national level by France which has boosted its naval presence in the Aegean by sending warships to the region. The move has been supported by the Greek government which has pled for a more active french involvement in the dispute. 


Emmanuel Macron: The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is worrying. Turkey’s unilateral decisions on oil exploration are causing tensions. These must end in order to allow a peaceful dialogue between neighboring countries and allies within NATO. I have decided to temporarily strengthen the French military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean in the coming days, in cooperation with European partners including Greece.


 Relations between Greece and Turkey have been complicated for centuries ever since the ottoman arrival in the 14th century. Wars between the two neighboring countries have been an often occurrence with the last crisis being the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. From this conflict, Turkey established the Northern Cyprus republic which to this day has not gained international recognition except of course by the state of Turkey. In more recent years the troubled relationship has been brought to a complete halt since 2018 when Ankara began its strongarm diplomacy in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In 2016 the Turkish Coast Guard published, alleged official maps and documents claiming half of the Aegean Sea belonging to Turkey. In this sense, Ankara claims to have obtained dozens of islands, all of which are internationally recognized as Greek sovereign territory. The Turkish government has laid claim to the entire eastern Aegean from the island of Samothraki in the North to Kastelorizo island in the South. 


Turkish maritime claims

Greece has numerously indicated that all the Aegean issues are legal matters that can best be arbitrated in the International Court of Justice while Turkey, on the other hand, continues to view the issue as a political matter. The Turkish push for bilateral negotiations is backed by the ambition to settle territorial disputes in their favor. 


Greek maritime borders (internationally recognized)

Turkey’s ambition for regional dominance

Turkey’s political drive demonstrated by its diverse capacity to materialize crisis and wars in its favor has distanced the United States which in the past was one of its strongest military allies, stamped by the Incirlik Airbase used jointly by the two sides. Over time, Turkey’s regional destabilization has alienated the United States. The Trump Administration announced in July 2019 that it was removing Turkey from participation in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. This has activated an ongoing response from Anakara which has proactively invested to become more self-sufficient in terms of national security matters and has successfully increased Turkey’s arms exports affecting the country’s procurement decisions. After the 1975-1978 U.S. arms embargo over Cyprus significantly hampered Turkish arms acquisitions, Turkey sought to decrease dependence on foreign sources by building up its domestic military-industrial complex. Over time, Turkish companies have played a bigger role in supplying an increased percentage of Turkey’s defense needs, on equipment ranging from armored personnel carriers and naval vessels to drone aircraft. The important military equipment that Turkey cannot produce itself, its leaders generally seek deals with foreign suppliers that allow for greater co-production and technology sharing. This interest has affected its S-400 decision. Lack of agreement between the United States and Turkey on technology sharing regarding the Patriot system over several years possibly contributed to this move on buying the Russian missile system. Even though there hasn’t been an agreement with the Kremlin in terms of sharing technology, the Turkish side is optimistic in obtaining such a deal in the future with its proactive political alignment with Russia.

The problematic united stance of the EU

With Greece, Cyprus, and France are advocating strong action against Turkey. On the other hand, Italy, Spain, and Malta have taken a more measured approach to the Mediterranean issue. To this end, Macron has pled for the creation of the so-called “Pax Mediterranea,” an international partnership of the EU’s Mediterranean nations. In terms of military cooperation, this would represent a Franco-Italian partnership to police the region.

A typical Franco-Italian dispute

In the name of European solidarity and EU integration, the two sides have been strong allies on all fronts with minor exceptions. This tendency was ended with the 2018 election of the “5 Star Movement”, a populist movement boasting Italian nationalism, anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiment. 

The biggest regional superpowers of France, Turkey, Italy and Egypt are all diplomatically and militarily involved in the ongoing Lybian civil war. The competition among the four to gain political momentum in the Lybian power vacuum has opened many fronts, some of which have reopened old wounds. The Libyan civil war has been fuelled by the two partnerships consisting of France and Egypt against Italy and Turkey. France is one of Egypt’s main arms suppliers and has covertly cooperated with the Egyptian government in support of the so-called Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar against the western Government of National Accord. The GNC was established as a moderate-liberal political force which over time disintegrated into an Islamic fundamentalist movement which is now militarily supported by Turkey and backed diplomatically by the current Italian government. Italy’s decision to side with the GNA and Turkey is part of a broader effort to protect its national energy interests in Libya. On top of the direct military involvment, the Turkish side has singed a maritime deal with the Lybian National Accord ratifying an exclusive economic zone which gives them control over the waters and sea-bed resources. The bilateral agreement has been officially deemed by the EU as it “infringes upon the sovereign rights of third States, does not comply with the Law of the Sea and cannot produce any legal consequences for third states”. The growing regional influence of Turkey has started to rally alarmist in Rome. Direct Turkish military involvement can limit future Italian energy exploitation thus making Italy open to a future agreement with France which is a far more secure ally both in the short-term and long-term sense. 

A troubled Mediterranean future

With the mounting issues surrounding Europe the long hand of Russia has strived to harness political entanglement in order to further destabilize the European Union. The Union’s swift decision to sanction individuals suspected in Election fraud and the accused of the violent crackdown against protesters in Minks was blocked by Cyprus. The Cypriot government has demanded that policymakers first take action against Turkey over the Medditerean dispute. Even though this move has been suspected of Russian influence, nevertheless it remains an issue that has yet to be addressed proactively by the EU. The growing threat of Erdogan’s foreign ambition to exert his influence on numerous fronts demands a united European response which we have yet to see. 

Image of the Author
Author: Zlatin Kurshumov, published in Chicago Illinois.

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