Author: Kanan ROVSHANOGHLU
This should have happened someday. Having been the 'self-contained eastern front of NATO' during the Cold War, Turkey's vigorous activities in foreign policy since the beginning of the 2000s just could not go unpunished. After the incident aboard Mavi Marmara in 2010 and the subsequent events of the Arab Spring, the West did not acknowledge Ankara’s ambitious regional policy, although the US and some European countries had supported the model of Muslim democracy propagated by Turkey and its spread throughout the entire Middle East and North Africa initially.
It turned out however that the ambitions of the growing Turkey have not always matched those of its Western allies. These contradictions appeared first in Libya, and then in Egypt, Palestine and Syria, expanding and deepening right up to the present day, when the fate of further relations between the West and Turkey depends on solving a puzzle with three serious obstacles.
Why not an attacking F-35 but a protecting C-400?
The actual delivery of Russian missile defence systems C-400 to Turkey began on July 12, 2019, when Russian aircraft delivered parts of the system to the Mürted Airfield Command near Ankara. One of the four C-400 systems purchased in accordance with the 2017 Russian-Turkish agreement ($2.5 billion) will be installed here.
Turkey has never had its own integrated missile defence system. When a Turkish military aircraft was shot down by Syrian air defence forces in 2012, the Netherlands, the US and Germany began deploying Patriot anti-missile systems on the Turkish-Syrian border. However, any attempt of Turkey to purchase similar systems has been encouraged neither by the US nor by other member states of NATO. As a result, Ankara first turned to China, finally reaching an agreement with Russia in 2017.
As a countermeasure to Turkish insolence, Washington suspended the sale to Ankara of the latest generation of American fighter jets F-35. In addition, the US threatens Ankara with sanctions. Thus, two Republican senators, Rick Scott and Todd Jung, have already submitted to the Congress a bill introducing an embargo against Turkey. According to Reuters, Turkey’s acquisition of C-400 is called in the document as "a direct and serious threat to the US national security." If the Senate adopts the bill, the US can consider imposing a full package of sanctions against Turkey. Republican senators also suggested that the Trump administration "convene another NATO summit in order to assess the Russian threat and to discuss Turkey’s permanent membership in NATO."
Democrat Bob Menendez, a member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, also supported the bill, saying the suspension of F-35 sales is not an adequate counter-measure against Turkey. According to him, he is going to develop a new draft law on sanctions.
Before these events, everyone thought that Trump agreed with the arguments of President Erdogan about C-400 and that there would be no sanctions against Turkey. Trump even reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to this course after the decision to cease F-35 supplies to Turkey. But apparently the will of the American president is not the only factor affecting the issue of sanctions.
The Pentagon has already begun sending the Turkish military pilots training in the US back to Turkey. Since Turkey is a member of the F-35 consortium established in 2002, some parts of the aircraft are still manufactured in Turkey. If production is suspended, the price of jets may rise by $7-8 million, while the United States may suffer a serious loss worth $500 million. But Washington is angry and is ready to incur such financial losses in order to return Turkey to its orbit of interests.
The ban on the supply of fighter jets and embargo on Turkey may suspend Ankara’s membership in NATO, hence forcing it to look for alternative sources of weapons. The Russian media is describing the advantages of their own Su-35 and Su-57 fighter jets, advertising them as a worthy replacement for F-35. In the best-case scenario, Turkey may become one of the stakeholders of a large ($9b) military-industrial project.
Therefore, any assumptions that NATO and the US agree to lose Turkey completely sound unreasonable. Washington will try by any means to force Turkey to retreat. And it is not only about missiles or jets.
Reincarnation of the old problem
Given the growing international status of Cyprus and the surrounding regions, which, according to experts, may well become an arena of struggle for fantastic amounts of hydrocarbon resources in the near future, one of the Turkish C-400s will be installed in the east of the Mediterranean Sea.
On July 16, EU foreign ministers imposed sanctions on Turkey in response to natural gas exploration on the east coast of the Mediterranean. The sanctions suspend all top-level contacts between Turkey and the EU, as well as the negotiations on air cargo and the remaining instalment (€145.8m) of a €4.4b grant by 2020 for the development of a number of areas in Turkey. In addition, EU foreign ministers demanded that financial sanctions also apply to organizations and companies involved in drilling operations in the Mediterranean, and obliged the European Investment Bank to reconsider the allocation of loans to Ankara.
According to forecasts of the US Geological Survey, there are 3.45 trillion cubic meters of gas and 1.7 billion barrels of oil in the offshore zone between Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria and Israel. 1.8 billion barrels of oil, 6.3 trillion barrels and 6 billion barrels of liquefied gas are expected in the delta of the Nile. In addition to 8 billion barrels of oil around Cyprus, the Herodot field located off the south-eastern coast of Crete contains 3.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas, which makes it one of the largest deposits discovered so far.
Remarkably, these deposits have very serious customers. On November 10, 2011, the American Exxon Mobil announced the start of exploration of natural gas deposits in the tenth region of the Exclusive Economic Zone together with Qatar Petroleum and the Government of Southern Cyprus. Earlier, Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Francis Fannon visited Cyprus. Currently, the British research ship Stena Icemax, secured by warships of a number of countries, including the US, conducts geological exploration works in the region.
This year Turkey sent two exploration and drilling vessels to the region between Cyprus and Turkey. At the beginning of May, the Turkish exploration vessel Fatih began drilling operations on the western coast of Cyprus. The second Turkish exploration vessel, Yavuz, started operations south of the Karpas Peninsula.
The EU considers these activities illegal, while the Turkish government claims that the operations of Turkish vessels are justified, since part of the island belongs to the Turkish side.
According to the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Fatih operates on the basis of a license issued by the Turkish government to Türk Petrolleri in 2009-2012, and the vessel’s activities in continental waters correspond to the declaration of the Turkish government submitted to the UN. Similarly, exploration operations on the Karpas Peninsula is conducted by the Yavuz vessel in the interests of Northern Cyprus and in accordance with the license issued in 2011 by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to Türk Petrolleri.
According to the ministry, the membership of South Cyprus in the EU does not give it the sole right to violate the legal rights and interests of Turkish Cypriots, which is also contrary to international law. The Turkish government criticized the EU and the Greek side for ignoring the interests of the Turkish community of the island, and stated that the EU's allegedly neutral position on Cyprus is unconvincing.
The Turkish community of Cyprus, and more specifically the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, has the same natural right to use the natural resources of the region, as the Greek Cypriots. After the military intervention of Turkey in 1974, the island was split in two, which impedes the access of the Turkish part of the island to Europe. In 2004, when, in accordance with the plan of the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a referendum was held on uniting both parts of the island, the Turks voted for the union, while the Greeks refused unification. Later, however, the southern part of the island became part of the EU as the Republic of Cyprus. The issue of Cyprus is again relevant, but in a different form, becoming a serious test for Turkey. Unfortunately, the relations of the current Turkish government with Europe and the US are not as warm and friendly as they were back in 2004.
Syria remains another controversial issue between the West, or rather between the US and Turkey. In fact, different viewpoints on the same issue between the Americans and the Turks over this Arab country began during the Obama presidency. Although Trump adheres to the Turkish opinion, albeit outwardly, positions of Turkey and the US in the north of Syria are opposite.
In 2014, when ISIS became another serious problem of the Middle East, the US became close with left-wing Kurdish organizations operating in northern Syria. In the fight against terrorists, the Kurds, in fact, replaced the US ground troops. For example, during military operations in Kobani, Raqqah and, finally, during the capture of the last camp of ISIS, the US Army launched air strikes while Kurds fought ground battles. Despite Ankara’s persistent calls to the US even before the operation in Raqqah, Washington chose to attack the city with the leftist Kurds, rather than with its 65-year-old NATO ally, because the creation of a second (after Iraq) Kurdish autonomy in Syria is part of America's well-thought strategic plan.
But Trump still have to listen to Erdogan’s arguments. Thus, the current US government has agreed, albeit conditionally, to create a 32-kilometer security zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. But Washington cannot simply leave the issue of Kurds to Ankara.
There are 26 US military bases in the north-eastern provinces of Syria, most of which are controlled by Kurds. The last one was created after December 2018, when President Trump announced his unexpected decision to withdraw the US Army from Syria. Incidentally, American strategists pressure on Trump so insistently that after the above decision, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis was forced to resign.
Turkey is very concerned because it cannot idly watch how a Kurdish autonomy, capable of controlling a 400-500km-long border area, is created in the north of the neighbouring state, although it is clear that the new Syrian constitution will provide the Kurds with some form of self-government. Oddly enough, Bashar al-Assad seems to be the most natural ally of Ankara today. Incidentally, the constitutional commission of Syria, which, as expected, was supposed to start fulfilling its duties in February, was not formed for certain reasons. But after a visit of a high-ranking Russian delegation to Damascus last week, which had long discussions with Bashar al-Assad on the establishment of the commission, it is likely that it will start working soon.
In other words, Turkey has very little time. Perhaps, this explains the build-up of the Turkish armed forces on the southern borders of the country over the past few weeks. The objective is to create a 32-kilometer buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border to oust the Kurds. Apparently, it will be very difficult to agree on this issue with Washington. It is also unlikely that Turkey will receive the support of Russia.
Turkey’s foreign policy has faced the most difficult tests in the recent years. According to the famous maxim by Lenin about the development of revolutionary situations, when "the lower classes do not want to live in the old way and the upper classes cannot carry on in the old way," it becomes clear that Turkey does not want to remain a country of the Cold War, while the West cannot maintain previous relations with it. But any change is not a painless process.