THE SOLUTION TO TURKEY'S GEOPOLITICAL DILEMMA IN THE EAST-MED? GREECE.
After years of pursuing its national interests at the expense of its allies and partners, Turkey now risks becoming isolated in the East Mediterranean. A legal order is emerging, the region is moving forward with the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, and Ankara must evolve in tandem or be left behind. For that reason, Turkey's pre-election foreign policy agenda has included restoring diplomatic relations with Israel, Syria, and Egypt. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the solution to Turkey's geopolitical dilemma in the East Mediterranean is Greece.
Despite disagreements over designating Hamas as a terrorist organization, Turkey and Israel are united by their shared interests in Syria and Azerbaijan. Even if ties have fluctuated from strained to nonexistent for almost 15 years, restoring relations with Jerusalem is low hanging fruit rather than a diplomatic powerplay. Turkey is going to need a lot more than that to avoid isolation in the East Mediterranean. Ultimately, Israel's close relationships with Greece and Cyprus and its historic maritime border deal with Lebanon ensure that the balance of power remains unchanged in the region.
While Turkey's cooperation with Syria on select issues is conceivable, a complete resumption of diplomatic relations is unlikely. Despite diplomatic overtures brokered by Russia in recent months, the dictator of Damascus has made it clear: Damascus will not normalize relations with Ankara until Turkey withdraws its forces from northern Syria. Given the security environment on the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkey is as likely to withdraw from northern Syria as Israel is to withdraw from the Golan Heights—not at all.
Diplomatic relations between Turkey and Egypt were severed following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. Cairo recently presented three conditions to restore diplomatic relations with Ankara. First, Turkey must extradite members of the Muslim Brotherhood wanted by the Egyptian government. Second, Turkey must withdraw its armed forces and Turkish-backed militias from Libya. Third, Ankara must settle its maritime disputes with Athens and Nicosia in exchange for Turkey's accession to the East Mediterranean Gas Forum.
Although possible, a complete resumption of relations seems unlikely unless Egypt softens its stance or Ankara compromises with Cairo. While Ankara may comply with some of Cairo's extradition requests, its support for the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity is indispensable for its revisionist ambitions in the East Mediterranean. By the same token, Turkey may have the political will to resolve its maritime disputes with NATO ally Greece but bridging the gap with Cyprus without addressing the Turkish occupation and reunification of the island is far more complicated.
Libya is a crucial component of Turkey's Mavi Vatan—Blue Homeland—strategy. Put simply, Turkey has a unique interpretation of international maritime law because Ankara is not a party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of The Sea (UNCLOS). Turkey claims an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that cuts diagonally through Greece's territorial waters by disregarding the Greek islands of Rhodes, Karpathos, and Crete until it connects with Libya's alleged EEZ. Like Turkey, Libya's alleged EEZ also infringes on the territorial waters of Greece and Egypt.
If Ankara maintains its unreasonable position, withdrawing from Libya will remain a nonstarter for Turkey and Ankara's isolation in the East Mediterranean will persist. If Turkey demonstrates flexibility by compromising with Egypt and Greece, Turkey will be welcomed into the regional order. This dramatic shift in Turkish foreign policy would be celebrated in capitals from Nicosia to Washington and Paris to Jerusalem. Although unlikely, it remains in the realm of the reasonable and the possible.
To kill two birds with one stone, Turkey should abandon its revisionist ambitions in the East Mediterranean. Greece and Cyprus aside, this would also improve Turkey's relations with Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, and Syria—all of which have either entered or intend to enter into maritime boundary agreements with each other. If Turkey disputes the legality of Greece's EEZ, then it should follow in the footsteps of Albania and address its grievances by filing a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice. Turkey would reap at least three benefits from this.
First, it would resolve Turkey's maritime disputes with Greece through the rule of law instead of brute force and fulfil half of Egypt's third condition for restoring diplomatic relations. Second, it would lay the foundation for Turkey to gradually reduce its military footprint in Libya and fulfil Cairo's second condition for restoring diplomatic relations. Third, it would also usher in a new era of Turkish cooperation in the East Mediterranean, restore the perception of Turkey as a reliable NATO ally, improve Ankara's relationship with Washington, and increase the likelihood—but by no means guarantee—that Congress approves the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.
Wishful thinking or not, diplomacy has prevailed in the East Mediterranean since a devastating earthquake killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria on Feb. 6. Turkish aerial incursions over Greek islands and incidents with the navy and coast guard have ceased. Greece will support Turkey's bid to assume the presidency of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) later this year. Turkey has agreed to support Greece's bid for a seat at the United Nations Security Council in 2025-2026. A century after the modern Turkish state was born, the solution to Turkey's geopolitical dilemma in the East Mediterranean brings Ankara back to where it all began—face-to-face with Greece.
Originally published by Newsweek on April 17, 2023.