Erdogan’s constant search for scapegoats and enemies is leaving him friendless in the region
The man who is given most public credit for negotiating a groundbreaking deal between Israel and the UAE is the head of Mossad, Yossi Cohen. He has been talking secretly with fellow spooks in the Gulf states for years, pointing out that they shared a common enemy: Iran. But there was one encounter about 20 months ago when he let slip another agenda. “Iranian power is fragile,” he reportedly told spymasters from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, “but the real threat is from Turkey.”
That was quite something coming from the spy chief who masterminded the Israeli heist of large chunks of the Iranian nuclear archive from a warehouse in central Tehran. His point, though, was not that Iran had ceased to be an existential menace but rather that it could be contained: through sanctions, embargoes, intelligence sharing and clandestine raids. Turkey’s coercive diplomacy, its sloppily calculated risk-taking across the Middle East, posed a different kind of challenge to strategic stability in the eastern Mediterranean.
The region is beginning to feel a bit like the Balkans in the early 1990s, a space occupied by failed and failing states, mounting popular anger, too much military hardware and big powers itching to exploit a power vacuum. The eastern Mediterranean, normally the haunt of holidaymakers at this time of year, is living dangerously. Turkish warships, escorting a vessel suspected of transporting arms to Libya, were put on battle stations when a French frigate tried to challenge it. France is reinforcing its naval presence and may use it to support Greek vessels as they attempt to stop Turkish oil and gas exploration in Greek territorial waters. Both Greece and Turkey have cancelled leave and mobilised their navies and air forces.
This is a row between Nato members. Membership of the alliance helped to stabilise relations between Athens and Ankara over the decades. Now it has lost its healing magic, and Turkey, which has no qualms about buying Russian ground-to-air missiles, believes it can operate outside alliance norms. Its case is that Greece and its many islands are preparing to exploit the deep-sea gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean basin and thus turn the sea into a prosperous Greek lake. The ambitions of the Republic of Cyprus have also drawn Turkish anger: it surmises that Turkish-dominated northern Cyprus will not be able to share in the Greek bonanza.
The dream of mutually beneficial wealth returning to this corner of the Med, of a Phoenician empire 2.0, is shared not only by Greece and Cyprus but also Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Italy and even the Palestinian Authority. Yet Recep Tayyip Erdogan views regional energy co-ordination as a project designed chiefly to marginalise Turkey.
Here, then, is why the eastern Med has become such a volatile mess: it is torn between Erdogan’s drive to make Turkey into the indispensable Eurasian power, Russian opportunism and the corrupt cabals that have robbed regional governments of their ambition. Neither the European Union nor Nato seems ready to calm the waters.
The crises of the Levant hop like performing fleas from one society to another. It took a huge dockside explosion to highlight Lebanon’s critically infirm institutions, to expose how many of society’s biggest problems have been simply dumped in a freezer and forgotten. The collapse of the country’s banks has also destroyed the savings of the Syrian middle class who thought their neighbour was a safe haven. Increasingly the international community seems to think that keeping Bashar al-Assad in place is preferable to the meltdown that could follow his removal.
The Lebanese blast was felt across the water in Cyprus and should have woken up its elites. For almost half a century they have put up with a divided island. The north is an impoverished Turkish fiefdom; the south is a convenient EU pit stop for Russian cash. How much longer can that continue? Turkey is letting more refugees pass its borders to make the sea trip to Greece; just as Vladimir Putin uses gas as a means of pressure on western Europe, so Erdogan weaponises migrants. Turkey also knows how to turn the tap on and off to Hamas in the Gaza strip, Israel’s running sore.
And so it is that Turkey flirts with war. Erdogan might see it differently, view himself as the master of unpeace, in which he accumulates influence by denying others the space to prosper. His military support for the Libyan government in Tripoli is supposed in the first instance to thwart his rivals and their proxies. A marine exploration agreement with Tripoli was clinched with a view to blocking others. But he is plainly overextending Turkish power, in northern Syria, in its endless struggle with the Kurds.
The constant search for enemies and scapegoats exhausts even his supporters, and has left him almost friendless in the region. He admires Putin yet seems incapable of imitating Putin’s formula of freezing conflicts he cannot win and settling for modest gain. The Kremlin leader deployed just enough force to keep Assad in power, to secure a Russian military base and a Mediterranean port. Erdogan, it seems, doesn’t know the meaning of “just enough” and has yet to win anything much from his erratic policy of almost-war.
After the Cold War there were hopes that Russia could be a useful member of western clubs. It became a strategic rival. Turkey was seen as a possible EU member. It reinvented itself as the world’s loose cannon.