In recent months, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policies in the eastern Mediterranean region have posed numerous risks to the security and interests of Greece and Cyprus.
While Turkey and Greece have said they are open to dialogue, both sides have stressed their interests must be met.
Erdogan doesn’t believe in dialogue to solve issues, unless talks happen under his terms. Ankara leaving 2016 exploratory talks and rejecting the recommendations of the Southern European Union Summit (SEUS) on the Cyprus issue in January 2019 are clear indications of this. Thus, Ankara’s recent call for dialogue should be treated with extreme caution.
European leaders must take a harder line against Turkey and realize that without truly understanding Ankara’s regional ambitions, any talks are likely to fail.
The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis recently published an opinion piece saying that the EU must impose ‘meaningful’ sanctions on Turkey unless Ankara pulls its maritime assets from disputed waters. In the piece, Mitsotakis addresses Europeans rather than Turks, and between the lines there is a strong statement: Athens does not accept Erdogan’s territorial claims and warns that Europeans would become irrelevant in the region if they continue to appease Erdogan.
For some in Europe, appeasement has been the policy of choice, and European actors have failed to realize the true nature of the current Turkish government’s foreign policy. And in doing so they have failed to consider the consequences of this policy.
Turkey has altered its policies noticeably, appealing to a nationalistic domestic base and pursuing more aggressive regional policies, but Europeans have consistently failed to adopt new policies toward Ankara, favoring appeasement, leaving the region at a crossroad.
This policy has been counterproductive as Turkey conducts espionage operations in Europe, supports terrorist groups that threaten the security of Europe, cooperates closely with Iran and Russia to undermine the interests of the West, opposes peace deals in the region, purchases Russian S-400 threatening the defense system of NATO, and weakens Western allies who have been fighting ISIS.
In short, Turkey has become increasingly adversarial, but European appeasement of Turkey has only enabled Erdogan to continue carrying out his policies to the detriment Turkey.
As a result, an emboldened Erdogan has brought his own country to the brink of being a rogue regime and the region to the brink of military confrontation.
Indeed, as opposed to what certain voices claim, Erdogan’s policies are not based on short-term tactics to win elections, but instead are mainly based on strategic visions presented to him by presidential advisers Shaban Kardas and Ali Balaci. These two figures perceive the West as an enemy and as a grave danger to Turkey’s interests.
Erdogan’s policy moves indicated he will not cease his bellicose behavior unless he is faced with unprecedented political and military force.
Turkey has made it clear that it does not accept the Treaty of Lausanne that defined the borders of modern Turkey. As such, Erdogan has sought to expand Turkey’s geographical borders under its 2023 vision, establishing a semi-Islamic Caliphate with Ankara leading the Islamic world, and extending Turkey’s borders into Greece, Bulgaria, Armenia, Iraq, and Syria.
While certain Western figures refuse to accept this new reality, opposition leaders in Turkey are terrified of Erdogan’s conduct. Kamal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the opposition CHP party, has criticized Erdogan, alongside Qatar, for facilitating the passage of terrorists through Turkey to Syria.
Although Erdogan’s policies are crippling the Turkish economy, in the eyes of his radicalized supporters, this is the cost to be paid for a greater cause, Turkey’s post-2023 vision.
Following Khomeini's footsteps for regional dominance
In Ankara’s quest for broader regional power, it has alienated traditional allies, apart from Qatar, Pakistan, a few militia groups in Libya and Syria, and partially Iran. In Erdogan’s thinking, which is rooted in Muslim Brotherhood ideology, the fact that other Muslim countries do not support him is because they are corrupted by the West.
In short, Erdogan is following the footprints of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who believed his regime would expel Western forces from the region and export its “Islamic revolution” across the region.
As a result, without acknowledging Erdogan’s ideological views, any negotiations or diplomatic attempts to solve issues with Ankara are highly likely to fail. The ultimate goal of Erdogan is to undermine the interests of Western countries in the region and his recent decisions such as opposing a US company oil deal in Syria, exposing secret US military positions to Russians, using refuges as a tool to pressure Europe, and his expansionist policy are clear indications.
Erdogan now needs a short-term victory to boost domestic support and galvanize support from regional radical groups.
This is only possible if Europe accepts the Turkish president at the table and start a round of negotiations. Turkey is currently isolated, the Turkish economy is sinking and Ankara’s adventure in Libya is not going to plan. Consequently, Erdogan’s position has been weakened at home. Offering Ankara a seat at the negotiation table would be portrayed as a victory and enough for Erdogan to boost his image again. However, once Erdogan gathers more support, he will come back with an even more aggressive policy toward Europe.
The reason is simple: The Muslim Brotherhood ideology combined with ultra-Turkish nationalism pits the West and other nations in the region as enemies against Turkey.
Turkey is using coercive diplomacy to seek to discourage Europeans from undertaking firm action.
Erdogan believes that this approach enables Turkey to have the upper hand, as he believes Europeans are frightened of confronting Ankara militarily if needed.
However, Greece and its allies should not hesitate to retaliate rather than bow down to Turkey’s threat. An escalation from Greece would present Ankara with a dilemma – either end its destabilizing activities and face humiliation or, escalate the situation and risk an armed confrontation.
Greece and Cyprus should reject any negotiations with Turkey, unless to discuss the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Cyprus based on UN resolutions. Rather, the European nations should continue their political and military cooperation with France, UAE, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In addition, Greece and Cyprus should press for crippling EU sanctions on Turkey and refer the case of eastern Mediterranean to the International Court of Justice.
Any attempt to resolve issues with Turkey by inviting Erdogan to the negotiation table before such actions would be viewed by Ankara as Nicosia and Athens’ Achilles heel. The sad reality is that Turkey will only obey by international rules when faced with force.
Raman Ghavami is a Middle Eastern analyst and consultant. He has worked for a variety of organizations across the Middle East and Europe, including the European Union. He tweets @Raman_Ghavami.