The Republic of Turkey is emerging as a major player in the European neighborhood. A change of focus in its foreign policy in the Mediterranean region and greater opposition to the European Union are some of the elements that make up this new disposition of the bicontinental country.
Given its proximity to Europe, Turkish politics (both internal and external) have tended, in the last decades of the 20th century, to become ‘westernized’, with democratic reforms and economic measures to try to become part of the EU. Within this scheme, since the early 2000s, Turkey went through a stage in its foreign policy in which it sought to show itself as one more player in the liberal-democratic and economically integrationist system.
However, after changes in the country’s internal politics (decreased military influence and increased support for the AKP, Erdoğan’s party), Turkish foreign policy began to look to the Middle East and become more revisionist of its geopolitical position. in the region. Thus, Turkey began a more active and aggressive foreign policy in its immediate neighborhood. Some even call it expansionist and “neo-Ottoman.”
This new regional foreign policy began with the successive crises of the “Arab Spring” in the region, in particular with the civil war in Syria (southeast of Turkey) that led waves of refugees in the direction of the European Union: Turkey used its quality as a “door to Europe” to win economic and political concessions.
With the deepening of the civil war in Syria, and after the retreat of the threat from the Islamic State, Turkey proceeded to advance on Syrian territory. First with the excuse of “fighting terrorism”, because northern Syria is controlled by a coalition of forces centered in Rojava, mostly Kurdish territories and with ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a political party classified as terrorist. within Turkish territory. Later, and more recently, with the agreement and permission of Al Assad’s own government, despite Erdoğan’s statements against the Syrian regime.
Nor can it be ignored that these advances in Syria occurred, in turn, after a political rapprochement with Russia and the disinterest of the US administration under Donald Trump for the region. Not a minor fact, considering that Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
However, Turkish actions have not been limited to Syria. The focus of its Turkish foreign policy has shifted away from that country in the last two years: it is now focused on the Eastern Mediterranean.
In this sense, it is appropriate to clarify certain issues that put this region at the center of Turkish politics. In the first place, the Mediterranean concentrates gas deposits at its eastern end, as well as important commercial maritime traffic. On the other hand, the delimitations of maritime platforms and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) are disputed by Turkey. It is for this reason that the Turkish Republic is not a party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, one of the most important international treaties in the international system and by which maritime territorial demarcations are regulated.
Turkish territorial claims in the Mediterranean face those of the Republic of Cyprus and Greece (members of the EU), mainly, who have also agreed limits with Israel and Egypt. These 4 countries are party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and have relations that range from cold to hostile with Turkey.
Faced with this isolation in the Mediterranean, Turkey has recently approached Libya for a bilateral agreement on the limits of the continental shelf in the Mediterranean that ignores the Greek islands. For its part, the North African country, divided by the civil war, agreed in exchange for Turkish military support. This support was not only officially given, but there are also reports of Syrian mercenaries sent by Turkey in Libya.
In turn, Turkish revisionism in the Mediterranean is not only expressed through diplomatic channels. Aggressive actions in exclusive economic zones: exploration ships (from oil or gas fields) escorted by military vessels have entered waters disputed by Greece and Cypriot waters, even carrying out aggressive maneuvers to drive out other exploration vessels acting legitimately in the same zone. As some may recall, these conflicts can become a risk of escalating violence in the region, as happened last year with the operations of the Turkish exploration ship. Oruc Reis in disputed waters with Greece.
In short, Turkey is shaping up to be an actor revisionist, in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. It has gone from trying to integrate with the European Union to openly antagonizing it, moving away from Western powers and closer to Russia, despite being a member of NATO. It has adopted an active and aggressive military action in neighboring countries with active armed conflicts (invasions in Syria and Iraq, dispatch of mercenaries in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and in Libya) and has increased its aggressiveness with respect to the maritime limits in the Eastern Mediterranean .