Erdogan faces huge domestic challenges - GulfToday

Erdogan faces huge domestic challenges

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Tayyip Erdogan. File

While the globe is preoccupied with the coronavirus and economic meltdown, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pursuing his neo-Ottoman ambitions by projecting his country’s power on two fronts in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The first front is Cyprus where the government has condemned Ankara for resuming illegal drilling for natural gas in the republic’s offshore waters. Turkey’s drill vessel Yavuz, accompanied by a naval escort, is due to begin operations and continue until July 18th. Turkey has, so far, ignored European Union targeted sanctions for violating Cypriot waters and is unlikely to be concerned about further measures.

Furthermore, Turkey will drill while major foreign multinationals contracted to explore and exploit maritime gas resources in the island’s exclusive economic zone have suspended operations due to the virus and the expected post-virus economic crisis.

Cyprus government spokesman Kyriacos Kousios declared, “Turkey is enforcing  gunboat policy, it is behaving like the pirate of the Eastern Mediterranean, trampling on and violating the principles of international law and interfering with the sovereign rights of third countries” as well as Cyprus.”  Among the third countries impacted by Turkey’s actions are Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Greece, and Israel.

The second front is Libya where Turkey has signed an agreement with the UN-recognised government in Tripoli. Under this deal the two countries claim underwater continental shelves stretching from Turkey’s shores to Libya’s coast. If recognised and enforced, these exclusive offshore zones would meet in the centre of the sea, bisect the Eastern Mediterranean, and encroach on other states’ mutually agreed economic off-shore zones.

Turkey aims to use leverage gained by this deal to scupper multilateral plans for an underwater EastMed pipeline carrying gas to Europe and to blackmail the Republic of Cyprus to agree to Ankara’s demands in northern Cyprus, occupied by the Turkish army since 1974.

Ankara enticed the Tripoli government — which is challenged by a rival regime in the east — to reach the off-shore arrangement by providing several thousand surrogate Syrian mercenaries to fight General Khalifa Haftar whose forces have besieged Tripoli.  

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not interested in a cessation of hostilities at this time. His strategy seems to be working. Thanks to his provision of arms and reinforcements, Tripoli’s armed forces have shifted from defence to offense and retaken key coastal cities west of the capital.

Erdogan’s objectives in Libya are to project Turkish power, bolster the Tripoli-allied Muslim Brotherhood, gain leverage over Libya’s oil, and secure rights to drill for gas in Libyan waters. Haftar’s supporters are determined to prevent Erdogan from realising these goals.  The last thing they want is Libya to be ruled by a pro-Brotherhood regime beholden to Erdogan who is pursuing a neo-Ottoman dream to restore territories which once belonged to the Ottoman Empire which collapsed more than a century ago.

Erdogan may be all the more determined to succeed in Libya because he has failed to secure his goals in Syria, the initial victim of his efforts to project Turkish power in the neighbourhood.  His initial aim was to replace the secular Syrian government with a pro-Muslim Brotherhood regime. Erdogan recruited, trained and armed dissident Syrian military officers and men and facilitated the flow of radical fighters into Syria. Although the Damascus government lost control of large areas of the country, the Syrian army, backed by Russian airpower and militiamen deployed by Iran, has clawed back lost territory and now controls 70 per cent of Syria.

Consequently, Erdogan has been forced to downsize his ambitions in Syria. His forces have seized three tracts of territory in northern Syria and following the 2018 ceasefire andde-confliction deal with Russia, he has planted a dozen major military camps and dozens of posts and checkpoints in the north-western province of Idlib, which is controlled by al-Qaeda’s Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

Although, Turkey was meant to corral and disarm the radicals, it protected them, armed them, and attempted to co-opt them. Cooption failed and the Syrian army advanced into Idlib, seizing at least one-third of the province. Despite a March ceasefire, Turkey now faces resistance from Tahrir al-Sham as well as a certain amount of harassment from the Syrian army. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear to Erdogan that Turkey will have to withdraw from Syrian territory.

Meanwhile, Erdogan is under challenge within Turkey, the country’s economy is faltering, the Covid virus has taken hold, and his external adventures are not diverting attention from his domestic failures.

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