Much is happening in the international arena. There are simultaneous, independent developments underway. Some days we talk about Donald Trump’s impeachment. Other times we find ourselves discussing Brexit. It remains to be seen whether U.S. troops will leave Syria or not. Such intense and complex developments tend to stop observers from seeing the big picture.
Turkey, too, has been taking notable steps in the region. On Ankara’s international agenda, there are two key issues: The terror corridor that the terrorist organization PKK/People’s Protection Units (YPG) attempted to establish in northern Syria and, on a deeper level, the strategic dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Tackling those two issues simultaneously presented Turkey with serious geopolitical risks. In the Syrian theater, the United States acted as the PKK/YPG’s sponsor and opposed the Turkish incursion. At the same time, the Syrian regime attempted to expand its zone of influence. Idlib, in particular, was a flashpoint. Russia worked together with Bashar Assad as well. Finally, Iran had joined forces with the regime.
Meanwhile, in the Eastern Mediterranean, a new energy deal emerged without Turkey. The United States, Israel, Egypt, Greece, and the Greek Cypriots collaborated to prevent the Turks from looking for energy reserves around Cyprus and its drilling activities there. The European Union also opposed Turkish efforts, threatening sanctions.
The Libya question, albeit seemingly unrelated, created risks in the Eastern Mediterranean. The country’s U.N.-backed government came under attack from Gen. Khalifa Haftar, whom the United Arab Emirates, the U.S., and Israel support. In response, Libya’s legitimate government asked for Turkey’s help to restore peace and stability, prompting Turkish political and financial support.
In retrospect, policymakers in Ankara saw those developments as part of the same question and came up with a strategy to resolve all disputes simultaneously. Turkey minimized the threat of terrorism in northern Syria with last month’s Operation Peace Spring. The area between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn is now under Turkish control. On this issue, Turkey concluded agreements with the U.S. and Russia.
Shortly afterward, Turkey and Libya concluded a maritime agreement to change the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean. The two countries took a critical step by declaring an exclusive economic zone. This agreement was also unprecedented in the history of Turkey’s relations with its maritime neighbors. Obviously, the deal effectively blocks any similar agreement between Greece, Egypt, and the Greek Cypriots. At the same time, it strengthens Turkey’s legal arguments regarding its drilling and seismic research activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Hence the strong reaction from Egypt and Greece to Turkey’s latest move. Their frustration, however, cannot stop the two maritime neighbors from defining their borders. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, announced that “more will follow” and “Turkey will hold similar talks with Mediterranean countries” down the road. It remains to be seen which country Turkey will sign the next maritime agreement with.