02.01.2024 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Turkey steps up diplomacy in the Mediterranean

Turkey steps up diplomacy in the Mediterranean

As a country at the crossroads of three continents (Asia, Africa and Europe), Turkey remains a key regional player and has a fairly active diplomatic policy. Of course, not all of Ankara’s foreign policy doctrines declared over the past 10-15 years have delighted its neighbours.

In particular, when it comes to neo-Ottomanism and Turkey’s intention to restore its former influence in the post-Ottoman space, almost most (if not all) of its geographical neighbours that were formerly part of the Ottoman state are concerned about Ankara’s desire to do so. At the same time, the principle of “zero problems with neighbours” put forward earlier by Ahmet Davutoğlu, the author of the doctrinal concept of neo-Ottomanism and then Turkish Foreign Minister, inspires respect and hope that the Turkish authorities will follow this course.

Accordingly, the doctrine of Turkish Eurasianism (or the “Turkish bridge” between Europe and Asia), due to the geographical location and ethno-cultural tradition of the Republic of Turkey, finds a positive response in part of the countries of Europe and Asia, suggests the constructive development of beneficial partnerships and the smoothing of historical problems and contradictions. It should be added that Turkey, not only because of its ethno-cultural ties, but also because of its transit opportunities in the fields of energy, trade and logistics, is undoubtedly of great interest for the implementation of major international economic projects.

As for the doctrine of neo-panturanism, which has been given a new start given the global geopolitical transformations after the collapse of the USSR, it should also be noted that Turkey has breakthrough achievements in terms of economic, energy, transport and logistics, ethno-cultural, military, political, organisational and structural integration of independent Turkic states within the framework of the modernised principle of former President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev’s “one nation – two states” and now “one nation – two states”.

Moreover, within the framework of this doctrine, with the key participation of Turkey and other Turkic countries, Ankara plans to form a common economic market with a population of almost 165 million people, and with the involvement of a number of non-Turkic states (including Georgia, Armenia, Tajikistan and Pakistan), this is another 258 million people. In other words, Turkey considers it an ambitious task to form an alternative economic integration with a population of 423 million from Istanbul to Islamabad.

Of course, such an imperative of Turkish diplomacy, on the one hand, is welcomed by the same Turkic states of the post-Soviet space with the flagship participation of Azerbaijan (especially after the success of the second Karabakh war in 2020 and the prospects of spatial connection of the Turkic world through the Armenian Zangezur), and on the other hand, there is considerable wariness on the part of a group of small and key states (in particular, Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan, Iran, Russia, India and China).

Each of the above-mentioned doctrinal developments in Turkey has its own motivations and justifications, aimed at increasing the status of the Turkish state in the system of regional and global relations. However, by the first quarter of the 21st century, it is still impossible to unequivocally assert the full realisation of all the outlined goals due to a number of internal and external circumstances. It is clear that in the geopolitical context, the processes started in one century may (smoothly or intermittently) flow into another century due to the emerging historical conjuncture. However, the rich tradition of Turkish diplomacy is characterised by the experience of connecting times and generations.

Today, another Palestinian-Israeli military conflict in the Middle East is forcing Turkey to take an active stance and launch new initiatives. Recep Erdogan, having proposed the establishment of an independent Palestine within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital and the provision of an international security mandate to Turkey, rejected the Israeli option of establishing a buffer Palestinian state after the end of the current war.

As is known, Tel Aviv has passed its buffer formation project to a number of Middle Eastern countries – Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey (i.e. the key Arab countries and the only non-Arab country, Turkey). However, only Turkey has been a categorical opponent of the Israeli project, while the Arab states either remain silent or (like the UAE) use general phrases about the importance of peace and mutual compromise. Ankara believes that the Gaza Strip belongs to the Palestinians and it is up to them to decide its fate.

Turkish President R. Erdogan continues to accuse the policy of Israel and its allies in the West of crimes against the Gaza Strip, calling the military actions of the IDF a blatant “massacre” and “genocide” of the Palestinians. The Turkish leader considers his country’s membership in NATO as a consequence of adopting Western values, but accuses the same West, led by the United States, of patronising Israel, which systematically and grossly violates the rights and freedoms of the Palestinians.

Erdoğan has demonstrated active Middle Eastern and Mediterranean diplomacy. His visits to the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar) and Greece are a clear indicator of this. In this context, Turkish-Greek relations, which are piled with a complex of both historical and economic contradictions, occupy a special place.

Until recently, the current relations between Ankara and Athens were close to crisis, with the sides maintaining different approaches to a number of issues on the bilateral, regional and international agenda. In particular, the territorial issue between Turkey and Greece over the island of Cyprus and a number of islands in the Aegean Sea remains unresolved. Ankara and Athens have different views on Armenian-Azerbaijani reconciliation and the final settlement of the Karabakh issue. Serious confrontation is caused by the issue of ownership of a part of the shelf in the Mediterranean Sea, where large gas deposits have been discovered. To this should be added a complex of historical contradictions on the issues of territories, the fate of the Church of St Sophia, the genocide of Greeks and Armenians, the Turkish minority in Greece, etc.

Turkey is very concerned about the persistent disagreements within NATO over the disproportions of modern weaponry (especially combat aircraft) of the Turkish and Greek armies. First of all, Ankara is concerned about the lifting of the military embargo on U.S. arms deliveries to the Greek part of Cyprus, as well as the transfer of U.S. modernised F-16 and 5th generation F-35 fighters combined with French 4++ Rafale fighters to the Greek side.

The current bias favours the strengthening of Greek combat aviation capabilities and, consequently, the reduction of the corresponding positions of the Turkish Air Force. Obviously, the US policy and its impact on the rest of the NATO members led to a situation of undeclared military sanctions against Turkey. Washington, assessing the high capabilities of the Turkish Navy in the Mediterranean Sea and considering the 1974 Turkish naval operation Attila to occupy the northern Turkic-populated part of the island of Cyprus, purposefully increases the combat capabilities of the Greek Air Force to neutralise Ankara’s prospective military threats to Athens.

The ongoing uncertainty over the Swedish issue in the Turkish parliament creates additional conditions of estrangement between the US and Turkey, which negatively affects the military deliveries of US-modernised F-16 Block70 fighters to Turkish partners. At the same time, another tension in Turkish-American relations due to the polarity of Ankara’s and Washington’s approaches to the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli military conflict does not leave any hope for positive changes between Turkey and the United States.

Accordingly, Erdogan, being an experienced and flexible politician, cannot allow the escalation of tension in relations with Greece, which can create a stalemate for Turkey in the Mediterranean basin and “bury” a number of promising economic projects in the European direction. It is no coincidence that before he visited Athens for the meeting of the Supreme Cooperation Council of Turkey and Greece on 7 December this year, Erdogan said in an interview with the newspaper Kathimerini that he intended to sign a Declaration of Friendly Relations and Good Neighbourliness with the Greek side, which would be a demonstration of the political will of the two countries for mutually beneficial cooperation.

Erdogan said he does not consider Greece an enemy of Turkey if there are no threats from Athens. Asked what the Turkish leader would say to his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Erdogan said: “I will tell him this: Kyriakos, my friend, we don’t threaten you if you don’t threaten us. Let’s build trust between our two countries. Let us expand bilateral cooperation in all sectors – economy, trade, transport, energy, health, technology, education, and youth issues. Let us show mutual care and concern for the historical and cultural heritage of our countries”.

There are no issues that the two leaders could not solve through dialogue and goodwill, be it the issues in the Aegean Sea, the fight against illegal migration, the problems of the Turkish minority in Greece, the preservation of historical and cultural heritage, etc., the two leaders said.

Demonstrating a peaceful agenda in relations with Athens, Erdoğan said, “Greece is our neighbouring country and we will always remain neighbours. We share the same geography, and the same sea. We breathe the same air. We are linked by our past. There are many issues that we have not yet been able to resolve between us. Both countries know that. But it is up to us to allow these issues to cause tensions and divisions between our governments and our people.

According to the Turkish leader, Turkey has “no insurmountable problems” in its relations with Greece, while Turks are “a nation that will never refuse the hand of friendship extended to it”. Regarding previous threatening statements that Turks “may come suddenly one night,” Erdogan explained that they were only referring to “terrorist elements that threaten Turkey’s security.”

Following the 5th meeting of the High Cooperation Council in Athens, Turkey and Greece signed the said Declaration of Friendship on Good Neighbourliness and agreed to restore trust between the countries and measures to eliminate undesirable risk factors and military tensions.

Although the declaration signed on 7 December this year is not a binding international document, it nevertheless creates new conditions for the peaceful settlement of all contentious issues in Turkish-Greek relations. In fact, after seven years of crisis, a “peaceful détente” may come between Greece and Turkey. Recep Erdogan, through his visit and talks with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has actually laid the foundation for a favourable climate for Turkish-Greek relations and a reduction of tension. If the parties stick to the stated course, Turkey will demonstrate its ability not only to create problems in relations with its neighbours, but also to localise them according to the principle of “zero problems with neighbours”.

In this sense, Recep Erdogan’s statement following the talks in Athens is remarkable: “There are no problems between us (Turkey and Greece) that we might not be able to solve. There are no problems between us that cannot be solved. It is enough to focus on the big picture. Let us not be among those who cross the sea and drown in the flood.”

This attitude can be applied by Turkey in other diplomatic areas as well (e.g. in the South Caucasus in terms of restoring relations with Armenia). This would be evidence of Turkey’s high status and its ability to become a constructive player on the “chessboard” of regional and global politics.


Alexander SVARANTS – PhD of Political Science, Professor, especially for the online magazine «New Eastern Outlook».

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