Erdogan has rarely been so weak at home—or so aggressive with his neighbors in the Mediterranean.
When Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s finance minister and the son-in-law of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced on May 12 that his country would soon send a drill ship to exploit natural gas resources in an area widely considered to belong to Cyprus, it was tempting to write off the incident as just another harmless flare-up in the decadeslong territorial disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean. Periodically stoking tensions with Greece and Cyprus has always been a part of Turkish foreign-policy strategy.
This time is far more dangerous, however, because there are signs Turkey might be ready to escalate its confrontation beyond mere rhetoric. Albayrak’s announcement came a day before Turkey held Sea Wolf, its largest annual naval exercise in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. Then, on May 15, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reiterated the country’s intention to buy the S-400 missile system from Russia. And throughout this period, Turkish jets have been violating Greek airspace almost daily.
The S-400 purchase has been a source of tension on its own. The United States and NATO believe that the missile system, once plugged into Turkey’s radar network, will give Russian systems access to sensitive NATO data—potentially making it easier, for instance, for Moscow to detect the F-35s that Turkey has been looking to procure from the West. Turkey claims those concerns are overblown, but that hasn’t stopped Washington from threatening Ankara with removal from the F-35 purchasing program and further sanctions.
All this, again, could be seen simply as part of the generally problematic relationship between Turkey and the West following the events of the Gezi Park protests and the escalation of the war in Syria, when Erdogan began consolidating power at home almost six years ago. But recent local elections in Istanbul—in which Erdogan lost the city he considers his seat of power—have clearly spooked the once unshakeable strongman, causing him to overreach and force a rerun. This looks likely to backfire, with opposition parties withdrawing their candidates and throwing their support behind the Republican People’s Party’s Ekrem Imamoglu, who was the winner of the first round.
This comes amid an economy in decline, as reflected in the price of the Turkish lira, and grumbling about Erdogan inside his own party. The frosty reception the president got when he visited Turkey-aligned Northern Cyprus last year also didn’t help his standing at home.
These are developments that Erdogan was clearly not ready for. Turks may ultimately benefit from their autocratic president’s sudden weakening. But as far as international politics go, the effects are far more ambiguous. History suggests that leaders who are losing their grip on power have incentives to organize a show of strength and unite their base behind an imminent foreign threat. Erdogan has every reason to create hostilities with Greece—Turkey’s traditional adversary and Cyprus’s ally— to distract from his problems at home.
This wouldn’t come out of nowhere. Turkey has never allowed Cyprus to benefit from the natural gas reserves in its waters without some sort of confrontation. In that sense, Turkey’s strategy in the Aegean Sea has been consistent for many decades now: apply pressure, put forth demands, wait for a crisis, and then bring the other side to the table on your own terms. This is precisely what it’s trying to do in Cyprus right now. “What is developing before our eyes is a systematic strategy engineered by Turkey to bring into question the status quo in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean regions,” wrote Alexis Papachelas, one of Greece’s most senior and well-respected journalists, in his column on May 15. “All evidence points to a climax in tensions next autumn.”
It’s hard to say what the limits of the current confrontation might be. The present conditions make for a dangerous mix. Erdogan has steadily moved Turkey away from the Western institutions it belongs to (NATO) and the ones it once aspired to be a part of (the European Union) and closer to Russia as he attempts to portray himself as a regional leader in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Cyprus and Greece are both members in good standing of the EU. Indeed, Greece has moved closer to the United States and NATO than it has at any time in the past four decades. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has promoted stronger ties with both Israel and Egypt, Cyprus’s partners in its natural gas ventures.
Europe has an important role to play in deterring a conflict. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has expressed “great concern” over Turkey’s plans. “We call urgently on Turkey to show restraint, respect the sovereign rights of Cyprus in its exclusive economic zone and refrain from any such illegal action to which the EU will respond appropriately and in full solidarity with Cyprus,” she said last week, while in January, French President Emmanuel Macron had said that France supports Cyprus’ right to gas deposits off its coast, despite Turkey’s objections. The EU’s current approach to protecting its borders, however, is unlikely to be enough to deter Erdogan.
There are broader geopolitical stakes for Europe. In case of an escalation, including any sort of military conflict, wavering by Cyprus’s and Greece’s allies will invalidate the choices made by the two EU members to strengthen their ties with the West and create further doubt about NATO’s effectiveness.
None of this is to suggest that the EU has always handled Turkey and Erdogan as well as it could have, or that Greece, Cyprus, and Israel haven’t made decisions of their own that have raised tensions in the region. But those arguments are not relevant to the present situation. The road map Erdogan is following is of his own creation, as are the seeds of his troubles. In responding to his provocations, Europe must now take a levelheaded but firm approach, one that leaves no room for doubt that Cyprus and Greece have allies on their side. That will do more to dissuade an escalation than any attempt to appease a troubled Erdogan with concessions.