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Turkey

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Erdoğan At Bay

30 August 2020

There are eight Turks for every Greek, so you might think the Greeks have to fold. But Greece has the backing of France, Italy, Israel, Egypt, and practically every other country in the eastern Mediterranean and the Arab world, as well as the entire European Union, so it has just called the bet and raised it.

This poker game is all about rival claims to seabed territory with promising gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been throwing his weight around – or maybe he’s just bluffing, but how much is Greece willing to risk to find out? Especially since Athens can’t be sure which way its friends will jump if the shooting starts.

The quarrel between Greece and Turkey is mainly about control over the waters and seabed of the Aegean Sea that separates them. The Aegean is only an average of 200 km. wide, and it would be easy just to run a line down the middle – except that there is a chain of Greek islands running down Turkey’s west coast, often within sight of the mainland. Almost all the other islands in the sea are Greek too.

So it’s a Greek sea, really – but Turkey refuses to accept that. In defiance of both traditional maritime law and the 1982 United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea, Ankara insists that the Greek islands do not generate their own territorial waters and seabed rights. It claims half the Aegean Sea as its own, and a big chunk of the Mediterranean beyond it too.

You can see why Turkey feels cheated by geography, but the law is the law for every country, and by and large Turkey abided by it – until the prospect of undersea gas wealth and the pressures of populist politics spurred it to push its spurious claims very hard.

It’s really fool’s gold. The recent collapse in gas and oil prices is likely to last long after the Covid-19 crisis ends, perhaps even permanently, for renewable energy prices are now competitive with fossil fuels and demand is trending downwards. Laying seabed pipelines is expensive, and even without the risk of war it’s unlikely to happen in the eastern Mediterranean now.

Does Erdoğan realise this? Maybe so, maybe not, but either way he needs a foreign crisis so he can pose as the hero of Turkish nationalism. The long, credit-fueled boom that sustained his popularity has given way to economic stagnation, his military incursions into Syria, Iraq and Libya have made him many enemies, and he badly needs a win.

Since last year Turkish seismic exploration and drilling ships, escorted by warships, have been searching for gas in waters off Crete and Cyprus that no other country in the world regards as Turkish. In reply, French and Italian warships and fighter aircraft from the United Arab Emirates have taken part in joint exercises with Greek and Cypriot forces.

The European Union has given Turkey until late September to stop its “illegal activities” in the eastern Mediterranean, after which sanctions may be imposed. And last Thursday Greece declared that it was going to extend its territorial waters in the Ionian Sea from six nautical miles to the maximum permitted twelve miles.

That’s the Ionian Sea, between western Greece and Italy, not the Aegean, between eastern Greece and Turkey. In the Aegean both Greece and Turkey still observe the old six-mile limit in practice, although it is unclear whether Turkey officially accepts it in theory. But Greece is signalling that it might go to twelve miles in the Aegean too, which would pretty well turn it into a Greek lake.

Both Greece and Turkey joined NATO during the Cold War out of fear of the Soviet Union, and the other NATO members are now trying hard to ward off a conflict that could break the alliance. But it’s an uphill struggle, because the two countries have been enemies for a long time.

The Turks conquered all of the Balkan peninsula, including Greece, and ruled over it for centuries. Greece took part in the attempt to carve up what was left of Turkey as European colonies after the First World War. The Turks expelled the long established Greek minority from most of the country when that attempt failed.

Two generations later, the Greek government engineered a bloody coup by ex-EOKA terrorists in Cyprus with the intention of unifying the island with Greece. Turkey invaded in order to stop that and protect the Turkish minority in 1973, and its troops are still there to support the separatist government of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus.

There have been at least three other Greek-Turkish crises since then, none of which ended in war. This one probably won’t either, but it’s going to come closer than any of the others did. Erdoğan sees his power slipping away, and he’s getting desperate.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“It’s really…win”)

Libya: The Incredible Irrelevance of America

‘Field Marshal’ Khalifa Haftar’s retreat from Tripoli should not be confused with Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. Haftar was foolish to try to capture the Libyan capital – it even surprised his foreign backers – but he probably won’t have to retreat very far. His main force is still intact, and it doesn’t snow much in Libya.

It’s probably too generous to call what has been going on in Libya a civil war. After long-ruling dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, the country actually disintegrated into a series of city-states ruled by rival Islamist militias – and every petty warlord got foreign backers because of Libya’s oil wealth.

Fifty years ago Khalifa Haftar was one of the young officers who helped Gaddafi overthrow the monarchy. 25 years ago he was a CIA asset living in Virginia and promising to overthrow Gaddafi. Five years ago he became the commander of the Libyan National Army and started subjugating the ‘Islamist and terrorist’ militias that then dominated the east of the country (Cyrenaica).

As he gained control of Cyrenaica and then the desert south of the country Haftar’s foreign backers multiplied – France, Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates – for that’s where most of the oilfields, pipelines and oil terminals are. They also liked his strong anti-Islamist line. But they weren’t really interested in reuniting Libya, whereas Haftar was.

The various Islamist militias that dominate the capital, Tripoli, and the broader western region of Tripolitania are really just local boys defending their protection rackets. They have no loyalty to the unelected Government of National Accord (GNA) that the United Nations calls legitimate. However the GNA has gained the support of Turkey, probably the strongest country in the Middle East.

Why? Partly because under President Recep Tayyib Erdoğan Turkey has become the key supporter of pro-Islamist regimes and parties throughout the Arab world (the GNA is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood), and partly because of oil.

Still with me? Don’t bother to take notes; there won’t be a test.

Turkey didn’t instantly give military aid to the GNA when Haftar sent his forces west fourteen months ago to attack Tripoli. That had to wait until Erdoğan had extorted a deal last December in which Libya promised to sell Turkey lots of oil and gas (although it couldn’t deliver until Haftar was defeated).

The leader of the GNA, Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, also had to agree to a deal in which Turkey and Libya carved up seabed rights in the Mediterranean in a way that gave Turkey valuable gas fields and froze both Greece and Cyprus out. (Both strongly objected, of course.) And then Turkey started sending arms, Arab mercenaries (also Islamist), armed drones, and Turkish military ‘advisers’ to Libya.

By early this year Haftar was also getting a lot of foreign help: arms shipments from the UAE and Egypt, thousands of mercenaries from Sudan, Chad and Niger, and even a couple of thousand Russian ex-special forces troops now working for the Wagner Group of mercenaries. But Turkey’s bid was higher.

Haftar’s last assault on Tripoli failed late last month, and the GNA-Turkish counter-offensive has already retaken all of western Libya. As I write militias from Tripoli and Arab mercenaries provided by Turkey are fighting in the outskirts of Sirte, Libya’s third city and the gateway to the ‘Oil Crescent’, where the sea terminals of the pipelines are. If they take those, Haftar will be toast.

Except that the ‘alliance of evil’, as Erdoğan calls Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France and the UAE, won’t let that happen. More importantly, Russia won’t let it happen – and Russia flew more than a dozen state-of-the-art combat planes into a Haftar-controlled airbase last month.

Russia doesn’t want to put its own troops on the ground in Libya to save its man, any more than it did in Syria, but air-power alone can probably save him. It doesn’t want a full military confrontation over Turkey either, any more than it did in Syria. But it will probably get its way in Libya anyway, or most of its way, at least – like it did in Syria.

And what’s extraordinary is that despite key words like ‘oil’ and ‘Middle East’ and ‘Russia’ scattered all through this article, it hasn’t been necessary to mention the United States even once. There was a telephone call between Erdoğan and Donald Trump on Monday, but it’s unlikely to be relevant to the outcome.

The likeliest outcome is that Turkey backs off, there is a ceasefire of some sort that freezes the lines, and there is a de facto division of Libya with a Haftar-led Russian client state in the east that shares the oil revenues with Tripoli. And then there will be a generation of quarrels over the shares.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“Russia…Syria”)

Migrants: A Glimpse of the Future

Turkey has opened the floodgates, and soon Europe will be drowning in immigrants. “Hundreds of thousands have crossed,” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed on television, “and soon it will reach millions.” And it must be true, because you can see it live on your medium of choice.

Look at this clip of Greek frontier guards firing tear gas canisters into angry, stone-throwing crowds of refugees who are right up against the border fence. Look at this shot of other Greek paramilitary troops shooting into the water right beside a rubber raft filled with refugees. Millions and millions of refugees. The migrant Armageddon is at hand.

It’s ugly, but it’s not really what it seems. Erdogan says he has opened Turkey’s border with the west because the country has already taken in 3.6 million refugees, mostly from Syria. There’s just no room for the several million more now trying to get out of Idlib, the last Syrian province held by jihadi rebels. So he’s sending them west.

That is, at best, an over-simplification. There are no more Syrian refugees coming into Turkey from Idlib, because Turkey has closed the border against them. Indeed, most of the people now trying to storm the borders of Greece and Bulgaria – 13,000 at last count, not “hundreds of thousands” – are not Syrians at all.

They are Afghans, Eritreans, Iraqis, West Africans, some genuine refugees and others ‘economic migrants’, who are already living safely in Turkey, but would rather be in some country in the European Union.

They didn’t walk 600 km from Idlib, either. The Turkish government is bussing them to Greece’s land and sea frontiers from wherever they have been living in Turkey, telling them (falsely) that the Europeans will let them in. Erdogan just wants to put pressure on the EU.

Pressure to do what? Good question. He may not know himself, but he’s desperate because his bluff in Syria has been called and he’s facing a potential military confrontation with Russia. It’s not clear how putting the Europeans into play will change that, but he’s definitely at the ‘Do something! Anything!’ stage of desperation.

Erdogan’s problem is that for the past three months the Syrian army, with strong Russian air support, has been taking Idlib province back from Turkey’s Syrian jihadi allies, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly an al-Qaeda franchise) , in a slow, grinding offensive.

Turkey has troops in Idlib, and has gradually been committing them to combat to help the jihadis, but still the Syrian-Russian advance continues. Erdogan has threatened to go to full-scale war, and the Syrian regime and the Russians haven’t even blinked. More than fifty Turkish soldiers have already been killed, so what does he do now?

I don’t know, and I suspect he doesn’t know either. The whole refugee thing may just be a displacement activity, not part of a cunning plan. We’ll probably know more in a week’s time – but in the meantime, look at those clips again, because that’s what the future, or at least a big part of it, will look like.

This is the first time that we have documented evidence of European border guards shooting at, or at least very near, illegal migrants. Yes, there are special circumstances, the migrants are being sent as part of a political ploy – but it will not be the last time.

The Syrian civil war is stumbling to an end, but migrants from all the other countries south and east from Europe will keep coming, and their numbers will swell.

All of the Middle East and West Africa is going to be hit early and very hard by global heating, which will cause a steady fall in food production. The rule of thumb is that you lose 10% of food production for every rise in average temperature of one degree C.

To make matters worse, these regions also have the highest population growth rates in the world: doubling times for most countries are 25 years or less. Now it’s poverty and war that drives the migrants; in the future it will be actual hunger (and war, of course).

They will head for Europe in ever-increasing numbers, because there’s no other safe haven in reach, but it will not remain a safe haven. There will never be another year like 2016, when the European Union, led by Germany, let more than a million refugees in out of sheer pity for their plight. In fact, the political backlash to that act of generosity has already driven politics sharply to the right all over the continent.

Europe’s external borders are already closing down, but in years to come the dirty little secret that everybody refuses to acknowledge will finally become public knowledge. It’s quite easy to shut borders, really. You just have to be willing to kill people who try to cross them without permission.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 15. (“The Syrian…swell”; and “They will…continent”)

The Next Russo-Turkish War?

Turkey has not won a war against Russia since the 1600s, although there have been at least half a dozen of them. You would think that even the most aggressive Turkish leader would try to avoid another one, but you would be wrong.

President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey for the past seventeen years, says he is going to start a war with Russia at the end of this month. Just in Syria, of course, where both Turkey and Russia have already been meddling in the civil war for years. He’s not completely deranged.

“We are making our final warnings,” Erdogan said on Wednesday. “We did not reach the desired results in our talks [with Russia]….A (Turkish) offensive in Idlib is only a matter of time.”

Idlib, in Syria’s northwest, is the last province controlled by rebel forces, and Turkey is their patron and protector. Russia’s military intervention on the side of the Syrian regime in 2015 saved President Bashar al-Assad from almost certain defeat, so there was already strain on the Turkish-Russian relationship – but until recently it was kept under control.

While Russia was determined to stop militant Islamists seizing power in Syria, it was also angling to lure Turkey out of its membership in the NATO alliance, so in 2018 Moscow and Ankara made a deal at Sochi on the Black Sea. The northwestern province of Idlib, where all the surviving rebels had retreated, would remain under Turkish protection, at least for the time being.

That deal broke down last year for several reasons. Almost all the other rebel forces in Idlib were subjugated (after considerable fighting) by the extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham organisation, which is just al-Qaeda with a name change. (You remember al-Qaeda: the 9/11 attacks, head-chopping, ‘Islamic State’.) And Turkey made no effort to stop the jihadi take-over.

Turkey also didn’t keep its promise to free up the M5 freeway, which runs between Aleppo and Damascus, Syria’s two biggest cities. (Its northern section, in Idlib province, was in rebel hands.) So in December the Syrian army, backed by Russian airpower, launched an offensive to clear the jihadi forces off the M5. They have now succeeded, and Erdogan is very cross.

Western media unanimously condemn the ‘ferocious’ Syrian offensive (so unlike the gentle offensives conducted by Western forces), and focus only on the refugees who have fled the fighting. They almost never identify the people the Syrians and Russians are fighting as al-Qaeda, preferring to describe Turkey’s jihadi allies as “some rebel groups in the area”.

But there is little chance that NATO will come to the aid of its Turkish ally even if Erdogan acts on his threat to attack the Syrians and Russians. And he may well do that: in recent weeks he has been pouring thousands of Turkish troops and hundreds of tanks into Turkey’s ‘observation posts’ in the province.

The Russian response to Erdogan’s threats has been steadily hardening. After a last-ditch meeting between Turkish and Russian delegations in Moscow on Tuesday failed to produce results, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned: “If we are talking about an operation against the legitimate authorities of the Syrian republic…this would of course be the worst scenario.”

He added sarcastically that Russia would not object if the Turkish military took action against the “terrorist groups in Idlib”, in line with the Sochi accord. But what would the Russians actually do if Erdogan carries out his threats?

Erdogan is threatening air strikes against targets throughout Syria, not just in Idlib. He has a big air force, and he could certainly do that, but Russia has a bigger one. Would it just sit idly by and let its Syrian ally be pounded from the air? That seems unlikely. A ground war between Turkish and Syrian troops could well be accompanied by air battles between Russia and Turkey.

You can spin the speculation out endlessly – what would the Israelis do? What would the United States do? – but the likeliest outcome is that Erdogan backs down and the ceasefire line in Idlib is redrawn to leave Highway 5 in Syrian hands.

However, ‘likeliest’ is a long way from ‘certain’. This could end up as a major war, and since Turkey can easily block Russian ships heading for the Mediterranean, Russian victory would not be quick or easy. But they would win in the end, as they always do, and Russia’s victory would make it the paramount power in the eastern Mediterranean.

It would also entail the fall of Erdogan. There’s always a silver lining.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Western…province”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.