Since August 2020, Turkey has been sending several drill ships to the Eastern Mediterranean, which raised diplomatic tensions in the area. The dispute started in July when Turkey put a naval alert informing that it was sending Oruc Reis research ship to carry out drilling operations close to the Greek island of Kastellorizo. Turkish and Greek officials have been holding technical meetings in Brussels since September 2020 to find a common ground on the issue. On the other hand, it has been said that in order to expand its drilling fleet, Turkey plans to acquire a fourth vessel from Norway soon. Therefore, the maritime border dispute does not seem to be resolved anytime soon.
The conflict between Greece, Cyprus and Turkey over the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) began in early 2000s and intensified with the discovery of natural resources in 2010. The Turkish expansionist Blue Homeland (“Mavi Vatan”) doctrine, which defines the country’s territorial waters, the EEZ and the continental shelf, is playing a part on the confrontation. It also emphasizes a naval superiority over the Republic of Cyprus and Greece. Turkey also justifies its actions on the Eastern Mediterranean as a way to reduce its energy dependency from other countries.
There are many Greek islands within the sight of the Turkish coast in Mediterranean and Aegean, which lead to a complex issue of territorial waters. Greek and Turkish interests on the Mediterranean have always confronted with each other, with Athens accusing Ankara to violate its continental shelf, while Ankara responds that islands far from the Greek coastline and closer to the Turkish one cannot have a continental shelf of their own. The exploration of the natural resources might seem like the main point of tensions in the Mediterranean, but the roots of the problem are deeper than it seems.
Turkey’s Cyprus question
After a Greek backed coup in Cyprus in 1974, Turkish military intervened and annexed a part of the island under the name of protection of interests of the Turkish Cypriots. Now there are two States in the island, the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Over the years, Southern Cyprus, backed by Greece, got closer with the EU and finally became a member state in 2004. Meanwhile, TRNC is only recognized by Turkey itself while the United Nations recognize it as territories belonging to the Republic of Cyprus that are occupied by the Turkish military.
Since 1974, there were several attempts at peacebuilding and reunification, the most famous of them known as the Annan Plan, but both sides never found a common ground, which led to the failure of the negotiations. Recently, the Turkish President Erdogan crossed out the possibility of a united federal Cyprus by accusing his Greek counterpart of being confrontational. He opted for a two-state solution as the only way to solve the conflict. Cyprus was also one of the main issues on the table for Turkish accession to the EU. Unless the problem is solved, Turkish membership does not seem likely, considering the Cypriot and Greek opposition inside the EU itself. Meanwhile, it seems like disagreements will continue and that the Cyprus question will isolate Turkey from the EU more and more.
Turkey’s isolation in the region
The prolonged talks, which resulted in the failure of the admission of Turkey to the EU, led Turkey to turn its back to the EU and to focus on being a strong, regional power. Now feeling isolated, Turkey is trying to assert its power throughout the neighboring territories. The recent involvements in the Caucasus and the MENA region support this argument.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s maritime accord with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) also created tensions with other regional powers, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, since they are the supporters of the Tobruk Government. The role of Egypt is actually an important point here, as it is also one of the interested parties on the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkish claims on the Mediterranean also threatens Egyptian efforts to become a regional hub for natural resources. The maritime boundary agreement between Greece and Egypt, signed in early August 2020, also agitated Turkey even more and caused the renewal of the exploration efforts.
Exclusion from the EU membership was followed by exclusion from the EastMed Gas Forum (EMGF) as well, thus leaving Turkey no choice but to act alone. Established as an international body on 16 January 2020, the EMGF brings together Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Palestine, with a possible future membership of France. The main reason for the exclusion of Turkey seems to be the US opposition to Ankara’s purchase of $400 missiles from Russia. Turkish politicians did not welcome this act well and interpreted it as a containment policy towards Turkey. The possibility of an Eastern Mediterranean pipeline through the EMFG member countries towards the European market, without including Turkey, is another concern of the government officials. They insist on the fact that they should be included to the Forum for the promotion of regional cooperation.
EU’s stance on the issue
The European Union should be careful to react since Turkey does not welcome very warmly the EU’s intervention on the issue of Eastern Mediterranean. Several arguments from Turkish officials were put forward: the EU cannot play a part on this issue since it involves one member state against a non-member one; it is not the EU’s competence to solve the maritime issues, but it is the one of the international courts; it is up to national governments to decide on border disputes.
On the spotlight of the recent events, the EU considers the application of further sanctions towards Turkey for unauthorized and illegal drilling efforts in the Mediterranean. An extensive report is expected to be delivered by EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell at the March summit. During his recent visit to Brussels, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu highlighted the fact that if the EU would resume the accession talks and avoid sanctions, Turkey would be interested to meet all the criteria. This and above-mentioned reactions by Turkish officials show an interest towards a closer cooperation with the EU, which could lead to the de-escalation of the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, if the EU members also show interest on the cooperation.
Unsurprisingly, EU member states had different reactions to Turkey’s recent efforts. During the peak of the confrontation, Berlin initiated mediation efforts between Ankara and Athens in August. On a video conference with her Turkish counter-part, German Chancellor Angela Merkel mentioned the importance of making progress in dialogue. She also talked about how she welcomed the recent developments and positive news in the Eastern Mediterranean.
On the other hand, Macron’s call for a Pax Mediterranea was successful, with a clear Egyptian opposition towards Ankara’s foreign policy and Italy’s endangered energy interests in Libya and Cyprus. Macron’s clear opposition towards Erdogan’s foreign policy is making the matters worse than it is. France already dispatched several warships to the Eastern Mediterranean to show its solidarity with Greece Opposite positions in the Libyan Civil War also play their part in the relations of the two countries. It seems like the confrontational national interests of France and Turkey in the region will prolong the Eastern Mediterranean crisis for now.
The resolution of the conflict heavily depends on the vis-a-vis relations of Greece and Turkey. The complexity of the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean demands some compromises. Both parties should be ready for some concessions if they want to find a peaceful solution and coexist in the Mediterranean. Otherwise, they will have to get ready for future confrontations, that will eventually emerge because of the proximity of Greek islands to the Turkish coast.
Turkish exclusion from the regional cooperation is also a problematic issue. The EMGF should include Turkey as a member state, since it is one of the stronger powers of the Mediterranean. Discussing energy related issues together with other countries such as Egypt, Greece and Cyprus on a common platform might also help to find a common ground on maritime borders.
EU’s mild approach towards the parties could be useful, but too much involvement is also risky since Turkey does not see EU’s involvement in the region as appropriate. What the EU can do is keep close cooperation with Turkey on a European scale. Introducing more sanctions would agitate Turkey even more, and rather than looking for a common ground, Turkey might become more violent and expansionist. Instead, by cooperating further, the EU could strengthen the mutual relations with Turkey and achieve some positive results.
Getting Away With Murder: The New U.S. Intelligence Report on the Khashoggi Affair
It was October 2, 2018 when a man walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate to collect some documents he needed for his impending marriage. He had been there earlier on September 28, and had been told to allow a few days for them to prepare the needed proof of divorce from an earlier marriage.
So there he was. His Turkish fiancée had accompanied him and he asked her to wait outside as it would only take a minute or two. She waited and waited and… waited. Jamal Khashoggi never came out.
What went on inside is a matter of dispute but US intelligence prepared a report which should have been released but was illegally blocked by the Trump administration. Mr. Trump is no doubt grateful for the help he has had over two decades from various Saudi royals in addition to the business thrown his way at his various properties. “I love the Saudis,” says Donald Trump and he had kept the report under wraps. It has now been released by the new Biden administration.
All the same, grisly details of the killing including dismemberment soon emerged because in this tragic episode, with an element of farce, it was soon evident that the Turks had bugged the consulate. There is speculation as to how the perpetrators dispersed of the corpse but they themselves have been identified. Turkish officials also claim to know that they acted on orders from the highest levels of the Saudi government. They arrived on a private jet and left just as abruptly.
The egregious killing led to the UN appointing a Special Rapporteur, Agnes Callamard. She concluded it to be an “extra-judicial killing for which the state of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible.” She added, there was “credible evidence” implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other senior officials.
Now the US report. Intelligence agencies conclude Jamal Khashoggi was killed by a Saudi hit squad under the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. They add that the latter has had unitary control over Saudi security and intelligence organizations and thus it was “highly unlikely” an operation of this nature would have been possible without Prince Mohammed’s authorization.
Mr. Biden’s reaction is plain. Although the Crown Prince is the de facto ruler with his father the King’s acquiescence, Mr. Biden has not talked to him. He called the king and emphasized the importance placed on human rights and the rule of law in the US.
President Biden is also re-evaluating US arms sales to the Kingdom with a view to limiting them to defensive weapons — a difficult task as many can be used for both, a fighter-bomber for example.
There are also calls for sanctions against the Crown Prince directly but Biden has ruled that out. Saudi Arabia is after all the strongest ally of the US in the region, and no president wants to jeopardize that relationship. Moreover, the US has done the same sort of thing often enough; the last prominent assassination being that of the senior Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, by the Trump administration.
US intelligence report leaves Saudi Arabia with no good geopolitical choices
The Biden administration’s publication of a US intelligence report that holds Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi creates a fundamental challenge to the kingdom’s geopolitical ambitions.
The challenge lies in whether and how Saudi Arabia will seek to further diversify its alliances with other world powers in response to the report and US human rights pressure.
Saudi and United Arab Emirates options are limited by that fact that they cannot fully replace the United States as a mainstay of their defence as well as their quest for regional hegemony, even if the report revives perceptions of the US as unreliable and at odds with their policies.
As Saudi King Salman and Prince Mohammed contemplate their options, including strengthening relations with external players such as China and Russia, they may find that reliance on these forces could prove riskier than the pitfalls of the kingdom’s ties with the United States.
Core to Saudi as well as UAE considerations is likely to be the shaping of the ultimate balance of power between the kingdom and Iran in a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to Central Asia’s border with China.
US officials privately suggest that regional jockeying in an environment in which world power is being rebalanced to create a new world order was the key driver of Saudi and UAE as well as Israeli opposition from day one to the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran that the United States together with Europe, China, and Russia negotiated. That remains the driver of criticism of US President Joe Biden’s efforts to revive the agreement.
“If forced to choose, Riyadh preferred an isolated Iran with a nuclear bomb to an internationally accepted Iran unarmed with the weapons of doom,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and founder of the National Iranian American Council. Mr. Parsi was summing up Saudi and Emirati attitudes based on interviews with officials involved in the negotiations at a time that Mr. Biden was vice-president.
As a result, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel appear to remain determined to either foil a return of the United States to the accord, from which Mr. Biden’s predecessor, Donald J. Trump, withdrew, or ensure that it imposes conditions on Iran that would severely undermine its claim to regional hegemony.
In the ultimate analysis, the Gulf states and Israel share US objectives that include not only restricting Iran’s nuclear capabilities but also limiting its ballistic missiles program and ending support for non-state actors like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, and Yemen’s Houthis. The Middle Eastern states differ with the Biden administration on how to achieve those objectives and the sequencing of their pursuit.
Even so, the Gulf states are likely to realize as Saudi Arabia contemplates its next steps what Israel already knows: China and Russia’s commitment to the defence of Saudi Arabia or Israel are unlikely to match that of the United States given that they view an Iran unfettered by sanctions and international isolation as strategic in ways that only Turkey rather than other Middle Eastern states can match.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE will also have to recognize that they can attempt to influence US policies with the help of Israel’s powerful Washington lobby and influential US lobbying and public relations companies in ways that they are not able to do in autocratic China or authoritarian Russia.
No doubt, China and Russia will seek to exploit opportunities created by the United States’ recalibration of its relations with Saudi Arabia with arms sales as well as increased trade and investment.
But that will not alter the two countries’ long-term view of Iran as a country, albeit problematic, with attributes that the Gulf states cannot match even if it is momentarily in economic and political disrepair.
Those attributes include Iran’s geography as a gateway at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe; ethnic, cultural, and religious ties with Central Asia and the Middle East as a result of history and empire; a deep-seated identity rooted in empire; some of the world’s foremost oil and gas reserves; a large, highly educated population of 83 million that constitutes a huge domestic market; a fundamentally diversified economy; and a battle-hardened military.
Iran also shares Chinese and Russian ambitions to contain US influence even if its aspirations at times clash with those of China and Russia.
“China’s BRI will on paper finance additional transit options for the transfer of goods from ports in southern to northern Iran and beyond to Turkey, Russia, or Europe. China has a number of transit options available to it, but Iranian territory is difficult to avoid for any south-north or east-west links,” said Iran scholar Alex Vatanka referring to Beijing’s infrastructure, transportation and energy-driven Belt and Road Initiative.
Compared to an unfettered Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE primarily offer geography related to some of the most strategic waterways through which much of the world’s oil and gas flows as well their positioning opposite the Horn of Africa and their energy reserves.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s position as a religious leader in the Muslim world built on its custodianship of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, potentially could be challenged as the kingdom competes for leadership with other Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim-majority states.
On the principle of better the enemy that you know than the devil that you don’t, Saudi leaders may find that they are, in the best of scenarios, in response to changing US policies able to rattle cages by reaching out to China and Russia in ways that they have not until now, but that at the end of the day they are deprived of good choices.
That conclusion may be reinforced by the realization that the United States has signalled by not sanctioning Prince Mohammed that it does not wish to cut its umbilical cord with the kingdom. That message was also contained in the Biden administration’s earlier decision to halt the sale of weapons that Saudi Arabia could you for offensive operations in Yemen but not arms that it needs to defend its territory from external attack.
At the bottom line, Saudi Arabia’s best option to counter an Iran that poses a threat to the kingdom’s ambitions irrespective of whatever regime is in power would be to work with its allies to develop the kind of economic and social policies as well as governance that would enable it to capitalize on its assets to effectively compete. Containment of Iran is a short-term tactic that eventually will run its course.
Warned former British diplomat and Royal Dutch Shell executive Ian McCredie: “When the Ottoman Empire was dismantled in 1922, it created a vacuum which a series of powers have attempted to fill ever since. None has succeeded, and the result has been a century of wars, coups, and instability. Iran ruled all these lands before the Arab and Ottoman conquests. It could do so again.”
Back to Strategic Hedging and Mediation in Qatar Foreign Policy after the Gulf Reconciliation
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt ended the land, air and sea blockade on Qatar last January. While the way how the crisis ended revealed the control of the Saudi and Emirati decision-makers on the evolution of the issue, the process of isolation by its GCC neighbors reconstructed Qatar foreign policy within a loss of trust mode and directed the Qatari decision-makers to question the country’s hedging strategy in the region. Following the reconciliation in January 2021, Qatar seems to practice its mediation policy again at the regional conflicts beside bringing back to the hedging strategy towards Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The blockade, which lasted three years and half, since the June 2017 increased the level of distrust of the Qatari decision-makers to the regional states, and to realize the significance of strengthening Qatar’s regional security standing and international status. While economic wealth helped the country to utilize the outcomes of the blockade for political purposes, it pushed the country to establish, or strengthen, relations with alternative allies and economic partners, particularly Iran and Turkey.
Strategic hedging, as a concept developed after the Cold War period in contrast to the bandwagoning, balancing or buck-passing, has been the major foreign policy tool of Qatar as a small state aware of its security needs. It illustrated the Qatar’s aim of finding a middle ground while insuring the potential security risks of the regional actors to its national security. By hedging the risky adversaries,namely Saudi Arabia and Iran, in the region, Qatar avoided a security dilemma and minimized the risks of being threatened.The Qatar foreign policy discourse revealed not only cooperative elements but also the confrontational ones which gradually paved the way forSaudi Arabia and the allies to build a rationale to imply blockade on the country in June 2017.
Prior to the 2017 crisis, hedging strategy helped Qatar to compensate its smallness and offset the potential security threats from Iran. Qatar had signed a security cooperation agreement with Iran in December 2010 including the exchange of specialized and technical committees, expand cooperation in training and naval exercises, as well as conducting joint campaigns against terrorism and insecurity in the region. Beside cooperating with Iran at the security and economy fields, Qatar avoided to challenge Saudi Arabia and shared the common regional security worries of the GCC towards Iran. It aimed at balancing its relations between these two regional powers and at the same time remaining neutral as much as it can by employing a discourse of mediation as a foreign policy tool.
While simultaneously positioning itself alongside the GCC, Qatar decision-makers gave credits to keeping ties with Iran. Qatar allowed Turkey to open a Turkish military base in its territory even before the crisis. While already securing its national security through a US military air base, Qatar’s decision for opening a Turkish military base was highly criticized by its GCC neighbors and its removal became one of the demands of Saudi Arabia and the allies to end the blockade. Qatar’s decision to boost domestic defense capabilities was understandable to enhance its security during the crisis. Resuming its dialogue with Iran helped Qatar to maintain the peaceful development of the natural-gas fields of Qatar shared with Iran. Moreover, getting militarily, economically and politically close to Turkey allowed the country to diversify its military dependency from the US and the Europe. At the domestic sphere, the economic wealth helped Qatar to survive and keep the Qataris more attached to the regional desires of the country, during the crisis, all of which worked for breaking free from the Saudi influence on the foreign policy decisions of Qatar.
The GCC crisis was an opportunity for Iran to present itself as an alternative ally to Qatar than the GCC members which was observed in the enhancement of the Iranian export to the country as well as Iran’s decision to allow the Qatar airways to operate by Iranian airspace. In 2017, the Iranian exports to Qatar was $250 million,$225.25 million in 2018, and $214.17 million in 2019, according to the United Nations database. China also upgraded its security partnership including selling military technical exports, major importer of LNG of Qatar.
As a result ofregionally being isolated, Qatar had a break from hedging strategy in the region while callingSaudi Arabia and the allies for a diplomatic dialogue to solve their problems. The crisis raised the sense of respect to state sovereignty at Qatar foreign policy, and eventually increased the loss of trust at the perception of the Qatari decision-makers towards the GCC members. Ironically, the chronicsecurity threat perception of Qatar towards Iran was replaced with the distrust to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates at security realm.
The crisis enabled Qatar to gainmore security and influence in the region than before as a small state. As the regional conjuncture does not promise to go back to the conditions in pre-Gulf period giventhe more multifacedregional threats, Qatar became aware of the fact that it cannot rely on the GCC or the US alone military and economically. Hence, it announced the resume of its dialogues and cooperation with Iran which signaled the continuity of the hedging strategy of the Qatar foreign policy. Despite this strategy can be considered as part of escaping the possibility of new threats from Iran,it works for undermining the regional power of both Saudi Arabia and Iran through economic, diplomatic and institutional instruments.
In post-reconciliation period, it seems that Qatar manages to gain a high degree of freedom of sovereign action within the GCC. This helps Qatar to maintain its strategic interests and decide with whom to cooperate at the times of crisis or peace. Qatar is more aware of the impact of the structural features of power in domestic politics and regional security, hence pays importance to build counter alliances towards its neighbors at the same time cooperating with them, and without challenging them rhetorically or materially. The Gulf reconciliation did not weaken the Iran’s potential ally status to Qatar, in contrary, Qatar announced that it will keep Iran in the game and, moreover, willing to mediate with Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Qatar is not anymore looking for minimizing threats to its stability and survive in the multipolar dynamics of the region. The decision-makersarenow motivated to pursue the Qatar’s own strategic interests, and mediate Saudi Arabi and Iran, Iran and the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Qatarwould to like to achieve the rewards of its bilateral military and economic establishments during the blockade over the changing attitude of the Gulf neighbors towards its rights as a sovereign state beside strengthening its regional status and international standing. As the al-Ula GCC summit in January was far from directly addressing the major roots of the Gulf crisis, it is exposed to give birthto the new conflicts at the foreign policy and regional security perception of the states at different shapes, and pave the way for the Qatari decision-makers to present the country as a mediator of the region again.
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