When historians look at the course of events in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East at the beginning of 2020, it is not entirely unlikely that they might identify this year as a prelude to a new Great Game.
When historians look at the course of events in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East at the beginning of 2020, it is not entirely unlikely that they might identify this year as a prelude to a new "Great Game." On 2 January, the Turkish parliament debated and passed a bill to allow the president to send Turkish troops to Libya. On 3 January, Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian Major General was assassinated in Baghdad in a US attack.
Iran, without hesitation, retaliated with missile attacks on two US bases in Iraq. The shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane "by mistake" by the Iranian authorities started an unprecedented civilian reaction in the country. Russian president, Vladimir Putin visited Turkey on 8 January and the two countries called for a ceasefire in Libya. They did the same for the Idlib province in Syria where clashes between the Syrian Army and terrorist groups escalated.
The tension between the US and Iran seems to be calming down but domestic stability in Iran continues to be very fragile. Moscow facilitated the initial talks between the combatting sides in Libya; however, the sides failed to reach an agreement. The region, apparently, is not short of reasons for further tension and escalation.
It would be an oversimplification if we cannot read one of the motives behind all these developments as the importance of energy resources and their transfer from where they exist to where they are needed. As Turkey's bilateral relations with the regional countries - to begin with, Israel and Egypt - have steadily deteriorated in the last ten years, new alliances have appeared in the region, particularly when it comes to the field of exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbon resources. Turkey has been unable to be a part of those developments, mostly due to its foreign policy errors. Turkey's neglect of diplomacy in the Eastern Mediterranean created a serious political gap and imbalance.
A much-belated attempt to correct this is intended to put Turkey back in the game. Signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Libya on the delimitation of maritime boundaries is the point in case. Turkey, with this MoU, tries to become a stakeholder in the new energy equation in the Eastern Mediterranean which is now being developed, mainly by the Greek Cypriots.
Coupling that MoU with another one, again with Libya, on security and military cooperation, however, was a step too far. Turkey now faces a new dilemma; to ensure its maritime rights under international law in the Eastern Mediterranean, it risks becoming part of the civil war in Libya - perhaps another proxy war in the region - as if the one in Syria that it has been a part of since 2011 has not been costly enough.
While taking initiatives, Turkey should take major responsibility for ensuring the stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. The fact that Turkey has the longest coastline in the region is undisputed. Its geographical location also obliges Turkey to become a major actor in the future settlement of regional geopolitical imbalances, as well as in the resolution of regional disputes. Yet, Turkey behaves as if it were not aware, of either those responsibilities or its capacity to perform with a view to achieving such targets. Here below are a few suggestions.
1. Turkey's foreign policy has witnessed a sea change in the last ten years. Instead of its much-respected impartiality, both in the region and worldwide, Turkey shifted to taking sides in the resolution of conflicts and lost its unchallenged capacity of being an honest-broker, especially in the Middle East and in the Eastern Mediterranean. This new trend, modified with a sectarian and ideological approach to problem-solving, raises concerns and results in serious questioning of Turkey's intentions in the region. Turkey needs to re-establish reliability, trust, and confidence. To do so, it has to abandon its policy of taking sides in conflicts.
2. Loss of impartiality and loss of the position of facilitator or an honest-broker replaces diplomatic skills with aggressive and deterrent rhetoric. Turkey, with its weakening attention to diplomacy and the peaceful resolution of conflicts also loses its soft power capacity. It would not be unfair to suggest that this new approach by Turkey in the region is being perceived as "gunboat diplomacy." Turkey, by becoming militarily active and sending troops abroad, gives the impression that it is shifting from soft power to hard power, either by using force or by threatening the use of force. This approach has to change.
3. Military might is useful when it functions as a deterrent. Actual use of military might or attempts at threatening others with the intention of using it ceases to be a deterrent. Fear in international relations invokes countermeasures and attempts to outbalance adversaries. Such tendencies always end with increased military spending, armament and growing risks of confrontation. Turkey's military spending has steadily grown in the last couple of years.
In the past, Turkey's military power, coupled with its membership in NATO, has always been perceived as a deterrent in its immediate neighbourhood. This has also allowed Turkey to expand its soft power capacity in the Middle East and in the Eastern Mediterranean. Today, sending troops abroad into Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia and Qatar weakens Turkey's soft power and endorses the policy of expansionism. Accusations about neo-ottomanism are mainly related to such a perception. Turkey, unfortunately, fails to refute those accusations but enhances them with its regional foreign policy decisions.
4. Good-neighbourly relations are essential for peace and stability. Today, Turkey's relations with its neighbours do not present as constructive outreach. Turkey does not have diplomatic relations with Armenia, for instance. Turkey does not have ambassadors in Syria, Israel and Egypt. If Turkey wants to deter its neighbours with its hard power capabilities, that has to be overwhelmingly supported by diplomacy and dialogue. Failing to do so does not make Turkey an asset for its partners and allies, or for its regional neighbours - it turns it into a liability.
Turkey needs to improve relations with neighbours and regional actors in order to be perceived as a positive actor contributing to the development of peace and stability in the Middle East and in the Eastern Mediterranean. After all, the strongest terms of reference for peace and stability in international relations are international law and diplomacy, particularly when the scene becomes the theatre of tension, confrontation and possible escalation.
5. There is a chance to change course in Turkish foreign policy through enhanced diplomacy. Reportedly, talks between the Heads of Intelligence Agencies between Turkey and Syria have taken place in Moscow. This is a very late but encouraging attempt to open dialogue with Syria. Turkey should show a similar attempt in Libya by prioritising a role for the United Nations, because Libya is a complex and complicated problem which involves a multitude of actors as well as diverse interests.
Failure to do so and to insist on hard power politics in Libya will backfire and will inevitably escalate the conflict.
Ünal Çeviköz is a Member of the Turkish Grand National Assembly (Turkish Parliament), Deputy Chairperson of the Republican People's Party for foreign affairs and former Turkish ambassador to the United Kingdom.
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