Erdogan’s Cyprus Gambit to Boost Standing Risks War

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool, FILE)

Looking to elevate himself domestically, Turkish President Recep Tayyip’s provocations off Cyprus, sending energy research vessels and a warship off the island to compete with foreign drilling companies, could create a shooting conflict there, even accidentally.

That was the sense of Claude Salhani, a noted a journalist, author, political analyst and TV and radio commentator on Arab-Israeli issues, the Greater Middle East, Central Asia, terrorism, and political Islam.

He wrote for The Arab Weekly of the risky business in which Erdogan is engaged, the Turkish leader ignoring calls from the United States and European Union not to provoke trouble over Cyprus, where Turkey has occupied the northern third since a 1974 invasion.

“There is always potential trouble when authoritarian rulers sense their position weakening because they then often resort to drastic measures to divert the public’s attention and boost their standing,” wrote Salhani.

He said Erdogan’s popularity has waned since he won a referendum giving him near-dictatorial powers and as his regime has jailed journalists and dissenters at the same time Turkey wants to join the European Union, to which Cyprus’ legitimate side belongs.

“In his domestic outlook for Turkey, as in his foreign policies and military undertakings, Erdogan has gone out on so many limbs, especially in foreign policy, that he has lost much of the glitter he previously wore like a crown. There is no doubt that Erdogan is weaker and politically challenged,” said Salhani.

More ominously – the United States looked the other way when Turkey invaded 45 years ago – he wrote that, “An incursion in Cyprus where the Turkish Army would likely overwhelm the small Greek Cypriot force would be a convenient diversion from challenges to his authoritarian rule.”

That could help Erdogan raise himself with Turks itching for a fight, but it could – unlike the last time – bring repercussions from the United States, which is working with Cyprus, Israel and Egypt in trying to benefit from energy finds off the island after the US’ ExxonMobil reported a major gas field there, and the European Union wanting more sources.

Another Turkish incursion – the last round of unity talks broke down in July, 2017 at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana because Turkey said it would never remove a 35,000-strong army in the occupied land and wanted the right to militarily intervene again – could also draw Greece in again, creating a broader conflict.

With the US looking to expand its military presence in Greece, and warning Turkey not to buy a Russian S-400 missile defense system or lose any chance it has to buy American-made F-35’s, it could be a losing bet for Erdogan this time around.

THE GREEK FACTOR

“Greece would almost certainly jump in to protect the Greek part of the island, possibly escalating the conflict into a major conflagration between two NATO members,” said Salhani, leaving the defense alliance splintered.

“The Greeks and especially the Greek-Cypriots fear a replay of the 1974 “intervention.” Except that, this time, the plausibility of the conflict spreading quickly from the Middle East to Europe and beyond is much higher. All sides have better and bigger weapons and are not afraid to use them,” he added.

Turkey also has conducted a major naval exercise off Cyprus, involving more than 130 ships, to show its might. Cyprus wants the US to end an arms embargo so it can re-arm.

“Our aim in military exercises is to show that the Turkish armed forces are extremely determined, committed and capable of ensuring the security, sovereignty, independence, maritime rights and benefits of Turkey,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said. “We take all necessary measures to protect the rights and the law of our country in the Aegean, the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus.” Turkey’s defense minister is also worried that the growing tensions would bring a war.

Salhani said Erdogan has moved away from the policy set by the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and trying to draw the Middle East map, with the Turkish leader openly covering return of Greek islands as well that were ceded away in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne he doesn’t recognize.

“As for Cyprus, it may have thought it was safe being part of the European Union,” wrote Salhani before adding a stark warning: “It was, until the Middle East caught up with it.”