Just one day ahead of the crucial Dec. 1-2 meeting of the foreign ministers of the NATO countries, Turkey announced that the Oruç Reis seismic research ship, whose presence in the eastern Mediterranean has turned into a crisis, has left the debated field. The Energy Ministry said the Oruç Reis ship returned to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Antalya.
The withdrawal of Oruç Reis has a political meaning not only for the NATO meetings but also the European Council meeting of the EU leaders on Dec. 10-11. Thus, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has expanded his room for maneuver area to a certain extent for the meeting, which he will attend via video-conference due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Diplomatic observers in Ankara were waiting for such a step after Berat Albayrak, the son-in-law of President Tayyip Erdoğan, resigned as the Treasury and Finance Minister. When Erdoğan pledged “reform,” their expectations were not limited to an interest rate hike at the Nov. 19 meeting of the Central Bank. They were also expecting that the “Navtex” notification for Oruç Reis’ mission would not be expanded when it expired on Nov. 14.
Why is it important?
Observers were hoping to find signs of whether Erdoğan would change his stance in the economy and foreign policy. On Nov.19, newly appointed Central Bank Gov. Naci Ağbal increased the interest rates to 15 percent, exactly in line with the expectations of foreign investors. However, Oruç Reis’ mission was extended first until Nov. 23 and then until Nov. 29.
This increased the eastern Mediterranean tension both in the U.S. and the EU. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned Turkey’s eastern Mediterranean moves after a meeting with French leader Emmanuel Macron in Paris. Then, he went to Istanbul on Nov. 17, where he only met with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, and did not meet with Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu in the Turkish capital despite the efforts by the U.S. Ambassador to Ankara, David Satterfield.
On Nov. 22, when the mission of Oruç Reis was extended to Nov. 29, the ships of the EU’s Operation IRINI, which detects the arms embargo to Libya, intervened a ship belonging to Turkish company Arkas, Roseline-A, which was carrying goods to Libya. They couldn’t find anything but food supplies. Çavuşolğu said “the response would be given in the field,” but this was the first time the dispute between the EU and Turkey spattered to a military level.
What Turkey will face at the NATO meetings will not be limited to the demands by both the U.S. and the EU for a step back in the eastern Mediterranean. For some time, there have been attempts to grant observer status to non-NATO countries that are EU members. These countries include an anti-Turkey Austria and a leading EU member, Sweden, along with the Greek Cypriot government; therefore Greece supports the idea. Ankara has so far opposed this.
And two other issues gained importance after Joe Biden was elected the new U.S. president: Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile systems, and the U.S decision to exclude Turkey from its F-35 fighter jet program. Meanwhile, Turkey keeps its role in NATO operations in the Black Sea as a trump card. The Black Sea has strategic importance in terms of Russia, Ukraine and even the Caucasus.
Diplomatic observers also take into account the possibility that Erdoğan will re-assign Oruç Reis or another ship for a mission at the controversial field after the NATO meeting, before the EU summit. Or maybe after the EU summit, according to the outcome of the NATO and EU meetings.
Two cruciual weeks
Therefore, the next two weeks ahead are important in terms of the shape Turkish foreign policy will take as of the beginning of 2021. This period coincides with Biden’s takeover of the U.S. Presidency on Jan. 20.
The Mediterranean Sea is really getting hot. However, this bottleneck in the eastern Mediterranean will affect not only Cyprus and the region but also Turkish foreign policy in a much broader framework. For example, a U.S. delegation is quietly coming to Ankara for the continuation of Syria talks. Turkey’S support to Azerbaijan in its operation to get back its soil under Armenian occupation opened a new page in the foreign policy front.
Erdoğan’s remarks on seeing Turkey as part of Europe (that until very recently he was slamming) are therefore not a coincidence. Likewise, his actions in domestic politics are too harsh to be incompatible with his reform discourse.
As the world is reshaping under the Coevid-19 pandemic conditions, how will Turkey comply with it? In what direction will Erdoğan’s step be? For example, can he ease the conditions for the big capital and increase the pressure in politics? It is difficult to tell before seeing the draft judicial reform.
However, the next two weeks still seem to be decisive in terms of foreign policy.