Turkey Talks with Forked Tongue

Normalisation is in the air. In the past few weeks Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced not only that he would like to have better relations with Israel, but that he is working with France on a roadmap to normalise the bonds between them.

Regretfully, neither statement can be taken at its face value. Given what Erdogan has long demonstrated to be his political priorities, both must be viewed as part of a broader strategy designed to strengthen Turkey’s standing with the upcoming US president Joe Biden, and to counter Israel’s growing cooperation with the Arab world and weaken its ties to Greece and Cyprus.

As for the French initiative, France and Turkey have been at odds, diplomatically speaking, for a long time ‒ even before Erdogan failed to condemn the murderous Islamist attack on France’s satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, back in 2015. Relations were certainly not improved in October 2020, when Charlie Hebdo printed a cartoon on its front cover mocking Erdogan himself, provoking a furious response from Ankara.

France has consistently opposed Turkey’s aggressive policies. It strongly condemned Turkey’s 2019 offensive into north-east Syria against the Syrian Kurds and the seizure of territory, opposed Turkey’s more recent incursions into Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, and led a push for EU sanctions on Turkey for illegally exploring for gas and oil in Cyprus’s waters.

On January 7, 2021, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said: “Turkey is not categorically against France, but France has been against Turkey categorically since Operation Peace Spring (Turkey’s incursion into Kurdish territory in Syria).”

But he went on to say that he had had a very constructive phone conversation with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, “and we agreed that we should work on a roadmap to normalise relations.”

On the eve of the US presidency of Joe Biden, Erdogan may well have calculated that it was not in Turkey’s interest to be in open conflict with a NATO ally, while it would certainly suit his book to neutralise a persistent opponent within the EU. Whether he would be prepared to moderate his position on any of the issues to which France objects is debatable.

Erdogan’s tentative offer to Israel of an olive branch equally lacks conviction.

In recent years Erdogan has taken every opportunity to hurl insults, condemnations and dire warnings at Israel. When Israel accused Turkey of giving passports to a dozen Hamas members in August 2020, Turkey maintained that Hamas is a legitimate political movement that was elected democratically. It omitted any mention of Hamas’s bloody coup d’état that forced the Palestinian Authority from Gaza in 2007 and installed a regime that proceeded to rain thousands of rockets indiscriminately on civilian Israelis and their families.

Ignoring the fact that Israel found itself in possession of vast tracts of territory in 1967 having defended itself against the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, Erdogan consistently accuses Israel of illegally seizing and occupying Palestinian land. He seems unaware of the old saying: “Those in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones.” In 1974 Turkey invaded northern Cyprus, seized nearly 40 percent of the island, and set up the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus ‒ an entity recognised by no international organisation and no country other than Turkey itself.

Turkey is not a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and does not recognise the government of Cyprus or its maritime border agreements with Egypt, Israel or Lebanon. Driven by a bizarre sort of logic Turkey, having seized and occupied northern Cyprus, is now claiming a share in the vast oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) bonanza that has unexpectedly appeared off the coastline of its unrecognised Republic.

Consequently Turkey has been drilling for some years in waters internationally recognised as being part of Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Turkey does, of course, have a Mediterranean coastline, but it runs to the north of Cyprus, while the gas reserves are in the so-called Energy Triangle south and east of the island.

The pipeline agreement between Greece, Israel and Cyprus is Erdogan’s bugbear. At one time there was talk of an Israeli-Turkish pipeline to convey LNG to Europe. That fell by the wayside in the course of the rocky relationship instigated by Erdogan, but he clings to the hope of becoming a conduit for natural gas to Europe.

The maritime deal that Turkey agreed with Libya’s UN-recognised government in November would see the two countries carve out a joint Turkish-Libyan EEZ across the Mediterranean. That deal, as well as Erdogan’s talk of a reconciliation with Israel, aims to disrupt or undermine Israel’s three-way partnership with Greece and Cyprus.

In an attempt to get on a good footing with the incoming US president, Joe Biden, Erdogan has just appointed Ufuk Ulutas as ambassador to Israel. Strongly supportive of the Palestinian cause, Ulutus has been despatched to Israel to speak peace “with forked tongue”. He will no doubt do his best to counter the genuine normalisation under way between Israel and the Arab world ‒ a process that, even now, is beginning to show positive results for all involved.

It was in November 2020 that the journal Al-Monitor reported that developments at home and abroad were forcing Erdogan to seek new ways to deliver Turkey from its economic morass and political isolation in the West. He has begun instituting financial and economic reforms, and has announced that his administration is working on a new “human rights action plan” in order, as he put it, to be more in step with the changing circumstances of today’s world.

His normalisation overtures may be part of his new strategy, but in the light of his past actions and present posturings on the world stage, he cannot be surprised if his motives are viewed by the world at large with suspicion, if not downright disbelief.

By Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “"Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com. Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."