Richard Outzen is a geopolitical analyst consulting for private-sector clients. A former US Army foreign area officer and senior advisor at the State Department, he is currently a PhD candidate at George Mason University’s Schar School and a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation. He served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Turkey, and Germany and speaks Turkish, Hebrew, Arabic, and German.
Frictions between Turkey and some of its Mediterranean neighbors have escalated in recent years, producing a stream of Western press alarms about aggressive Turkish policy.1 Expansionism2, neo-Ottomanism and Islamism3, or recklessness4 have been portrayed as drivers of such aggression, frequently with a rejoinder that the West must unite to make Turkey back down. These reductionist explanations come from writers without contacts among Turkey’s security decision-makers - and without inclination to address Turkish analysis on the subject. They ignore the fact that Turkish assertiveness in the eastern Mediterranean is systematic and strategic, rooted in practical interests with a pragmatic solution in mind.
From Ankara’s view - which must be accurately understood if it is to be either countered or accommodated - Turkey’s recent assertiveness is the natural response to earlier passivity that was punished with provocation. Turks now believe that decades of land-focused security policy and lax assertion of Turkish maritime rights left room for Greece, Cyprus, and other actors to pursue unilateral moves that undermined Turkish interests. Tools of policy, military doctrine, and power projection have thus been applied to reverse these provocations and force a compromise solution. Western observers are free to ascribe to alternative narratives, but they should understand the logical underpinnings and operational heft supporting Turkey’s views before formulating an appropriate response.
Precedents and Provocations
Turks, like most of their Mediterranean neighbors, view policy matters with a long historical memory and keen sense of grievance. The ethnic cleansing of Cretan Ottomans after 1897 is often a starting point for Turkish framing of the Mediterranean: Western powers adjudicated a Greco-Turkish conflict by expelling Ottoman forces and empowering the Greeks, who over several decades drove out Turks and Greek Muslims.5 The collapse of a unified government in Cyprus between 1962 and 1974 - which the Turks attribute to escalating violations by radical Greek nationalists that other guarantor powers ignored - also features prominently in the Turkish narrative.6 Finally Europeans may have forgotten, though Turks will not, that the combined forces of Greece, France, Italy militarily occupied parts of Anatolia’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts less than a century ago.7
Turks are also provoked by Greece’s perceived intransigence on maritime demarcation and territorial claims. Greece asserts a suite of maritime rights based on its archipelago of modestly-sized islands near the Turkish coast, including territorial zones, exclusive economic zones, sovereignty over land and air features quite near the Turkish coast, and militarization rights over islands ceded by Italy after the Second World War.8 If applied without compromise or due concern for their impact on Turkey, these demands could deny Turkey navigation and exploitation of waters visible from its mainland. Turkish arguments for island waters scaled to size and proximity to coastlines are hardly far-fetched.9 In fact, the International Court of Justice’s ruling in similar cases (Tunisia-Italy and Malta-Italy) have strengthened Turkey’s position, especially on the principle of equitable distance compromises.10 Greece has yet to back off its maximalist position, and the matter was exacerbated when the Republic of Cyprus began formally delimiting maritime zones without consultations either with Turks in the northern part of the island or in Turkey proper. Nicosia made such agreements with Egypt in 2003 and Lebanon in 2007, angering Ankara and scuttling the Annan Plan for peace for Cyprus. The European Union accession of Cyprus shortly after it rejected the Annan plan deepened Ankara’s dismay.11
Turkey has submitted its arguments on maritime demarcation to the United Nations, but regional governments ignored complex legal issues while tacitly endorsing Greece’s claims by pursuing joint energy projects, creating a sort of consortium provocation.12 Greece, Cyprus and Israel began work on a gas pipeline avoiding Turkey in 2012.13 Egypt created a regional gas forum in 2019 that included Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, but excluded Turkey.14 Turkey’s eastern Mediterranean naval patrols, energy exploration, and maritime deal with Libya aimed to block the establishment of navigation precedents or energy projects that exclude them; this is economic and strategic hardball, not adventurism.15 Turkey considers energy resources and routes strategic priorities of the first order, and will go to great lengths to protect them.16
Finally, the Turks perceive military provocation in the eastern Mediterranean, especially from France. President Macron has increased naval patrols there, pushed for aircraft and ship sales to Greece, and described Turkey as a revisionist power that Europe must deter.17 Emirati and French planes joined Greek counterparts for air exercises in Crete last year in a demonstration clearly targeting Turkey’s presence in the eastern Mediterranean.18 More recently, the U.S. has increased its military presence in and activities with Greece, both to strengthen its flexibility regarding threats in the Black Sea and Middle East, but implicitly to calm Greek anxieties about military threats from their neighbor to the east.19
Ankara has responded strategically and systematically, if not delicately, to perceived provocations. The first strategic element has been sustained bilateral and multilateral diplomacy to reiterate Ankara’s legal case and concerns.20 The second has been the promulgation of a coherent doctrine that articulates and connects Turkey’s maritime claims, capabilities, vision, and program of action (Mavi Vatan, or “Blue Homeland”). The developers of the doctrine, naval officers Cihat Yayci and Cem Gurdeniz, insist that it is defensive in nature and aimed at compromise and equity, rather than dominance.21 They also see it as a way to make Turkey’s case in the context of international law, not to bypass that framework.22
The third strategic element was development of naval power projection tools, to include domestically-produced ships and submarines23, missiles24, and naval drones25. The fourth was extending the reach of the Turkish Navy through training, equipping, and access agreements with foreign navies, including Qatar26, Libya27, and Albania.28 The fifth was acquisition of a fleet of drilling vessels to enable Turkish energy exploration.29 The final element was an increased tempo for naval deployments, with a quantity of vessels and sustained operational capability that no other fleet - or combination of fleets - in the region can match.30
These steps, together with Turkey’s long Mediterranean coastline and robust support infrastructure near the coast, give Turkey an effective check on military or economic activities that Ankara finds objectionable. Turkey cannot be militarily intimidated in these waters, as the French learned after an incident between French and Turkish ships that NATO declined to blame on the Turks.31 Given that the Turks cannot be coerced successfully and will not abjure their rights, compromise seems a more promising path.
Calming Troubled Waters
Despite his frequent rhetorical broadsides over the eastern Mediterranean, President Erdogan clearly has pursued this strategy neither recklessly nor impulsively, but to get to negotiations.32 His stated desire for a compromise solution is echoed by sources in Ankara.33 The outlines of a compromise solution are not complicated: a consultative mechanism, economic cooperation, inclusion of Turkey, NATO as the regional security leader, and negotiated maritime rights with International Court of Justice arbitration if the sides cannot agree.
There is much to be gained by a deal that enables Israel, Greece, Libya, Egypt, Turkey, and Cypriots on both sides of the island to benefit from energy finds and transit in the Mediterranean.34 Unfortunately and ironically, efforts to find that deal are undercut by the increasingly one-sided tack taken by Paris, and to a lesser extent by Washington. Greek intransigence yields upgraded defense ties and assistance from external powers, and puts pressure on Turkey; there is little incentive for Athens to change that, for now. Yet Turkey remains immoveable for the reasons examined above. Creative diplomacy and win/win solutions, not attempts to isolate or deter/coerce Turkey, will be necessary.35
Policymakers in Europe and the United States should turn away from the one-sided reductionist approach to tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. This is not a problem of revisionism versus status quo; it is a very messy intersection of legal, economic, and strategic interests that have been in conflict for decades. Rather than deepen current cleavages within NATO - with only Russian standing to benefit - it is time to take the Turks at their word by mobilizing multilateral support not for coercion, but for an inclusive project for the eastern Mediterranean.