After years of playing the bully, can Erdogan rebrand as a peacemaker?

A slew of overtures towards its neighbours may help Turkey avoid EU sanctions and earn US goodwill

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his ruling party legislators, in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, Feb. 10.2021.  Erdogan on Wednesday ruled out discussing a federal system to reunify Cyprus, insisting that a two-state accord is the only solution for the ethnically-split island. (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool)
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Turkey and Greece are set to hold their second round of exploratory talks on the eastern Mediterranean and maritime issues starting on Tuesday in Athens, just as regional tensions, and frustrations toward Ankara, may be on the wane.

The energy ministers of all seven member states of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) – Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Italy – held their first joint meeting last week. Since its 2019 creation, the EMGF has mainly been seen as an anti-Turkey body that seeks to keep Ankara from accessing gas resources in the territorial waters of EU members Greece and Cyprus.

Turkey has in recent years repeatedly made claims on maritime areas in Greek and Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zones and sent exploratory drilling ships into these waters. Last summer, these maritime aggressions put Turkey on the brink of war with Greece.

But on the sidelines of the EMGF summit, Mohamed Saad El Din, chair of Egypt’s liquefied gas investors’ association, said the alliance would benefit from expansion, and Israel’s Energy Minister, Yuval Steinitz, said his country was ready to co-operate with Turkey on natural gas. Taken together, these statements seemed to hint at Ankara’s possible inclusion, just as the forum welcomed France as a new member.

Meanwhile, a parade of top Turkish officials, including Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and presidential adviser Ibrahim Kalin, has talked up rapprochement with Egypt. This weekend Ankara announced renewed diplomatic ties, though Egypt has denied this.

Relations had been in a deep freeze since Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi ousted Mohammed Morsi in mid-2013. Ankara continued to back Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood – an Islamist group Egypt labelled a terrorist outfit – and welcomed hundreds of its exiled members. In late 2019, Turkey signed an accord with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), expanding its maritime claims in the eastern Mediterranean. Last year, in response, Egypt and Greece signed their own maritime deal, strengthening their claims.

Now Turkey's President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, aims to move away from the Brotherhood and toward acceptance by Mr El Sisi. Cairo has yet to return the warm feelings, though a map issued by the Egyptian government last month aligned with Turkey's view of its continental shelf. Also last month, Mr El Sisi warmly welcomed to Cairo the new Libyan Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who is friendly with Mr Erdogan.

The ongoing transition in Egypt's war-torn neighbour points toward Turkey's newest guise, as mediator and peacemaker. Libya's reunited parliament last week overwhelmingly approved an interim government expected to oversee December elections as part of a UN-backed peace plan. After facing widespread criticism for its military intervention in support of the GNA, Turkey's legacy in Libya could be that it played a key role in resolving the bloody, decade-long civil war as western nations stood on the sidelines.

FILE - In this Feb. 25, 2021 file photo, Libyan Prime Minister-designate Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah speaks during a news conference in Tripoli, Libya. On Wednesday, March 10, 2021, Libyan lawmakers confirmed a newly appointed government to lead the war-wrecked country through elections by the end of the year. The government of Dbeibah replaces the two rival administrations that have split the North African country for years. (AP Photo/Hazem Ahmed, File)
Libyan interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah speaks during a news conference in Tripoli, Libya. AP

Next month, Turkey is set to host peace talks between the Taliban, the Afghan government and US officials, aiming to broker a resolution to that two-decade conflict. Over the weekend, Ankara joined forces with Moscow and Doha to launch a campaign that aims to achieve a political solution to the 10-year-old conflict in Syria, then offered to mediate between Egypt and Ethiopia on the flashpoint Renaissance Dam, upstream on the Nile.

However those peace efforts play out, Turkey's new "softly, softly" approach, as I detailed in January, is mainly an effort to reduce its regional isolation in the face of potentially harsh sanctions from the EU and a tougher American posture following the exit of Donald Trump, the former US president who shared a warm relationship with Mr Erdogan.

Worried about upsetting a key Nato ally and crucial trade partner, the EU has kicked the sanctions can down the road for more than a year. Many expect the bloc to finally make a decision on Turkey sanctions at its March 25-26 summit in Brussels. This explains why already this month Mr Erdogan has had friendly phone chats with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who has sought to mediate the Turkey-Greece dispute, and the French President, Emanuel Macron, who has been among the strongest advocates for harsh sanctions.

FILE PHOTO: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron give a press conference after a summit on Ukraine at the Elysee Palace in Paris, December 9, 2019.  Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron give a news conference in December. Reuters

The phone call Mr Erdogan is still waiting for is the one with the American president. Joe Biden’s “I’m just not that into you” approach has left the politically savvy Turkish leader unsure where he stands with the world’s reigning superpower and uncertain how to proceed.

Mr Biden holds most of the cards when it comes to Turkey – the possible lifting of CAATSA sanctions for Turkey's purchase of Russian-made S-400 missiles; the potentially massive fine on state-run Halkbank for evading Iran sanctions; welcoming Turkey back into the F-35 production programme; the possible extradition of Fethullah Gulen, which Turkey blames for a 2016 coup attempt.

Mr Erdogan can do little more than wait, and be on his best behaviour. US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, last week applauded Turkey’s re-engagement with the EU, which has led to reduced tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. “We’re very supportive of that,” he told the US Congress.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to staff at the US State Department during the first visit of US President Joe Biden(L) in Washington, DC, February 4, 2021. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced concern over jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny and imprisoned Americans in a telephone call Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. / AFP / SAUL LOEB
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the US State Department as President Joe Biden listens, Washington, February 4, 2021. AFP 

Washington is less supportive of Turkey's position on Cyprus, which has since 1974 been divided between the EU-member south and the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC), recognised only by Turkey.

In advance of next month's talks, Mr Blinken vowed that American diplomacy would be fully engaged toward a resolution that reunifies Cyprus in a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. Ankara and the TRNC leadership have in recent weeks reiterated their unwillingness to accept anything other than a two-state solution, even as the Republic of Cyprus has been increasingly integrated into the neighbourhood.

A few days ago Israel and Cyprus ended a nine-year impasse to reach a preliminary agreement on a dispute over gas claims in the eastern Mediterranean. Also last week, Israel, Cyprus and Greece agreed to link their power grids and jointly lay the world’s longest and deepest undersea power cable, then followed that up with joint naval exercises, in yet another sign of deepening co-operation.

The National's take on the current tensions in Cyprus
The National's take on the current tensions in Cyprus

The two sides on Cyprus seem to be moving further apart, but on most other regional issues divisions are shrinking. If Athens and Ankara are able to find more common ground at this week’s talks, Turkey could begin to shed its pariah status, despite nagging issues like its many political prisoners. Ankara would still have a long, long way to go to deserve the label of peacemaker, but it might be enough to avoid EU sanctions and earn that long-awaited phone call from the so-called leader of the free world.

The optimal outcome here is not the West welcoming Mr Erdogan’s Turkey back into the fold with a warm embrace, but slowly rebuilding the co-operative partnership over time. Despite Ankara’s apparently base motivations, this may well be how it begins.

David Lepeska is a Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National