Is Turkey about to come in from the cold?

After pushing each other to the brink of war last summer, Ankara and Athens are set to launch exploratory talks next week

epa08945633 People enjoy their time in front of the Sultanahmet Mosque on a snowy day in Istanbul, Turkey, 18 January 2021.  EPA/SEDAT SUNA
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The UAE and Cyprus signed a defence co-operation deal last week, a month after the UAE became a permanent observer member of the EastMed Gas Forum and two months after the Emirates and Athens agreed to broader defence co-operation. The international body, widely seen as a bulwark to Turkish influence in the Mediterranean, appears to be gaining strength.

Yet there have also been signs of an opening to Ankara. “We want to tell Turkey that we want normal relations with it that respect mutual sovereignty,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash told Sky News Arabia just before the UAE-Cyprus deal. “We don’t have any problems with Turkey.”

A few days earlier, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt announced the end of a three-and-a-half-year freeze on diplomatic, trade and travel ties with Qatar – a move that could potentially clear the way for improved relations between Gulf states and Turkey, an ally of Doha.

A hopeful Turkey, meanwhile, has put on its flirtiest smile. After pushing each other to the brink of war last summer, Ankara and Athens are set to launch exploratory talks next week, to address conflicting maritime claims and drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

Retired naval officer Cihat Yayci, the architect of Turkey's regional Blue Homeland doctrine, has warned that talks with Greece could destroy Turkey's position in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hailed the negotiations as "a harbinger of a new era", and last week hinted at a possible meeting with his Greek counterpart.

A man wearing a mask to help protect from the spread of the coronavirus, fishes from the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn in Istanbul, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. Turkey became the latest country to roll out its vaccination program against COVID-19, with the CoronaVac vaccine, made by China's Sinovac Biotech Ltd., starting with the inoculation of health care workers in hospitals across the country. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
Turkey's historic rivalry with Greece has added to tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. AP

A new era may also be on the wing for Cyprus, which since a 1974 invasion by Turkish forces has been divided between the Greek-backed Republic of Cyprus, an EU member, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Turkey. Several rounds of reunification talks have failed, most recently in 2017.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres plans to meet next month with Greek-and Turkish-Cypriot leaders, and representatives from Greece, Turkey and the UK to determine whether talks can resume. Since Ersin Tatar became TRNC president in October, Turkey and Turkish Cypriots have more strongly backed a two-state solution, as opposed to reunification.

Ankara has also been hinting at rapprochement with Egypt. Relations between the two regional powers have been frosty since 2013 saw the fall of Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo and Turkey’s welcoming of the extremist organisation's exiled leaders. Writing for the European Council on Foreign Relations, ECFR pan-European junior fellow Matteo Colombo urged European states to encourage Ankara-Cairo talks to help reduce tensions in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean. “They should look to build on the Turkish government’s reported outreach to its rival behind closed doors in recent weeks,” writes Mr Colombo.

There have been reports in recent weeks that Muslim Brotherhood leaders have begun leaving Turkey. Over the past month, Ankara has also sent several signals – including a comment from Mr Erdogan – that it seeks to strengthen relations with Israel. Israeli officials plan to meet Turkish counterparts in private, but have expressed concerns that Ankara’s newly friendly stance is mainly about winning points with incoming US president Joe Biden.

People hang out by the shore of the Mediterranean as Israel tightens a national lockdown in a bid to curb a sharp rise in new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infections in Ashdod, Israel January 8, 2021. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen
Tensions between Turkey and some of its fellow Nato allies have been high in the Mediterranean. Reuters

Israel has kept Turkey at arm's length thus far, and will surely avoid any move that might undermine its increased co-operation with Greece and Cyprus. On Monday, Ynet News, an Israeli outlet, reported that for normalisation to occur, Israel has said it would require Turkey to shutter its Hamas branch.

One of the main reasons Mr Erdogan has shifted to a more conciliatory tone in recent weeks is, of course, money. He hopes to attract foreign capital to boost Turkey's troubled economy, which in the days ahead must overcome US sanctions and, potentially, harsher EU sanctions. Last week, he said Turkey is ready to put its frayed relations with the EU back on track.

The Ides of March may decide Turkey’s fate, when the EU will meet to weigh harsher sanctions against Turkey for its aggressions in the eastern Mediterranean and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will face yet another election. Looking to calm the waters, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu plans to meet EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in Brussels this week, before Mr Erdogan meets European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen later this month.

Israel suspects Turkey's newly friendly stance is about winning points with Joe Biden

If the EU holds off on stronger sanctions and the increasingly hardline Mr Netanyahu fails to hold on to power, Turkey could gain ground in the eyes of European and eastern Mediterranean rivals, as well as the US. Mr Erdogan could use all the help he can get with Mr Biden, who is preparing to take office on January 20 and has reportedly ignored the longtime Turkish leader’s request to talk.

Mr Erdogan’s first chance to boost his international standing in the Biden era comes next Monday, when Turkey and Greece sit down for their first diplomatic talks in five years. A breakthrough is highly unlikely, but a measure of open-mindedness and a willingness to engage from the Turkish side could begin to change the narrative.

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