BY Claude Salhani
There is always potential trouble when authoritarian rulers sense their position weakening because they then often resort to drastic measures to divert the public’s attention and boost their standing.
In Turkey’ s case, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s popularity has been gradually on the decline for several months, there is credible fear among Middle East observers that he may be looking at intervention in Cyprus for the reasons stated above.
The last time Turkey “intervened” in Cyprus was in July 1974. The Turkish Army occupied 40% of the island and continues to do so, even though it maintains that the military action was an “intervention” to protect the island’s Turkish population and balks at the mere mention of “occupation.”
In his domestic outlook for Turkey, as in his foreign policies and military undertakings, Erdogan has gone out on so many limbs, especially in foreign policy, that he has lost much of the glitter he previously wore like a crown. There is no doubt that Erdogan is weaker and politically challenged.
An incursion in Cyprus where the Turkish Army would likely overwhelm the small Greek Cypriot force would be a convenient diversion from challenges to his authoritarian rule.
Revisiting Cyprus militarily could help Erdogan boost his fortunes, he might think, but it would cause him more headaches than he knows with neighbours, including Egypt and Israel not to mention the European Union and the United States.
Greece would almost certainly jump in to protect the Greek part of the island, possibly escalating the conflict into a major conflagration between two NATO members.
Facing a severe economic crisis at home, Erdogan may be tempted to go after the maritime oil fields recently discovered off the coasts of Israel, Lebanon and Cyprus, of which Turkey has tried to lay partial claim.
The Turkish president might think this could offer a quick solution to his rising domestic problems.
However, Erdogan would face severe problems with the United States. The Trump administration is quite upset with the Turkish leader over his intention to purchase Russian S-400 missile defence systems. In Washington, the Pentagon has voiced deep concern over the sale of F-35 fighter jets that Turkey has ordered.
Officials at the Pentagon worry that while installing the S-400 the Russians will pick up intelligence on the new US warplane that the United States would much rather they did not.
Looking forward, the Greeks and especially the Greek Cypriots fear a replay of the 1974 “intervention.” Except that, this time, the plausibility of the conflict spreading quickly from the Middle East to Europe and beyond is much higher. All sides have better and bigger weapons and are not afraid to use them.
Turkey has been escalating tensions by combining this with a major naval exercise involving more than 130 ships near Cyprus. “Our aim in military exercises is to show that the Turkish armed forces are extremely determined, committed and capable of ensuring the security, sovereignty, independence, maritime rights and benefits of Turkey,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said. “We take all necessary measures to protect the rights and the law of our country in the Aegean, the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus.”
In diverting Turkey’s foreign policy from that established by Mustafa Kemal, aka Ataturk, Erdogan is shifting tectonic geopolitical plates, possibly redrawing the Middle East map — or at least parts of it — as set by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly and a senior fellow at the Institute of World Affairs in Washington, DC.