2019-07-22

US in the Mediterranean tries to Counter-Pivot Turkey away from the Middle East

Amid news on escalation of diplomatic tensions in the Mediterranean waters, there are rising concerns that the conflict between regional powers over the natural gas reserves may instrumentalized by the Americans to stimulate Turkey’s pivot away from Middle East where Ankara and Washington find it increasingly harder to compromise on interests and find q common ground for productive cooperation.

Rise of Erdogan and his party in the early 2000s was accompanied by Turkey's rapid opening to Middle East. Under the AKP government Turkey successfully promoted its image as a predominantly Muslim society with a functioning democracy. Its reliance on soft power and readiness to mediate between the West and others helped Erdogan’s party to gain trust among political establishment in the West and further strengthen its legitimacy.

The tectonic shifts cause by the events of the Arab Spring radically changed nature of Turkey’s engagement in the Middle East. Change in balance of power tempted Ankara into trying to use its hard power assets by either directly interfering in domestic affairs of the Arab world.

Rising Instability in Turkey’s immediate neighbourhood led to proliferation of transborder threats like terrorism, radical violence, uncontrolled mass migration. The ever worsening security situation on Turkey's borders was further deteriorated due to breakdown of state institutions in Syria and Iraq. Power vacuum resulted in violent competition of global and regional players.

Political changes significantly altered Turkish approaches to dealings in the region. Turkish government found itself deeply enmeshed in the escalating power struggle. Ideologically bound to the Middle East, ruling political elites couldn't abstain from being involvement in the region. Neutrality wasn't a viable policy option as well because domestic security situation was forcing Turkey to actively interfere to confront rising challenges.

Parallel to this, Turkey’s principal political and military partner in the region, United States, has been trying to build a new a stable architecture of security guarantees between major stakeholders: Gulf monarchies, Israel and Egypt. Closer dialogue and coordination between these players were supposed not only to contain Iranian expansion, but also to uphold US supremacy in the face of ascending profile of Russia.

For the last several decades US-Turkish cooperation in the Middle East was frameworked by Washington’s attempts to keep Turkey away from physical entanglement in regional affairs. US has long been ready to tolerate Ankara’s activism unless its foreign policy initiatives don't threaten security arrangements with NATO and put the alliance’s security guarantees to test.

Post-Arab Spring chaos seriously strained relations between Turkey and United States. The latter is used to deal with a Turkey which is demonstrating increasing assertiveness to pursue its own interests in Iran, Syria, Iraq in disregard to the US concerns. Turkey is both forced to act or feels ambitious about its chances to once again rule the Middle East.

Improving military capabilities and expansion of its physical military presence in the strategic points of the region give Turkey less incentive to choose compromise over pressure, dialogue over conflict.

Indeed, for years Turkey has been a valuable asset in the Western mechanism of the regional control, Turkey, however, has never been given a leading role in formulation of relevant policies. Turkey, in the eyes of many military political elites in the West, was a part of the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe, rather than the Middle East where Ankara’s involvement would always be regarded as a destabilizing factor for Western interests.

In the last few years the United States has been expanding its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean where Washington seeks to reinforce cooperation among regional states in the military affairs. Ties between Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel are spurred by common economic interests whereas United States tries to facilitate political dialogue as was evidence by recent US proposal to mediate between Lebanon and Israel on maritime border.

Exclusion of Turkey from such initiatives seems to be deliberately instrumentalized by the United States. The region may see controlled escalation of tensions around issues like sovereign rights on disputed islands and gas exploration to trigger substantial changes in the foreign policy decision-making process in Turkey and ultimately veer Ankara away from deeper engagement with the Middle East.

First of all, Eastern Mediterranean is dominated by the Western security guarantees with the US being the supreme military and diplomatic power. Once Ankara decides that it no longer can tolerate violation of its sovereign rights, sooner or later will be forced to engage in more sincere dialogue with Washington compelled to compromise in other regional issues.

Secondly, possible military escalation in the region may prompt Turkey not only to use Russian air defense weaponry, but also to demand from Russia concrete support. Once Ankara confronts inevitable Moscow’s reluctance to provide diplomatic assistance, it will realize that rapport with the US, rather than direct confrontation is the only solution to keep nation from further diplomatic isolation.

Finally, resurgence of heated discussions in Turkey around status of islands and Cyprus may galvanize further rise of Turkish nationalism in the country, turning the public away from affairs in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere to the events in the Mediterranean and prompting Turkish government to respond to demands discouraging it from activism in the Middle East.


US diplomatic activism in the Mediterranean seeks ways to bring Turkish foreign policy back to this region, counterbalancing Turkey’s pivot deeper to the Middle East, where US has been historically against Turkish involvement which is today unfolding more and more against Western interests.

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