The Hagia Sophia’s reclassification as a mosque and last week’s Friday prayer, which drew around 350,000 people, including Turkish statesmen, continues to make waves. No, this piece is not about reactions to that decision. I will not delve into its international reception, Greece’s response or the significance of that ancient temple serving as a mosque again for Turkey. Instead, I intend to reach certain conclusions about Turkish foreign policy on the basis of the Hagia Sophia’s reopening. I will also analyze what kind of strategic initiatives Turkey can take when it is absolutely necessary.
When Turkish troops were deployed to Cyprus in 1974, Turkey had very good reasons to launch that operation under international law. A military coup had taken place on the island and Greek Cypriot gangs had begun to massacre ethnic Turks. Citing those legitimate reasons, Turkey conducted a military operation and proceeded to gain control of predominantly Turkish parts of the island. The Cyprus conflict has been awaiting a solution since 1974. In 2004, then-United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan devised a peace plan, which the Turkish Cypriot community endorsed, whereas Greek Cypriots vetoed the initiative and perpetuated the dispute.
Indeed, Turkey’s interest in Cyprus predates the 1974 operation. The Turkish people have been more aware of the situation in Cyprus and have occasionally staged street protests over that matter since the 1950s. The Turkish people and government’s concerns about Cyprus primarily relate to protecting the Cypriot Turks’ right to life. There is, however, an additional strategic consideration. The Dodecanese islands were taken from Turkey and placed under Italian control shortly before World War I, only to be handed over to Greece after World War II. A quick look at the map of the Aegean Sea would suffice to appreciate how their placement under Greek control represented a massive strategic loss for Turkey. That development limited Turkish control over the Aegean Sea to several miles, despite Turkey’s huge coastline, making it hardly possible for that country to leave the Aegean. A loss of such magnitude could not have been expected not to push Turkey, a country with a sizeable population and an extensive history, to take new initiatives. My interpretation is that Turkey responded to the situation in the Aegean Sea by playing the Cyprus card and carving out space in the Mediterranean.
Here’s the lesson of that story: When Turkey encounters strategic containment, it tends to take new military, diplomatic, economic, and political steps in response, attempts to undermine that policy of containment and seeks to change the rules of the game by challenging the status quo.
In the 1970s, Turkey’s economy and national security depended heavily on outsiders. The country’s democracy was in a dismal state, and domestic political turmoil and military coups consumed its energy. Even under those circumstances, however, Turkey managed to take an important step in Cyprus. Needless to say, there is a huge gap between Turkey’s economy, population, defense industry and military experience and capabilities today and back then. The country, however, faces similar challenges to its vital interests and new containment policy. There was an attempt to establish an independent statelet for the terrorist organization YPG/PKK, with U.S. backing, in northern Syria – which Turkey thwarted by conducting several cross-border operations to neutralize the threat. The most recent escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean has similar reasons. Greece, the Greek Cypriots, Egypt, and Israel joined forces to exploit natural resources in the area and deny Turkey its fair share. According to Greek maps of the Mediterranean, the entire area was to be divided between Greece and the Greek Cypriots, unlawfully leaving Turkey, which has the longest coastline, a small maritime jurisdiction. In this regard, Turkey faces the same kind of attack against its interests in the Mediterranean that it faced in the Aegean Sea back in the day.
Turkey responded to the said attack by concluding a memorandum of understanding with Libya regarding the two nations’ respective exclusive economic zones. It supported that country’s legitimate government against the putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who proceeded to suffer humiliating defeats, and challenged Haftar’s foreign sponsors in the Libyan theater. Ankara also reiterated that it would protect its interests in the Mediterranean at all costs.
If Greece and the Greek Cypriots refuse to agree on a fair allocation of Mediterranean resources, it would be reasonable to expect Turkey to take additional steps in the near future. One could indeed speculate that the Turkish government’s future steps won’t be limited to symbolic decisions, such as the reclassification of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque.
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