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[ANALYSIS] The case of Turkey and Germany in the eastern Mediterranean: How to use military power in foreign policy

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Fatih Yurtsever*

When used appropriately and at the right time, military power has the potential to affect the policies of states in the desired manner. Until 2016 Turkey used its military power wisely in coercive diplomacy for disputes with Greece in the Aegean Sea. However, the Turkish Armed Forces and Ministry of Foreign Affairs purged their qualified human resources after a coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Foreign policy became the instrument of internal policy, and therefore, the use of military power in Turkish foreign policy has shifted.

Turkey’s assertive military stance isolated it in the eastern Mediterranean. By capitalizing on Turkey’s aggressive posture, Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration formed political and military coalitions against Turkey. As a result, Turkey had to take a step back in the eastern Mediterranean.

On December 2, 2021 the Greek Cypriot administration gave Exxon Mobil and Qatar Petroleum an exploration license in block five, which violates Turkey’s continental shelf in the eastern Mediterranean, for hydrocarbon research. The Turkish Foreign Ministry reacted with a statement saying, “Just as before, Turkey will never allow any foreign nation, company, or ship to carry out unauthorized hydrocarbon research in its maritime jurisdiction, and it will continue to defend the rights of our country and those of Turkish Cypriots.”

The Greek Cypriot administration has rebuffed the assertion, vowing to continue. ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum signed a contract on December 10, 2021 for oil and gas exploration and production-sharing of the island despite Turkey’s opposition.

The companies are expected to start drilling in the first half of next year. Although the Turkish Navy prevented a ship leased by Italy’s ENI from reaching its drilling target in Greek Cyprus’s Block 3 in February 2018, Turkey would not intervene with the survey ships or drilling platforms in Block 5 if they were far from the area that overlaps with Turkey’s continental shelf. “The United States and Qatar have assured Ankara that Exxon Mobil and Qatar Petroleum will remain out of Turkey’s continental shelf in the eastern Mediterranean,” Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on December 13 after the companies were given the energy exploration license in disputed waters.

Turkey’s coercive diplomacy in the eastern Mediterranean over the last five years is the most obvious demonstration of how a country can utilize its military force against its interests. Turkey can now not conduct seismic surveys beyond 28 degrees longitude, the eastern boundary of the Egypt-Greece Exclusive Economic Zone Delimitation Treaty in the eastern Mediterranean. On the other hand, the eastern Mediterranean crisis has resulted in instructional incidents demonstrating the intelligent use of military power. Germany persuaded Turkey to ease tensions in the eastern Mediterranean before the EU summit in December 2020 through a brilliant military action. How did Germany achieve this?

The German frigate FGS Hamburg, which participated in Operation IRINI, initiated by the European Union to prevent illegal arms smuggling to Libya, boarded the Turkish-flagged Roseline-A at 125 nautical miles from the Port of Benghazi to inspect for illegal arms. The sailors carried by a helicopter that took off from the Hamburg were roped onto the Turkish ship. Germany requested permission from Turkey before boarding the ship. Despite the passage of four hours, Turkey did not respond to the request for authorization. Germany then boarded the Turkish merchant ship. When Turkey voiced opposition to the action, the German sailors disembarked from Roseline-A.

The Germany Foreign Ministry stated that the Roseline-A was boarded under the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA), a text prepared for the Prevention of Illegal Acts and Terrorist Activities. Every country may board a commercial vessel suspected of terrorist activity at sea if it obtains permission from the flag state. Prior to the intervention, it is necessary to wait four hours for the flag state’s consent.

Turkey’s declaration to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) states that ships flying the Turkish flag must not be interfered with without their consent. Turkey has said that its Turkish Naval Forces Command Operation Center, which is operational 24 hours a day, will respond quickly to requests to board its ships. Despite the passage of four hours, Turkey did not respond to the German authorities in the incident, and the German authorities chose to intervene because they had waited for a sufficient period of time.

Germany’s intervention with the Turkish ship is based on the SUA convention, not UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2292, which provides legal justification for Operation IRINI and regulates the arms embargo against Libya. It clearly shows that Turkey’s arms shipments to Libya would be considered terrorist activity if requested. Germany gave the political message it wanted to Turkey, with a small-scale military action and clever diplomatic maneuvers afterward. Turkey must have gotten the message since it eased the tension in the eastern Mediterranean before the EU summit.

To sum up, military power is a critical component of foreign policy. While it generates successful outcomes when utilized appropriately, as in the case of Germany, when misused, as in the case of Turkey, it may yield failure. Unfortunately, Turkey is suffering the consequences of the misguided military policy it pursued in the eastern Mediterranean following 2016 within the framework of the Blue Homeland doctrine after 2016.

Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.


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