It is evident that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan feeds off tension. He would barely have achieved as much as he has – and prevailed – if he had not been so keen to confront a series of enemies.
Erdogan’s history has so far been tied to Turkey’s emergence as a respectable political, economic and military power in the broader region. The question now is this: How many open fronts can Turkey afford to maintain before it starts losing its momentum in international relations and before it starts putting its internal cohesion at risk? Is Turkey acting on the basis of a long-term strategy or is it prompted into action by developments it cannot control?
Recent tension caused by Ankara’s decision to send a survey vessel into Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) may fit more the pattern of a long-term strategy rather than an ad hoc plan. Turkey never misses out on an opportunity to put pressure on Cyprus or Greece in a way that would call into question these countries’ sovereign rights and promote its own claims in the area. For this reason, Ankara’s recent moves came as no surprise. What should be of concern, on the other hand, are the repercussions of a potential escalation.
Turkey already faces a big risk from the ongoing war between militant Islamists and Kurdish forces along its border because both sides are capable of creating huge damage inside Turkey where they both have a strong network. This risk has created evident tension between Ankara and Washington as the US has openly criticized Turkey for not doing enough to help the war against the Islamic State. Protests by Turkish Kurds for the same reason could undermine talks with the Turkish government.
Given the fact that Turkey is faced with risks of that magnitude and that it shuns pressure from its most powerful ally, then serious questions inevitably arise about its Cyprus policy too. Is Ankara determined to push things to a head? Hard talk from Washington and Brussels will obviously not stop Ankara from implementing the strategy it has decided upon. Perhaps Turkey has an interest in being active on the Cyprus front so as to put an defiant face and give the impression it is ready to act on all issues. Again, some in Ankara may think that Cyprus allows room for action without uncontainable consequences.
Nicosia and Athens have to defend their rights and positions. Ankara responds to every move, always prompting a fresh reaction. Now we will be able to see if Erdogan is seeking tension for the sake of tension or if he will make a compromise gesture demonstrating that he is a true leader, that he is in other words using tension as a means of achieving a superior outcome. Or if it will turn out that what he has achieved until now was not so much the product of design but rather because his opponents could not withstand his compulsion for conflict.