Rise of Turkey and the growing tensions in the Mediterranean: for an independent class position

The clash between Greece and Turkey, which began last July, shows no signs of abating and indeed increases in intensity week after week. It is the most serious crisis between the two countries in decades.

The casus belli was the beginning of seismic surveys in the southeastern Aegean Sea, close to the Greek island of Kastellorizo, by a Turkish exploration vessel, escorted by a naval fleet.

A Turkish frigate collided with a Greek ship and President Erdogan warned: "We said it, if they attack us they will pay a very high price. Today they received the first answer." French President Macron came to Greece’s aid, increasing France’s military presence in the area to “monitor the situation in the region and mark [France’s] determination to uphold international law.” The French government, of course, seeks to “uphold the international law” only as long as it serves its interests.

Turkey ship Image PikistConfrontations between Turkey and Greece in the Mediterranean are becoming more frequent and serious / Image: Pikist

There is a rush to control the hydrocarbon reserves in the Southeastern Mediterranean Sea. The size of the region's hydrocarbon deposits has been estimated at 1.7 million barrels of oil and about 227 trillion cubic feet of gas. It is estimated that gas fields alone are worth more than $700 billion.

In the space of a few months, there have been symmetrical agreements for the partition of the eastern Mediterranean between the two main contenders and other countries: one signed in November 2019 between Erdogan and the Prime Minister of the Tripoli government in Libya, Fayyez Serraj; and one concluded in response on 6 August between Greece and Egypt.

The basic idea developed by the Turkish admiralty is to contest the areas of maritime sovereignty in the Mediterranean, an objective to which the agreements signed with Tripoli correspond perfectly. From Ankara’s perspective, the aim is to redraw the areas of Turkish maritime jurisdiction according to the national sovereignty of Turkey 100 years ago in 1920, first with the Sanremo Treaty and then with that of Sévres.

In the Mediterranean sea, Greece and Hellenic Cyprus have "exclusive economic zones" (EEZs), where the offshore drills of companies such as Total, Eni and Exxon explore for gas. Erdogan disputes European maps and the right of islands in contact with Turkey to have EEZs, and insists that Turkey’s continental shelf reaches as far as Egypt and Libya.

What is at stake is not “national sovereignty”, nor the democratic rights of any “small nations”. The dispute between Greece and Turkey is reactionary on both sides, and Marxists do not support one or the other.

Turkey’s Blue fatherland

Recep Tayyip Erdogan Image Russian Presidential Executive OfficeTurkey's expansionist goals clash, not only with Greece, but its powerful patrons like France / Image: Russian Presidential Executive Office

Ergogan’s strategy is called “Mavi vatan” (Blue fatherland). The goal is to control the sea to seize energy resources and impose Turkey’s influence. The main method for achieving this is to use the military power of the country. The Turkish army is the second army of NATO, in terms of numbers of soldiers.

It is an expansionist goal that clashes, not only with Greece, but especially with its powerful patrons, including imperialist powers like France.

The dream is to rebuild some kind of Ottoman Empire. The language used by Erdogan in the last clash with Greece is quite striking in this regard:

“We have had enough of this game of shadows. It is comical to compare Turkey, which is a regional and international power, to a state that is not even up to the task of looking after its own internal affairs. Political acrobatics and diplomacy are no longer enough to hide the tyranny of countries that consider themselves to be large, strong and invincible. All the hostile players can unite, but they will not be able to stop the rise of Turkey.” (Il Sole 24 Ore, 2 September 2020).

In this context, we can better understand the provocation of the ‘Sultan’s’ decision to convert the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from a museum into a place of Muslim worship, and to do it on 24 July: the day of the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, which decided the borders of the current Turkish state, which Erdogan openly disputes.

With the global capitalist crisis, this policy will become more and more aggressive.

Turkey’s economy contracted by 9.9 percent in the second quarter of 2020, but the country was already in a bad situation before the coronavirus outbreak. In 2019, GDP grew only by 0.9 percent. The strengthening of the US dollar led to a collapse of the Turkish lira, which has lost 20 percent of its value since the beginning of the year. There is also a severe trade imbalance, no longer compensated for by the inflows of capital, which have been held back by COVID-19, along with the block on economic activity and the collapse of tourism. The latest figures on the Turkish trade balance point to disaster: minus 3 billion dollars for the month of July, the same trend as in recent months starting from May.

The imperialist acts of Turkey are partially a reflection of the desire of the Turkish ruling class to reestablish itself as a major power and, to an equal degree, a measure to distract the attention of the masses from Turkey’s brewing crisis and the growing poverty and misery in the country.

Ankara has thrown itself headlong into international competition and, in addition to strengthening its grip on the previously occupied territories on Cyprus and in Syria, it has built military bases in Albania, Azerbaijan, Libya, Qatar and even Somalia. At the same time Turkey has been intervening via proxy groups in Sudan, Yemen and even in Tunisia, and in other French-speaking West African countries.

This is a reflection of increasing tensions between the regimes in the region. There has been a realignment of alliances. In this sense, we must look at the recent “normalisation agreement” between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. In addition to officially decreeing that the Arab bourgeoisie has abandoned the Palestinian’s to their fate, it reveals the intention of the US, with the aid of Israel, to create a bloc (described by some commentators as effectively an “Arab NATO"), with the aim of countering Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah (allies of Tehran) and Erdogan's Turkey. This bloc would be composed of the rich monarchies of the Gulf such as the Emirates, Saudi Arabia (leaving Qatar, which has sided with Turkey) and Egypt.

It is not an accident that UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash, speaking at the Arab League, said: “The Turkish interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries is a clear example of negative interference in the region.” It is also quite clear that the UAE-Israel agreement, far from being a peace deal, will further increase the destabilisation of the whole region.

Fomenting nationalism can serve to delay the inevitable: mass protests that will shake Erdogan's regime, which is already in decline, as demonstrated by the double defeat in the mayoral elections for Istanbul in 2019.

On the other hand, Erdogan's expansionist policy is sounding various alarm bells in European capitals, and particularly in Paris. France’s interests clash with those of Turkey. One of the main reasons for the intervention of French imperialism on the side of Greece is the fact that the French multinational Total has already entered into lucrative hydrocarbon mining contracts in the region, and a change in the region's EEZs could deprive them of these contracts.

However, the clash has a wider significance. In each and every single country, France and Turkey are on opposite sides.

“We have to create a Pax Mediterranea, because we see an imperial regional power coming back with some kind of fantasies of its own history, and I am referring to Turkey,” Macron said. (Il Sole 24 Ore, 1 September 2020).

Macron's “Pax Mediterranea” has nothing to do with pacifism but translates into the desire for French domination over the entire Mediterranean Sea. Macron's role in Lebanon in recent weeks is further evidence of this.

Macron came unsuccessfully out of the summit held in Corsica on 10 September, called Med7 (composed of six EU countries bordering the Mediterranean, plus Portugal). No EU country is willing to fight to the death for the glory of France, especially when Erdogan can blackmail Europe by threatening to open its borders to the mass of refugees (more than four million according to the official statistics) hosted in Turkey.

Pyrrhic victory in Libya

Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan Image PoRErdogan's successes in Libya, with the assistance of Russia, were the prelude to the current confrontation with Greece and its allies / Image: PoR

The tensions will not cease, however up until 12 months ago, Haftar and his army – supported by France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates amongst others – seemed unstoppable and his conquest of Tripoli was taken for granted. But then Erdogan decided to intervene directly and put all his weight behind the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Al Serraj.

Hundreds of fighters were sent to Tripoli, not from the regular Turkish army, but mercenary Islamist fighters from northern Syria, where they fought the YPG. Erdogan obtained victory also thanks to the change in attitude on the part of Russia, which initially supported Haftar.

Putin, within the framework of agreements with Turkey over Syria, and the supply of Russian S-400 missiles to Ankara, gave the green light to Erdogan in Libya. While Sarraj went to Turkey to meet the American ambassador, both his deputy and the foreign minister of Tripoli were received in Moscow in early June.

One week prior, the mercenaries of the Wagner Group (a paramilitary force linked to the Russian state) fled Libya. In April, the retreat of the Wagner Group was decisive in the conquest of Tarhuna (the most important logistic base on the way to Tripoli for Haftar) by the GNA forces.

Haftar learned a lesson the hard way, that imperialist countries “have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests”, as Lord Palmerston said.

Erdogan's successes in Libya were the prelude to the current confrontation. As we wrote before, under the agreement with Libya, an EEZ has been established that extends from the coasts of Turkey to those of Libya, and now Ankara wishes to exploit the offshore gas resources of Greece and Cyprus, where Eni has strong interests, along with Total and some American companies.

So, the Sultan's victory is not free of consequences but is a prelude to new international crises.

The regional crisis is developing an ever-sharper character, and that can turn into real military clashes. This is for a number of reasons. First, there is the unprecedented depth of the current economic recession, but there is also a more general feature: the relative weakening of US imperialism, which leaves more room for the rise of the various regional powers, each with its own agenda. This is nowhere demonstrated more clearly than in the Middle East and North Africa.

As our Greek comrades have stated:

“The prospect of a generalised war between Turkey and Greece is not the most likely prospect at this stage as neither of the bourgeoisie of the two countries is pursuing it. A war would be economically catastrophic for both countries but would also pose serious risks to the stability of the system. However, the dangerous games of the two bourgeoisie could lead to a more or less serious confrontation. If this happens, there is always the risk that they will lose control of the situation and be dragged into a war. Also, as the crisis of bourgeois regimes in the two countries deepens, there is always the possibility that one of the two ruling classes will seek to stabilize its regime through success in a military confrontation.”

A cry goes up at every “peace summit” and in every gathering of multinational bodies and institutions of the need for “international consensus” and “internationally agreed solutions”. However, the times that we are living through are not of international cooperation, but of the primacy of national interests.

Nationalism is on the rise everywhere. It is the ideological cover given by the ruling class for trade wars and harsh competition between the countries. The clash between the US and China is only the most significant example, but there is also a clash between the US and the EU; and between China and the most powerful countries in Europe. And then there are more minor conflicts, such as that between Greece and Turkey, and in Libya and Syria, with the sinister shadow of the imperialist world powers in the background.

In the postwar period, in the context of a massive economic boom internationally, these conflicts would have been resolved relatively peacefully, under the supervision of the US and the USSR, but today this is no longer possible. And in the areas where imperialism has left the deepest national divisions and rivalries as its legacy, the transformation of trade wars and competition for spheres of influence into open military conflicts will inevitably become more prevalent. Regional wars and proxy wars will be on the order of the day in the coming future.

It is the duty of the working class in the countries that border the Mediterranean sea, the Middle East and beyond, to take an independent and internationalist class position. Karl Liebknecht’s slogan, “The Main Enemy Is At Home!”, raised more than hundred years ago, must be carried by all conscious workers and youth, and become a beacon in the coming stormy events.

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