Turkey’s recent diplomatic initiatives to settle outstanding disputes with Egypt and Israel can be seen as a clear indication that Turkey’s ‘precious loneliness’ has already proven too burdensome and costly in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The term ‘precious loneliness’ was coined in 2013 by Ibrahim Kalin, Chief Foreign Policy Adviser to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and it refers to Turkey’s value-based foreign policy against states with ‘immoral’ policies. In line with this self-congratulatory stance, Turkey downgraded its diplomatic relations with Egypt and Israel on the basis of moral Islamic considerations, and it retreated into doleful isolation in the Eastern Mediterranean, where newly discovered gas reserves sparked new alliances between littoral states.
While Ankara’s Mediterranean policy—articulated as the Blue Homeland Doctrine by some retired admirals— left the country with nearly no allies, it generated new opportunities and collaborations among old rivals in the region. Most notably, in January 2019, Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian National Authority established the Mediterranean Gas Forum to optimize the production and distribution of offshore gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean that would bypass Turkey.
In return, in November 2019, Turkey signed an agreement with Libya’s Government of National Accord to create a maritime corridor stretching from southwest Turkey to northeast Libya, which would collide with the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Cyprus, Egypt, and Greece on top of blocking the planned Eastern Mediterranean gas pipeline path.
A number of subsequent developments further shifted regional power balance against Turkey, including the 2020 Abraham Accords — which normalized Israel’s relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco — the reconciliation of Qatar (Turkey’s only remaining ally in the region) with the Gulf States and Egypt in January 2021, and the February 2021 Philia Forum between France, Egypt, Cyprus, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
On top of shifting regional alliances, the departure of the benevolent Trump administration and the advent of the Biden administration — which was predisposed to take Ankara to task — compelled the latter to look for policy openings. In order to restore relations with Washington, Ankara had to rebuild bridges with traditional US allies in the region, such as Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Ankara also had to defuse tensions with the EU to avoid economic sanctions. As such, these imperatives moved Turkey to adopt a conciliatory approach in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In February 2021, Turkey openly shared its willingness to hold talks with Egypt when a new Egyptian bid for hydrocarbon exploration allegedly respected the EEZ’s border demarcated by the maritime agreement between Turkey and Libya.
Although in the aftermath of the Greek Foreign Minister’s subsequent visit to Cairo, the Egyptian government updated the map in line with an agreement signed between Egypt and Greece in August 2020, the Turkish public was already prepared for a thaw in relations with the Sisi administration. Contacts at the diplomatic level had actually resumed in mid-March, and in early May a Turkish delegation headed by the deputy Foreign Minister arrived in Cairo to discuss normalizing relations between the two countries.
Egypt and Turkey have been at loggerheads since 2013, when the former’s democratically elected President, Mohammed Morsi, was ousted from power by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s coup. Overcoming seven years of mutual hostility and distrust certainly requires strong actions from both sides. As Turkey’s foreign policy predicament deepens, the Egyptian side feels in a superior position to impose some substantial conditions to advance the normalization of relations with Turkey, including the expulsion from Turkey of a number of people convicted on terror-related charges in Egypt, the silencing of Turkey-based Muslim Brotherhood media outlets, and the withdrawal of Turkish troops and Syrian mercenaries from Libya
Turkey, on the other hand, is especially seeking energy cooperation and trying to lure Egypt into a separate maritime deal, with the promise that Cairo will gain an additional 11,500 square kilometers to its EEZ if it thwarts any attempts made by Greece and the Republic of Cyprus. Nonetheless, in the absence of extensive changes in Turkey’s regional policy, Egypt’s expanding economic, political, and military ties with the axis formed around regional platforms makes such a shift highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.
Turkey is also attempting to pursue Israel through a reconciliation process around energy cooperation. Relations recently thawed when the Israeli Energy Minister, Yuval Steinitz, was invited to Turkey to attend an international summit in June 2021.
After the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, Turkish-Israeli relations further deteriorated in 2018, when Israeli forces killed at least 60 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip during protests against the relocation of the US Embassy in Jerusalem.
Erdogan called Israel a ‘terrorist state’ and both countries expelled each other’s envoys. While Turkey drifted apart from Israel, Israel ended its historic isolation in the Arab world, and it deepened its relations with Greece and Cyprus through multiple bilateral and regional agreements. As Turkey lost its unique status as key strategic and economic regional partner for Israel, any broader reconciliation process between the two countries is no longer simply a matter of bilateral relations. Hence, Turkey’s present diplomatic gestures seem unlikely to convince Israel to conclude any comprehensive deal with Turkey that would leave Greece and Cyprus in the lurch in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially within the larger context of the AKP government’s special relations with Hamas and the Palestinian issue, which remains at the core of the Turkish government’s domestic agenda.
What further steps Ankara can and will take to normalize ties with Egypt and Israel are yet to be seen. What is now clear is that Turkey’s foreign policy blunders and miscalculations during the past years are bound to make it difficult to end Turkey’s loneliness in the Eastern Mediterranean.