3 հուլիս, 2016 12:09

Reasons Behind Turkey’s U-turn. Petrostrategies

thumbs_b_c_cf2d10361e6b18cc77c207f72e4f8b40Petrostrategies, a French think tank reviews the reasons behind Turkey’s u-turn in relations with Russia and Israel. The article was published in the World Energy Weekly (July 4, 2016).

The restoration of diplomatic ties with Israel and Russia that Turkey announced on June 27, 2016, opens up at least two gasline options to Europe: that of a pipeline aiming to export Israeli gas and that of the Russian TurkStream project. It results from a complete u-turn in the regional policy implemented by the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who wants to put an end to his country’s isolation, which has worsened in recent years. After adopting the slogan “zero problem with the neighbors” as his mantra in his regional policy over the first years that followed his rise to power in March 2003, Erdogan had gradually changed his tone to one of a man speaking from a position of strength, increasingly giving the impression of wanting to impose his views on others. In January 2009, this u-turn had in particular led to Erdogan shouting angrily at the Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos and suddenly storming out of the conference, whereas Israel and Turkey were considered to be old strategic allies.

Turkey makes a regional political u-turn of strategic importance that also impacts gas.
Turkish-Israeli relations went ostensibly from bad to worse in May 2010 when the Israeli army killed 10 Turkish activists who, on board the Mavi Marmara vessel, tried to force the blockade of the Gaza strip. Ankara asked for an apology (which it obtained from Benyamin Netanyahu in March 2013), a $20-million compensation for the victims’ families (which Israel has agreed to pay) and the lifting of the blockade on Gaza. The Israelis resolutely refused the latter demand, instead making a proposal to Turkey to provide aid to Gaza via their Ashdod port, some 50 kilometers north of the Palestinian strip, a solution that the Turks had refused to accept up to now, but which they agreed to on June 27, as they were no longer in a position of strength.

Erdogan’s political and regional position started to worsen as of June 2015. In the legislative elections that took place in Turkey that month, not only did he see his party lose its majority, but he also saw the pro-Kurd HDP make a major breakthrough. The Turkish leader cancelled these elections and called for a new vote to be cast. He then launched a military campaign against the Turkish Kurds and used this to win the nationalistic votes required to restore the majority to his party, the AKP, at the November-2015 elections. Yet, as of September 2015, the Russian military intervention in Syria completely turned the situation around. On the one hand, it bolstered the regime of Bashar El- Assad, which Erdogan had sworn to bring down and, on the other (helped by the western US-led coalition), it enabled the Kurds of Syria to advance to the south of the Turkish border towards the big Syrian town of Aleppo. The Syrian Kurds are very close to the Kurdish PKK that Ankara is fighting to the death in Turkey.  For several years, Turkey had turned a blind eye to the fact that Daesh (IS) was using its territory as a gateway to Syria, where it was boosting its armed presence. The Turks were thus providing an entry point for Daesh’s oil and giving authorization to this organization to receive arms and fighters via the Turkish border, etc. But under international pressure, Ankara had to gradually terminate this goodwill. There followed a wave of terrorist attacks conducted by Daesh in Turkey itself, the latest to date being that of June 29, which left over 200 victims dead and injured at Istanbul’s Ataturk airpor t. The imposition of heavy sanctions by Russia, as of December 2015, also contributed to aggravating the socio-economic situation in Turkey. Thus, within the space of 10-12 months, as of June 2015, Erdogan’s position became significantly weaker, which did not prevent him from proposing a deal to the Europeans concerning the influx of refugees, which the latter referred to as “blackmail”.

By sacking his Prime Minister, Ahmet Davotoglu, in May 2016, Erdogan embarked on a new regional policy. Progress was swift, as less than two months later, Ankara announced that it was restoring its diplomatic ties with Israel and Russia. In both cases, it will probably involve what Turkish columnists describe as “cold peace”. Besides the strategic considerations, gas interests are also very high on the agenda. While the Russians are talking about resuming talks on their TurkStream gasline project (see below), the Israelis are rekindling the question of the possible export of gas from their Leviathan field to Turkey, then on to Europe.

The Israeli project for the construction of a gasline to Turkey could take more time to carry out than Russia’s TurkStream.
The Israeli project will probably take more time to carry out than the Russian one. Everything remains to be done on the commercial, technical and political fronts. Markets have to be found for the 8 to 10 bcm/annum of gas that Israel is planning to export by gasline to and via Turkey, a financing plan must be set up and an investment decision must be taken. It will be another four to five years before any Israeli gas reaches Turkey. In the meantime, a solution will have to be found for the Cypriot problem. The projected gasline to Turkey must cross waters that belong to Cyprus and it therefore requires authorization from Nicosia. The Cypriots were extremely disgruntled with the announcement of a thaw in the diplomatic ties between Turkey and Israel and the renewed interest surrounding exports of Israeli gas to Turkey. This was because at the end of January 2016, they had signed a “tripartite alliance” with Israel and Greece that notably incorporated plans to export Cypriot and Israeli gas to Greece and Europe. Nicosia now feels betrayed. And it is highly likely that it will not authorize the laying of an Israeli gasline to Turkey, as things currently stand.

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In the hours that followed the thawing of relations between Turkey and Israel on June 27, 2016 (see above), the Kremlin announced that Vladimir Putin is to follow up a letter received from his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which the latter expresses his government’s desire to restore its relations with Moscow. Signs have emerged in recent weeks that Turkish- Russian talks were indeed on the right path towards achieving this restoration of the relations between the two countries. Vladimir Putin had thus stated that the South Stream and TurkStream gasline projects had not been definitively scrapped. Although South Stream was cancelled by the Russians in December 2014, as they refused the accept EU rules and regulations (i.e. unbundling and thirdparty access), TurkStream does not fall within the territoriality of Europe, but that of Turkey. Moscow announced its “cancellation” in December 2015, after the Turkish air force shot down a Russian SU-24 bomber on November 24, 2015. The Russians sent out another positive signal in mid-June when they announced that the work permits of Turkish nationals in Russia would be renewed, contrary to what they had said up to then. On June 27, a Gazprom spokesman said that the Russian company “is open to dialogue on TurkStream and always has been”.

For its part, Ankara had pointed out that a legal case had been re-opened against the Turkish citizen Alparslan Celik, who shot dead the Russian pilot who had managed to eject himself from the SU-24. At the time, Celik had paraded before the medias, but a Turkish court had said that there was not enough proof against him. The Russians were extremely vexed about these incidents and Vladimir Putin accused Turkey of having “stabbed [his country] in the back”, demanding apologies. The Kremlin claims that Erdogan made an apology in his letter, but Ankara denies this, saying the Turkish President merely expressed “deep sorrow”.

It was against its own will that Russia froze the TurkStream gasline project.
The profound animosity that was triggered by these incidents, particularly in Russia, and the fact that Turkey is not going to change its stance against Moscow (as recently stated by Ankara) on Ukraine, the Crimean and Syria (to mention but a few) mean that the “normalization” process which, according to the Turkish Prime Minister, has begun, will be long and gradual. It is because they had no other choice that these two countries embarked on this process. Turkey is suffering from the gloom and doom that is enshrouding one of its most important sectors, i.e. tourism, as the fall in visits from western tourists has been exacerbated by the Kremlin’s order that prohibits Russian tourists from traveling to Turkey (-40% in total). Furthermore, Russia has set an embargo on imports of Turkish agricultural products and foodstuffs, while also imposing entry visas on Turkish visitors. Adding to the problems that Ankara is experiencing elsewhere (the continuation of the war on Turkish Kurds that was launched in between the last two legislative elections, the war in Syria and its myriad consequences, the relations with Daesh, to which Ankara had for a long time turned a blind eye, have subsided into a violent confrontation, the strained relations with the EU, etc?), the severed ties with Russia have worsened the social and economic tensions in Turkey.

For its part, Russia froze the TurkStream gasline project against its will. Time is running out for Gazprom, which at all costs wants to implement at least one and if possible two fallback solutions by the end of 2019 (the expiry date for its transit contract in Ukraine). Although the chances remain real of the Nord Stream 2 gasline project going ahead (they will even improve with Brexit, which takes the UK out of the reckoning, as the latter was one of the main opponents of this project within the EU), the same could not be said of TurkStream, as long as the relations with Ankara had not been normalized. The pipelines that were supposed to serve the South Stream gasline and which were then earmarked for TurkStream are at Gazprom’s disposal and if the green light is given, the project could go ahead quite swiftly. By doing so, Moscow would also please the south Europeans who, spearheaded by Italy, are complaining about being left out, while northern Europe continues to equip itself with gaslines. TurkStream is to have four parallel lines with a total capacity of 63 bcm/annum. A little over 16 bcm/annum are earmarked for Turkey. The remainder (47 bcm/annum) is to arrive at the Turkish-Greek border and, from there, supply southern Europe as far as Italy.