Anno Domini 2020: Not only COVID-19

Commentary: The pandemic has dominated the headlines for almost a year, but many sensitive issues in international relations remain unresolved. If not analyzed and tackled with rationality and pragmatism, there could be major consequences for the geopolitical equilibria of the world's most delicate regions 

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In a little less than two weeks, the annus horribilis 2020 will (finally!) come to an end. A year that has seen the whole world devastated by a flu pandemic that has caused not only hundreds of thousands of victims worldwide, but also disastrous economic effects whose consequences will weigh not only on all of us, but also on our children and grandchildren.

Also due to a massive global media campaign, the attention of the public around the world has focused on Covid 19 and the health disaster that has affected not only the least developed countries, but also the richest and most advanced nations, starting with the United States, which has recorded higher mortality rates than Brazil.

However, while the pandemic has hit the headlines and has been the main topic reported in all TV news for almost a year, 2020 leaves many very sensitive dossiers open for international relations debates. If not analyzed and tackled with rationality and pragmatism, these dossiers could have important consequences on the geopolitical equilibria of the most delicate regions in the world.

Owing to its geographical proximity to the Old Continent, the most recent and important dossier is the troubled and turbulent relations between the European Union and Turkey.

President Erdogan’s often unscrupulous and aggressive activism, from the Mediterranean basin to Libya and from Syria to Nagorno-Karabakh, has led Turkey to make more enemies than wisdom should suggest.

The clampdown on civil liberties imposed by President Erdogan on his own country after the "strange", failed coup in 2016 - a crackdown that last November saw over 300 alleged opponents of the regime (journalists, lawyers, military, judges, businessmen) be sentenced to life imprisonment- has created further distance with its NATO partners. It has also caused a very timid reaction – for the time being - from the EU diplomacy that, although distracted by the difficult Brexit negotiations, has managed to put on the agenda of the Meeting of the Heads of State and Government, held on December 10-11 last, the issue of possible sanctions against Turkey for human rights violations and "inappropriate" behaviors of the Turkish armed forces, whose ships patrol undisturbed the waters off Cyprus and whose aircrafts systematically violate Greek airspace in the Eastern Aegean Sea.

The discussion about Turkey's human rights record and the possible sanctions has cleverly and skillfully been used by Chancellor Merkel to "warn" Poland and Hungary and make them accept the Recovery Plan, after their leaders threatened to sabotage the plan to support Europe's pandemic-battered economies.

The currently threatened sanctions against Turkey are supposed to come into force next March, but the German Chancellor's cold rationalism could avert an EU complete break-up with the Turkish government.

Germany has "special" interests with regard to Turkey: not only does it host a huge community of Turkish immigrants (over 4 million people) on its territory, but it is Turkey's first trade partner and its main supplier of military equipment (suffice it to say that the Turkish ships patrolling the Mediterranean - leading to protests from Greece - are all made in Germany).

Italy, too, has strong trade exchanges with Turkey, to which it supplies large quantities of ammunition. 

Faced with the hawks who would like a tougher attitude towards Erdogan, namely France, Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia, Slovenia and Austria, there are more accommodating countries aligned with Germany's "soft" positions, starting with Spain and Malta, as well as Hungary and Italy.

The threat of forthcoming sanctions against Turkey - which has already been punished by Donald Trump for having purchased S-400 anti-aircraft defence systems from Russia - could in any case lead President Erdogan to be milder and follow more responsible behaviors, faced with the real danger of having attempted to play on too many tables in an adventurist and opportunist manner.

Moreover, only negotiations will be able to recognize certain Turkish reasons, which have been overshadowed by its President’s behaviors.

As Ambassador Carlo Marsili, former Head of our Representation to Turkey from 2004 to 2010, stated in an interview with 'Formiche.net', "the European Union should consider the need not to close the dialogue on Turkey's accession process...Europe owes Turkey a debt of gratitude for having blocked the opening of the main political chapters of the accession negotiations on implausible pretexts".

According to the Ambassador, a similar realpolitik approach should be taken to the thorny issue of the Turkish continental shelf actually "occupied" by Greek islands that are close to the Turkish coast. Ambassador Marsili stated: "Turkey is right in refusing to accept what France, Greece and Cyprus would like to impose on it regarding territorial waters and the exclusive economic zone. Their measurement should start from the continental shelf and not from the Greek islands, so as to prevent a country with 1,700 kilometers of coastline such as Turkey from seeing its access to the sea practically blocked. This is not about Erdogan; no Turkish government could accept the current situation."

The Ambassador's words make us reflect and suggest we read between the lines of the Europe-Turkey dossier with an approach closer to Germany’s than France’s.

Moreover, for some weeks now Turkey, too, seems to have softened the tone of an overly aggressive and often counterproductive foreign policy, to the point of having cautiously resumed relations with Israel.

It should be recalled that Turkey was the first, and for many years the only, Muslim country to recognize the State of Israel, with which it has entertained diplomatic relations since 1949.

Relations deteriorated when in 2010 Erdogan (him again!) sent a merchant ship flotilla off the coast of Gaza in an attempt to supply weapons and food to the Palestinian enclave isolated by an Israeli blockade. The attempt resulted in an assault by Israeli special forces on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which cost the lives of 10 ship's "passengers", including Hamas guerrillas brought back to Gaza to resume the fight against the Israeli occupation. 

After a partial attempt to resume dialogue between Israel and Turkey, diplomatic relations broke down again in 2018 during yet another clash between Israeli armed forces and Palestinian militias on the Gaza border.

Now the situation is improving again: a new Turkish Ambassador to Israel was appointed on December 14 last.

He is forty-year-old Ufuk Ulutas, a proactive and dynamic diplomat who studied political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and speaks fluent Hebrew. He is considered the best suited person to piece together the threads of a very important dialogue for Middle East equilibria. A dialogue that seems to have begun also at the intelligence service level. 

According to 'Al Monitor', a geopolitical website which is very well informed on what goes on behind the scenes in the Middle East, in the last week of November reliable Turkish government sources reported that the Head of the Turkish 'National Intelligence Service' (MIT) initiated highly confidential contacts with the Israeli Mossad.

In the secret talks, Turkey was allegedly represented by Hakan Fidan, already used by MIT for "back bench diplomacy" with Israel, with the aim of discussing "common interests" on "security issues in Libya and Syria...".

It is likely that Turkey has been induced to resume dialogue with Israel by the success of Trump Presidency's best legacy for Middle East equilibria: until a few months ago the only Arab States that recognized Israel, with which they had diplomatic relations, were Egypt and the Kingdom of Jordan. With a series of successful diplomatic moves, Donald Trump, under Saudi Arabia’s benevolent gaze, succeeded in making Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan recognize Israel.

It was an unprecedented strategic success.

Israel is no longer surrounded by a sea of Arab enmity, but is starting to normalize its relations with the most important pawns on the Middle East chessboard, with undeniable potential positive repercussions (albeit not in the immediate future) on the broken dialogue with the Palestinian Authority, which, deprived of certain fundamental sponsors from the Arab front, will probably find itself obliged not only to recognize the existence of the State of Israel, so far defined as "Jewish entity" in its documents, but also to commit itself to the realistic pursuit of the two States solution, already foreseen also by the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine - a partition which the Palestinians, strengthened by an Arab support which is now beginning to wane, have never fully accepted.

Following in the footsteps of the Arab nations that have opened diplomatic relations with Israel, Morocco - ruled by a direct descendant of the Prophet - has also decided to start a formal dialogue with Israel. This move, too, has been encouraged by an initiative of Trump’s Administration in recent weeks. It seems, in fact, that King Mohammed VI has decided to recognize the existence of the State of Israel, after the United States - in turn - recognized Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara, an area on the border with Mauritania that has been the subject of disputes, including armed clashes, for over thirty years.

This is an important step, also because it comes from a country, Morocco, which has always protected the life and rights of its Jewish community, to the point that one of the King's most respected advisors is Dr. Azoulai, an eminent descendant of a rich dynasty of Moroccan Jewish entrepreneurs. 

Europe, Turkey, Israel, the Arab world. These and many other dossiers will be dealt with at the end of this annus horribilis. A year at the end of which we would like to see at least one effective attempt to solve an all-Italian dossier, which seems to be overshadowed by the pandemic news: the affair of the 13 fishermen from Mazara del Vallo, kidnapped and imprisoned for over three months by the militias of Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, without any visible and effective Italian initiative to bring them back home.

 

Professor Valori is President of the International World Group