Date: 31 August 2020

Turkey: In Search of Energy to Fulfil Geopolitical Ambitions

In its foreign policy, Turkey has set an ambitious goal to become a regional power and even a top actor in a multilateral world. However, this might be imperiled if Turkey has no safe access to hydrocarbon deposits.


Author: Jan Wójcik

Turkish foreign policy could be seen through a whole array of perspectives. Firstly, it is through the prism of the Turkish-declared neo-Ottoman policy of setting up a regional power where the Ottoman Empire had stretched to in the past; in the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Caucasus. Secondly, after the Arab Spring swept across many states there, Turkey showed an avid interest in backing both officials and institutions that advocated what is known as political Islam ideology, with Muslim values being widely brought into public life. By writing so, I mean the Mohammed Morsi cabinet in Egypt –– before it was ousted in 2013 –– Libya’s Government of National Accord, or GNA, the federal government of Somalia, or groups like Hamas. Turkey’s policies are also described as the country’s weaving between the East and the West. Another key issue for Turkey’s energy sector is how it can secure access to fossil energy sources, without which Turkey will be unable to serve a pivotal role in a multilateral world. But will Turkey’s efforts to accomplish energy security goals not imperil the country’s attempts to achieve its geopolitical pursuits?

Turkey’s energy industry is 75 percent reliant on fossil fuels. The country imports 40 percent of its coal whilst roughly 100 percent of natural gas and crude oil flow into Turkey from elsewhere.[1] In this, Russia meets 53 percent of Turkey’s gas needs, with Iran coming second (17 percent). Turkey reoriented its crude oil deliveries from 2015 onwards, thus after Iran and Saudi Arabia decreased in relative importance in this context, with Iraq taking the lead and covering 29 percent of Turkey’s energy demand, followed by Russia (18 percent).[2]

As Turkey has no raw material deposits at home, at the heart of its energy security policy are efforts to diversify its energy flows –– a move that countries like Poland understand well, once or currently also compelled to search for various energy suppliers. Far ampler than elsewhere in Europe, Turkey’s club of energy exporters could indeed deem impressive if this were not for ardent international policy goals that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s incumbent president and former prime minister, has pursued over the past two decades. Under these, Turkey has the appetite to occupy the role of regional power, or even morph into a key actor in a post-Cold War multipolar universe. Also, Erdogan pushes for the neo-Ottoman policy and a tilt toward any states or institutions that share his party’s (the Justice and Development Party, or AKP) view on the role of Islam in public life.[3] No matter what the Turkish foreign policy perspective is on the table, these factors might prompt a plethora of either real or plausible spats with current hydrocarbon suppliers.

Potential feuds with hydrocarbon suppliers

Russia, which now stands as a top energy supplier to Turkey, must be aware of Ankara’s pivotal role whilst pursuing its policies in the Middle East, as well as in its feud with both the European Union and the North Atlantic Alliance.[4] But this does not exclude potential conflicts between Ankara and Moscow. This is what happened in Syria and its rebel-held Idlib province, with both Turkey and Russia being on the opposite sides of the barricade. As one of Russia’s strategies there are efforts to back the Kurds, Moscow has won an indirect influence on Ankara. Another plausible skirmish between these two might arise from the influence on the Russia-controlled areas –– as former Soviet republics –– yet inhabited by the Turkic peoples. With this in mind, Moscow keeps on developing its network of gas pipelines into Europe so as not to become reliant on any transit state. Just to quote here the TurkStream gas link, opened earlier this year, that got the second line running to the Balkans yet while bypassing Turkey.

Once the Justice and Development Party rose to power in Turkey, Iran came closer to Ankara amidst their comparable –– albeit more moderate in Turkey –– stance on the role of the region in the state, a similar approach toward Kurdish separatism, and a closer rapprochement over policy towards Israel. Nonetheless, Turkey’s policy on Iran mixes elements of both cooperation and competition in a somewhat dual combination.[5] Although the  U.S. sanctions against Tehran were major cause of a massive decline in Iran’s export quotas, yet both regional players are now battling for influence in Central Asia or Transcaucasia, and most recently also in Syria and Iraq. Also, Turkey might see the latter country as a somewhat shaky source of energy deliveries. A Shia-dominated country under the profound influence of Iran, Iraq is the only country where the Kurdish minority boasts its autonomy. The Kurdistan Region stretches along the fuel supply route from Kirkuk and other Iraqi regions. Though Iraqi Kurds’ policy towards Turkey, can be described as self-limitation in order to maintain independence and  ensure fuel sales, Ankara is aware that a more acute conflict with the Kurds could eventually break out. Added to that are efforts that Turkey’s ruling party makes to push the mostly-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, out of the country’s political scene.


New sources for energy diversification

With these perils to continuous energy flow into Turkey, Ankara may be keen to take action to ensure energy diversification or guarantee energy deliveries from more Turkey-reliant sources, thus being far more stable than others. This need is thus key for Turkey’s involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya, and Somalia

With its newfound gas riches, the Eastern Mediterranean is now the top area where Turkey looks to secure its natural gas needs. But apart from Turkey, the contest over these deposits involves also Cyprus, Israel, Greece, and Egypt, all of which hope to benefit from the new finds. The first three states enjoy support from the United States, and recently also from France. More than 900 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas have been discovered offshore Israel, making it by far the vastest amount of natural gas discovered there. Besides, Egypt has its deposits estimated at 850 bcm of natural gas whilst another 700 bcm were confirmed offshore Cyprus. According to geologists, the Levantine Basin might hold far more natural gas than that.[6] Newfound gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean have yet triggered a string of claims, pushing Cyprus, Lebanon, Egypt, or Israel, towards more hefty efforts to delimitate their maritime borders.[7] In consequence, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel have agreed to advance a project of a $6 billion pipeline that would transport Israeli natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe. In January 2019, Eastern Mediterranean countries –– Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Cyprus, Greece, and the Palestinian Authority –– agreed to set up a forum to create a regional gas market, known as the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. The forum will assist the countries by creating a regional gas market, aligning their policies, as well as by developing and using necessary infrastructure options.

Turkey found itself outside these arrangements. For Ankara, this was tantamount to Turkey’s being unable to benefit from newfound gas riches. Also, Turkish senior officials became fearful of the country’s drop in revenues –– as an energy corridor supplying oil and gas to Europe from oil-rich Middle Eastern countries. Whilst zealous to hedge its energy interests, Turkey also pushes forwards maritime claims of the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus that it alone recognizes. Thus Turkey dispatched its oil-and-gas research vessels into the exclusive economic zones of both Greece and the Republic of Cyprus in a move that irked EU member states as they called for sanctions.

In an effort to shield its interests in the Levantine Basin, Turkey and Libya signed a much-contested maritime boundaries deal that vexed Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt, with all claiming that the Turkish-Libyan agreement violates their economic zones. In theory, the accord would prevent any state from operating in the Eastern Mediterranean without prior consent from Ankara. Yet in practice, with the deal in force, Turkey will matter in sharing out respective spheres of influence in the Mediterranean, and could invalidate the projected Israeli-Cypriot-Greek-Italian gas link[8]. There, Turkey’s and Russia’s convergent goals materialize as Moscow is eager to impede gas output and its transit into Europe in a move to eliminate competition.[9]

Once Turkey signed the maritime boundary deal with Libya, Ankara sided with Fayez as-Sarraj and his Government of National Accord, in short GNA, against the Libyan National Army led by military strongman Khalifa Haftar. Thus far Turkey has spurred a new alliance with Qatar in the proxy war, standing against the rival United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia, and France. So far Turkey has not sent its troops to Libya; in lieu of them, it dispatched both military hardware and mercenaries who had earlier fought in Syria. It deployed roughly 80 Turkish military advisers into the country yet dispatched an extra 2,000 –– or 7,500, according to Syrian observers –– Turkey-backed Syrian National Army contractors.[10] In July, there were reports suggesting that Tunisian and Libyan fighters swarmed into Libya after they had left their countries to engage militarily in Syria just a couple of years before. These are either more or less Islamic fundamentalist militants, among whom were fighters from Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham, an al-Qaeda affiliate.

Exclusive economic zones in the Mediterranean are not the sole excuse for Turkish intervention. Before the demise of Gaddafi’s regime, Turkey had been heavily involved in the Libyan energy industry. Before 2009, Libya had met 13.6 percent of Turkey’s crude needs.[11] Besides the energy game, Turkey’s footprint in Libya is part of its neo-Ottoman policy, and Turkish officials offer aid to Islamist groups and states whose ideologies overlap with those of Ankara.[12]

What Turkey has done both in Libya and the Mediterranean has elicited something more than just a diplomatic response. Over recent months, the Mediterranean has seen Ankara’s powerful demonstration of force. Turkish-flagged survey vessels got a military escort whilst the country’s military conducted an exercise in the waters of the Mediterranean. An uncomfortable naval incident between NATO member states had occurred there when a French frigate tried to inspect a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship suspected of smuggling arms to Libya, whilst a Turkish ship had carried out radar targeting on the French vessel three times. NATO said it had launched an official probe into the case. Cyprus, Greece, France, and Italy carried out an aerial military exercise in the maritime area whilst Egypt conducted naval drills right off the Libyan border. Furthermore, the United States and Greece are expected to hold joint military drills. In Libya, Egypt drew a red line, saying if Turkish-backed mercenaries or the military loyal to the Government of National Accord dared to cross it, Egyptian forces would intervene in the country. With this, the Libyan conflict might escalate further beyond proxy war between Egypt and Turkey.


Turkey’s footprint in the Federal Republic of Somalia goes far beyond the area of the former Ottoman Empire. Unlike in Libya, what started out as a humanitarian policy began to grow increasingly complex. Turkey emboldened its military and business cooperation, with these state building efforts to bring statehood back to a failed state. Turkey helped famine-wrecked Somalia whilst Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the first non-African leader to visit the country in two decades. What followed was Turkey’s military training for the Somali army as well as aid to purchase military hardware. In Somalia, Turkey set up its biggest overseas military base, too. Turkey-made goods flooded the Somali market whilst Turkish firms made their way to a number of the country’s business sectors, including construction, road building, or the pharmaceutical market. On top of that, Turkey opened its universities for Somali students. Yet –– like in Libya –– Ankara has the very same adversaries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that support the self-declared state of Somaliland whilst doing their utmost to prevent Turkey from dispatching its military in the key sea lanes running to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. In the eyes of Ankara, this has yet another extra factor that materialized back in January 2020 when as it accepted a Somali invitation to explore for oil in its seas.[13] Possibly oil-rich areas could be spotted both in Puntland, an autonomous province of the Federal Government of Somalia, where U.S. and Canadian energy firms already operate, as well as on the shelf and also in a quarrelsome area between Somalia and Kenya –– with no boundaries set so far. This could put Turkish interests in a dispute with Kenya.

What could sustain its policy toward Somalia is a civilian and military naval facility on Sudan’s Suakin island, a ruined Ottoman port. Ankara is likely to go ahead with this despite a revolutionary tilt in Sudan’s domestic policy. It is worth saying that Turkey’s presence in Sudan –– like in Somalia and Libya –– has raised the ire of the Gulf countries.[14] With the military facility in Sudan, Turkey could boost the security of crude oil transit from Somalia in the face of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both being geographically present in the Red Sea while simultaneously at odds with Turkey. Yet it is Egypt that seems to pose a bigger threat to Ankara. After Turkey pledged support to the Muslim Brotherhood, its ties with Egypt are at their worst since the 1960s when Ankara took a firm stance against the pan-Arab Nasserism political ideology. It would seem that it is not an exaggeration to suggest that Egypt and Turkey in effect are now on the brink of more direct armed conflict in these conflict zones. The role of Sudan and Somalia in Turkey’s Africa-oriented policy needs to be discussed in a separate paper yet with its political involvement and cultural closeness, Ankara seeks to be competitive towards the West and China, seen as both neocolonial and imperialist.


What Turkey is doing depicts how avid it is to get fossil fuels and uncertain whether its current sources are stable enough, thus Ankara is making efforts to diversify energy flows beyond its already-rich portfolio. Turkey is so determined to win new energy suppliers that it is not hesitant to come into new international feuds and ignite existing ones. This, in turn, has sparked an opposing reaction from other actors regionwide as these are aware of Turkey’s ardent policy and thus seek to thwart its outcomes. Turkey has been at loggerheads with not only with Arab states, but also some NATO and EU nations. Since Ankara is less and less certain of support from the military bloc, its stance on Middle East rivals is at risk. With the way Turkey develops its energy base to pursue its ambitions in a multilateral world, this might be a threat to how the whole strategy is being implemented.

This article was originally published on The Warsaw Institute Review quarterly, issue no. 13, 2/2020.

[1]Furuncu Y., ANALYSIS – COVID-19’s blow to energy markets, „Andalou Agency”, June 24, 2020.

[2]Demir F., Petroleum Sector in Turkey, International Conference on Petroleum Engineering, 2017.

[3]Wójcik J., Jak Turcja postawiła na islamizm, „Układ Sił „No. 16, February 2020, p. 70.

[4]Benedyczak J., The Importance of Turkey in Russian Policy, PISM, April 16, 2020.

[5]Wasilewski K., Rywalizacja i współpraca: Dualizm w polityce Turcji wobec Iranu, PISM, July 16, 2018.

[6]Kozma T., Turkey and the geopolitics of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, Trends Research and Advisory, April 13, 2020,

[7]Osiewicz P., Złoża gazu ziemnego we wschodniej części Morza Śródziemnego: implikacje dla Cypru,in: Rocznik Integracji Europejskiej, No. 8, Adam Mickiewicz University, 2014.

[8]Wasilewski K., Turcja wobec Libii, PISM, January 30, 2020.

[9]Legucka A., Polityka Rosji w obszarze wschodniego Morza Śródziemnego, PISM, May 15, 2020.

Osiewicz P., Złoża gazu ziemnego we wschodniej części Morza Śródziemnego: implikacje dla Cypru, in: Rocznik Integracji Europejskiej, No. 8, Adam Mickiewicz University, 2014.

[10]SOHR reveals: Turkey recruits nearly 10,000 Syrian mercenaries, 223 of whom killed in battles in Libyan territory so far, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, April 25, 2020.

[11]Ediger V., Berg I., Crude oil import policy of Turkey: Historical analysis of determinants and implications since 1968, Energy Policy, Izmir University of Economics, April 2011.

[12]Op. cit. Wójcik J.Jak Turcja… s. 70.

[13]Wójcik J., Turcja w Somalii, „Układ Sił”, No. 18, April 2020, p. 84.

[14]Turkey’s pact with Sudan over Suakin not cancelled – Foreign Ministry, „Ahval”, April 27, 2019

All texts published by the Warsaw Institute Foundation may be disseminated on the condition that their origin is credited. Images may not be used without permission.


Related posts