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MARITIME KNOT

Turkey’s defence of its interests in the Mediterranean provokes confrontation with several regional players

Author:

15.09.2020

Turkey rapidly improves its position in the international arena, which means yet another foreign policy test for this Mediterranean country. Now Ankara has to confront a number of states, which have their own interests in the strategically important region of Eastern Mediterranean. One of the stakeholders is Greece, the traditional arch-rival of Turkey since the times immemorial.

 

Stones of discord

Specifically, Turkish-Greek relations have shown varying degrees of tension since the independence of Greece from the Ottoman Empire in 1821. The countries were involved in four wars, the last of which took place in 1919-1922. In that war, Greece, using the direct military support of the leading European powers, primarily Great Britain and France, even tried to capture Istanbul and Izmir. However, these efforts were in vain due to the victorious national liberation movement of the Turkish people led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey.

After the Lausanne Peace Treaty concluded in 1923, which set and recognized the borders of the Turkish Republic, relations with Greece seemed to stabilize finally. Thus, in 1930, the leaders of Turkey and Greece - Mustafa Kemal and Eleftherios Venizelos - established diplomatic relations between the two countries. In 1941, Turkey even became the first country to provide humanitarian aid to Greece after the occupation of Athens by the Axis. Since 1953, shortly after the end of the Second World War and with the beginning of the Cold War, there was an attempt to start the rapprochement between Greece and Turkey, following the almost simultaneous entry of both countries into NATO.

However, the problem of Cyprus soon became a problem impeding the final reconciliation between Ankara and Athens. The Greek community of the island, which was under British protectorate, decided to join Greece. An alliance with Greece formed by the Greek Cypriot leader Archbishop Makarios III ensued the suspension of diplomatic relations with Turkey after Greece used the anti-Greek protests in Istanbul in 1955 as a pretext.

Relations between Ankara and Athens somehow improved after Cyprus declared its independence from the Britain in 1960. This was largely a product of the policy run by the then Greek Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis, who advocated peace and cooperation with Turkey. However, at the end of 1963, Archbishop Makarios III proposed 13 amendments to the Constitution of Cyprus, principally trying to bring the island state closer to Greece. This provoked strong opposition from Ankara. The seizure of power in Greece by the junta of the so-called Black Colonels in April 1967 confirmed Ankara’s fears about the security of the Turkish Cypriots and the possibility of peaceful coexistence of both communities on the island.

The 1974 coup d'état in Cyprus supported by the Greek military junta nullified chances for lasting good-neighbourly relations between Turkey and Greece. To prevent the annexation of the island to Greece and ensure the security of the Turkish community, Ankara sent troops to the northern part of Cyprus. Although only Turkey recognises the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus created on this territory since then, it remains committed to its mission of ensuring the security and peaceful development of Turkish Cypriots.

However, due to the European Union, the prospects for a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus issue were practically reduced to naught. By making the Greek part of the island a member of the union as the Republic of Cyprus and ignoring the interests of the Turkish Cypriots ready to restore a single Cypriot state, the EU, in fact, cancelled out the possibility of a mutually acceptable settlement. By and large, all the current problems and contradictions between Turkey and its Greek neighbours - Greece and the Republic of Cyprus - are largely the result of the policy of the West, primarily the EU.

The relative warming in Turkish-Greek relations in the 2000s triggered a new phase of tension under the influence of the anti-Turkish policy of the European powers in the Eastern Mediterranean. In 2009, the first oil and gas fields were discovered in this region. Since then promising areas of the shelf have been the subject of territorial disputes. The situation began to worsen in January 2019, after the creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum with the participation of Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Palestine. In January 2020, Greece, Cyprus and Israel signed an agreement on the construction of a gas pipeline, which, together with the start of the development of a large gas field off the southern coast of Cyprus by the French Total and Italian Eni, caused a sharp protest from Turkey. In such a situation, Turkey actually found itself outside the board of regional energy cooperation.

In response, last November Turkey concluded an agreement with the UN-recognized Libyan government on the delimitation of maritime zones in the Mediterranean. According to the agreement, Turkey received the rights to operate on a number of territories originally reserved for the Greek-Israeli pipeline. Greece refused to accept the agreement and continued drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean. In August 2020, Turkey responded to Athens by stepping up its own geological exploration in the region and sending the Oruç Reis vessel to the island of Megisti (Kastellorizo) located a few kilometers from the coast of the country. This move intensified the confrontation threatening a war, which can involve not only Turkey and Greece, but also a number of other states that support Greece.

 

European position

The situation fraught with a full-scale armed conflict became one of the main topics of discussion at the Berlin meeting of the foreign ministers of the EU countries. The EU sided with Greece, threatening Turkey with sanctions if the latter did not stop drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean. Brussels warned Ankara that a package of sanctions, which can affect the interests of Turkish high-ranking officials and companies involved in drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as the country's tourism industry, could be agreed at the EU summit scheduled for September 24. In fact, this is not what Greece and the Greek part of Cyprus were expecting from the EU. Thus, Nicosia called on the EU to declare the Eastern Mediterranean a zone of its maritime interests, and Athens proposed to officially close the prospect of EU membership to Turkey and immediately impose sectoral sanctions against the Turkish economy.

The relatively soft position of the EU is primarily associated with the approach of the current chairman of the organization, Germany, which is trying to bring a peaceful solution to the East Mediterranean crisis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas are well aware that tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean could escalate into conflict. In this dispute, the EU will have to support Greece as a member state, although this will not mean any real benefits to the EU anyway.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Europe is absolutely uninterested in an armed confrontation on its southern borders, particularly in a situation where it has to manoeuvre in its relations with the United States, which is increasing its pressure on its European allies, and Russia asserting its ambitions in the east of the continent. In addition, Berlin does not want to break the existing agreement with Ankara on the reception of refugees. What if Turkey, which under this agreement has undertaken the obligation to prevent illegal migration to the EU, opens its borders for migrants in response to the unconditional support of Greece by the EU? It is clear that Germany and the EU will find themselves in an incredibly difficult situation.

However, there is one more circumstance that may knock Germany's vanity. After all, a month earlier, Berlin persuaded Ankara to suspend the exploration plans off the coasts of Kastellorizo and start negotiations with Greece. The latter then unexpectedly signed an agreement with Egypt on the demarcation of maritime boundaries. Moreover, the zones designated by Greece and Egypt as their exclusive economic zones overlap with the zones designated in the Turkish-Libyan memorandum. Athens’ move was a response to Ankara's conclusion of a similar maritime agreement with the Libyan government. As a result, Turkey, not recognizing the Greek-Egyptian deal, cancelled negotiations with Athens. Berlin, although it did not give up further political support for Greece in line with the common European approach, nevertheless made clear its dissatisfaction with Athens’ trick.

Unlike Germany, France preferred to provide more impressive support to Athens, sending its warships to the Greek shores. Moreover, it is France that acts as the party trying to enrich the Turkish-Greek dispute with broad external intervention.

 

Paris playing with fire, resolute Ankara and loyal Baku

The interests of France and Turkey have already seriously clashed in recent years due to the Libyan crisis. While Ankara supports the UN-recognized Libyan National Accord Government led by Fayez Al Sarraj, Paris supports the army of General Khalifa Haftar. Turkey's intervention in the intra-Libyan armed conflict significantly strengthened the position of Tripoli and upset the plans of Paris. It seems that now France hopes to restore its lost position in the Libyan conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean trying to inflict as much damage as possible on Turkey's regional interests.

With its unambiguous support to Athens, Paris supplied Greece with ten of the new generation Rafale C F3-R fighters and eight older generation Rafale fighters free of charge. Meanwhile, at the end of July, Greece refused to acquire the newest French frigates Belharra. However, a tempting offer from Paris for the supply of Rafale fighters came amid the August escalation of tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, which prompted Athens to opt for a new deal with the French military.

Can we say that the interest in finding a faithful buyer of French military products in Greece is one of the reasons behind Paris's ardent support for Greek maritime claims? Undoubtedly, France is also interested in the participation of Total in the development of Cypriot deposits.

Meanwhile, France also sells its weapons to the UAE, which creates a very extraordinary configuration in the region. France, Italy and Cyprus, as a sign of support for Greece, held joint military exercises with Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, south of Crete. But in parallel with these exercises, Greece also carried out joint manoeuvres with the UAE, which transferred 9 F-16 fighters and 4 military transport aircraft to the Greek air base on the island of Crete.

Apparently, it looks like the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE, which caused condemnation in many Muslim countries and sharp criticism from Turkey, has, among other targets, an anti-Turkish objective. In other words, Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi decided to jointly oppose the strengthening of Ankara's influence in the Middle East...

All these facts indicate that the ongoing events in the Eastern Mediterranean are not just one of the most acute plots of the traditional Turkish-Greek confrontation, but also a joint action of several countries against Turkey. For obvious reasons, France seeks to play a leading role in this alliance. President Emmanuel Macron has openly stated that France will not allow Turkey to cross the red line in the Eastern Mediterranean. But is France really ready to start a real military action against Turkey? If so, France risks an open breach, which promises neither good to her nor to the common European interests.

Spokesman of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Hami Aksoy, stated how Turkey understand the red line, "beyond which it is not allowed to cross". According to Aksoy, this can only be the interests of Turkey and the Turkish community of Cyprus "based on the norms of international law."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has unequivocally stated that Turkey will not step back from its plans in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara confirms the seriousness of its intentions with a concrete deed: dozens of Turkish tanks have been deployed to the border with Greece.

At such an explosive moment, the question of NATO's position undoubtedly arises. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tried to mediate in the confrontation between the two members of the Alliance. After contacts with the leaders of Turkey and Greece, Stoltenberg announced the agreement of the parties to begin negotiations with the aim of "creating mechanisms to prevent military conflict and reduce the risk of an armed incident in the Eastern Mediterranean."

However, we cannot see any concrete achievements by Stoltenberg. One of the reasons is associated with the position of the United States: the Trump administration openly demonstrates its unwillingness to interfere in the Eastern Mediterranean crisis with the participation of Washington's regional allies.

Nevertheless, Turkey announced its readiness for dialogue. Yet this readiness does not mean that the parties opposing Ankara can ignore or encroach Turkish interests. Especially considering that for Turkey the escalation in the Mediterranean is just one of the strategically important arenas for defending its interests on the world stage.

The ongoing events also demonstrate that Turkey has at least one loyal ally in this situation - Azerbaijan. Recently, during his meeting with the incoming Greek Ambassador to Baku, Nikolaos Piperigos, President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev stated his full support to Turkey in the East Mediterranean crisis, hence confirming the strong strategic alliance between Azerbaijan and Turkey.



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