Greece pushes back at Turkey over energy race, Libya: analysts

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias attends a meeting with Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides (not pictured) at Larnaca Airport, Cyprus December 22, 2019. (Reuters)
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Updated 23 December 2019

Greece pushes back at Turkey over energy race, Libya: analysts

  • The Greek FM embarked on a tour of eastern Libya, Egypt and Cyprus
  • He is seeking support against Turkey’s contentious maritime and military deal with the embattled UN-backed government in Tripoli

ATHENS: Greece is on a diplomatic push to isolate traditional rival Turkey as tension rises between the two NATO allies over energy exploration and support for opposing factions in war-torn Libya, say analysts.
On Sunday, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias embarked on a tour of eastern Libya, Egypt and Cyprus, seeking support against Turkey’s contentious maritime and military deal with the embattled UN-backed government in Tripoli.
Hours later, the Greek prime minister’s office announced that Athens would on January 2 host the signing of EastMed, a huge pipeline project with Cyprus and Israel to ship gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe.
“It’s the first time in 20 years that we’ve seen such (Greek diplomatic) activity,” Sotiris Serbos, an international politics specialist at Democritus University in Thrace, told Athens municipal radio.
Athens was alarmed when in late November Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a security and military cooperation deal with UN-recognized Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj.
Greece took particular exception to the agreement on maritime jurisdiction, which it said ignored the maritime boundaries of Crete. In retaliation, Greece expelled the Libyan ambassador.
Analysts in Greece say Turkey’s recent rapprochement with Libya is aimed at shoring up a rare regional ally in Tripoli’s Government of National Accord (GNA).
But they say Turkey is also trying to avoid being shut out of the gas exploration scramble in the region.
Libya has been mired in chaos since a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
The GNA has suffered military setbacks against eastern-based strongman Khalifa Haftar. 
“Alliances create counter-alliances,” Antonis Klapsis, an assistant professor of diplomacy at the University of Peloponnese, told Greek state TV ERT.
While Greece usually defers to the EU on major diplomatic initiatives, this time it is taking the lead, having forged ties with Egypt and Israel, as well as traditional ally Cyprus.
“We can go at it alone — but we won’t be alone,” Foreign Minister Dendias told Open TV Monday.
Greece, after also securing EU backing on the issue, is now speeding up talks with Egypt on an exclusive economic zone to counter the Turkey-Libya deal.
For Alexis Papachelas, executive editor of liberal daily Kathimerini, this is a “moment of truth” in relations with decades-old rival Turkey.
“The early months of 2020 will be tough for Greek-Turkish relations,” Papachelas wrote in an opinion piece Sunday.
“The moment of truth seems to be upon us as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears push Ankara’s territorial claims in the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean,” he added.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is scheduled to visit the White House on January 7.
While US diplomats have criticized the Turkey-Libya deal, US President Donald Trump has often toed a different line when it comes to Erdogan.
“It is the sort of situation where you find out who your real friends and allies are,” notes Papachelas.
The EastMed project is designed to make Cyprus, Greece and Israel key links in Europe’s energy supply chain — and thwart Turkey’s effort to bolster its presence in the eastern Mediterranean.
Its backers plan to have the 2,000-kilometer (1,200-mile) pipeline transfer between nine and 12 billion cubic meters a year from offshore gas reserves between Israel and Cyprus to Greece — and from there to Italy and other southeastern European countries.
“It is really important that the countries showed they can react quickly against Turkey’s provocative stance,” Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas told Open TV on Sunday.
Turkey already has ships searching for oil and gas off Cyprus, which has fueled tension with the European Union.
Erdogan, who has called into question decades-old sovereignty treaties with Greece, said Sunday that Turkey “no longer had the luxury” to be silent, or coy on the issue.
“Greece and countries supporting it were for a long time making preparations to ensure Turkey could not take any steps in the sea,” Erdogan said.
“Those who have sovereignty in the Aegean, and prepare projects with their eyes on Turkey’s rights with islands, islets and rocks that do not belong to them should know the space is not empty.”

Taliban rule out cease-fire until it is agreed in talks

Updated 12 August 2020

Taliban rule out cease-fire until it is agreed in talks

  • President Ghani’s order to release 400 hardcore Taliban prisoners opens way for negotiations

KABUL: The Taliban have rejected calls for a truce before the long-awaited talks with the government get underway. They said that the possibility of a cease-fire could be debated only during the talks.

“When our prisoners are released, we will be ready for the talks,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Arab News on Tuesday.

“A cease-fire or reduction of violence can be among the items in the agenda of the talks,” he said.

This follows President Ashraf Ghani signing a decree for the release of 400 hardcore Taliban prisoners on Monday — who Kabul said were responsible for some of the worst attacks in the country in recent years — thereby removing the last obstacle to the start of the negotiations set by the Taliban.

However, Kabul has yet to announce the date of their release.

Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for the government-appointed peace council, said that Doha, Qatar, would be the likely venue.

“Deliberations are continuing, and no decision has been made on a firm date yet,” he said.

Ghani pledged to release the prisoners after the Loya Jirga, or traditional assembly, voiced support for their freedom.

After three days of deliberations the Jirga, which comprises 3,400 delegates, said that its decision was for the sake of “the cessation of bloodshed” and to remove “the obstacle to peace talks.”

After the Jirga’s announcement, Ghani said that “the ball was now in the Taliban’s court” and that they needed to enforce a nationwide cease-fire and begin talks to bring an end to more than 40 years of war, particularly the latest chapter in a conflict that started with the Taliban’s ousting from power in the US-led invasion in late 2001.

The exchange of prisoners between the government and the Taliban was part of a deal signed between the insurgent group and the US in Doha in February
this year.

The prisoner swap program — involving the release of 5,000 Taliban inmates in return for 1,000 security forces held by the group — was to be completed within 10 days in early March, followed by the crucial intra-Afghan talks.

February’s deal between the Taliban emissaries and US delegates, led by the US envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, came after 18 months of intensive and secret talks, amid growing public frustration in the US about the Afghan war — America’s longest in history.

Ghani, whose government was sidelined from the February accord, initially voiced his opposition to freeing the Taliban inmates.

However, faced with increasing pressure from the US, Kabul began releasing 4,600 prisoners in a phased manner.

The intra-Afghan talks are also crucial for US President Donald Trump, who is standing for reelection in November and is keen to use the pull-out of forces and the start of negotiations as examples of his successful foreign policy. However, experts say the next stage will not be easy.

Analyst and former journalist Taj Mohammad told Arab News: “The talks will be a long, complicated process, with lots of ups and downs. It took 18 months for the Taliban and US to agree on two points; the withdrawal of all US troops and the Taliban pledging to cut ties with militant groups such as Al-Qaeda. Now, imagine, how long it will take for the completion of a very complicated process of talks between Afghans who will debate women’s rights, minorities rights, election, Islamic values, … the form of government and so on.”

For some ordinary Afghans on the streets, however, the planned talks have revived hopes for peace and security and “are more needed in Afghanistan than in any other country.”

“I am more optimistic now than in the past. All sides have realized they cannot win by force and may have decided to rise to the occasion and come together,” Fateh Shah, a 45-year-old civil servant from Kabul, said.

Others spoke of their dreams to “go back home.”

“I have been away from my village for 19 years, and as soon as peace comes, we will pack up and go there,” said Rasool Dad, a 50-year-old porter who lives as a war-displaced person in Kabul, talking of his desire to return to his birthplace in southern Helmand province.

However, 30-year-old banker Sharif Amiri wasn’t very optimistic about the future.

“Even if the talks turn out to be successful, that will not mean an end to the war or the restoration of security. There are spoilers in the region, at home and at an international level who will try to sabotage peace here,” he said, hinting at rivalries among countries in the region, including major powers such as Russia, China and the US, who have used Afghanistan as a direct and indirect battleground for years.