A never-ending eastern Med saga of brinkmanship

A never-ending eastern Med saga of brinkmanship
This handout photograph released by the Turkish Defence Ministry on August 12, 2020, shows Turkish seismic research vessel 'Oruc Reis' (C) as it is escorted by Turkish Naval ships in the Mediterranean Sea, off Antalya on August 10, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 15 August 2020

A never-ending eastern Med saga of brinkmanship

A never-ending eastern Med saga of brinkmanship
  • Expert says neither Greece nor Turkey can afford dispute over drilling rights escalating into a war

JEDDAH: As tensions between Athens and Ankara continue to run high in their dispute over oil and gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean, it emerged on Friday that a Greek and a Turkish warship were involved in a minor collision on Wednesday.

Analysts said it is unlikely the dispute will escalate as neither side would be willing to risk the political and economic costs. Nevertheless, the war of words continues.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned on Thursday that if any Turkish ships in the disputed eastern Med are attacked, there would be serious consequences.

“We said that if you attack our Oruc Reis (a Turkish research vessel that began looking for oil and gas on Monday) you will pay a high price, and they got their first answer today,” said Erdogan, apparently in reference to the collision between the warships.

His comments came hours after Greek and French military forces conducted exercises in the vicinity of Crete, close to the location where the Oruc Reis is operating, accompanied by a military escort.

In an attempt to gain international support for its claims in the maritime dispute with Turkey, Greek foreign minister Nikos Dendias met 27 EU foreign ministers and US secretary of state Mike Pompeo in Vienna on Friday for urgent talks about the rising military tensions.

So far, only France has provided tangible support for the Greek cause, by sending two warships to the region and staging the joint military exercises.

Ankara, meanwhile, is lobbying German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Council President Charles Michel.

So far, the only action the EU has taken over the Turkish drilling activity is to impose sanctions on two energy-company executives in the country.


Turkey warned on Thursday that any attack on a Turkish ship drilling in disputed East Mediterranean shores would bring a ‘high price.’

“Although it appears to be a major crisis between Greece and Turkey, as they are seemingly at the brink of war, the situation will not escalate beyond what it already is,” said Paul Antonopoulos, an expert on Turkish-Greek relations.

He added that the dispute with Greece has been manufactured by Ankara, along with Turkey’s activities in Syria and Libya, to distract the Turkish population from their country’s dire economic situation. The lira is trading at more than 7.30 to the dollar, the unemployment rate has reached 24.6 percent and the prices of fuel and other commodities are rising.

“Greece is not interested in a war and will continue on a path of diplomatically isolating Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, which it has thus far successfully done,” said Antonopoulos. “While Greece has gotten firm support to oppose Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean from France, Cyprus, the EU, Israel, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Turkey remains completely isolated and will likely soon face sanctions that could escalate the economic situation.”

A maritime border deal signed last week by Greece and Egypt added another layer of tension as it includes an area claimed by Ankara as part of a controversial deal with Libya’s Government of National Accord. Turkey dismissed the agreement between Greece and Egypt as “null and void”.

Despite the strong rhetoric and posturing from both Athens and Ankara, Antonopoulos reiterated that the dispute is unlikely to escalate into open hostilities. A conventional war with Greece would be a completely different scenario from Turkey's interventions in Syria and Libya, he added, and the final nail in the coffin of the Turkish economy.

However, the next crisis in the saga is looming, if Ankara goes ahead with its previously announced plans to issues gas-exploration licenses for the area. Antonopoulos said that any additional EU sanctions could further weaken the Turkish economy and give Erdogan an excuse to create another crisis that will distract the Turkish people from their nation’s economic problems.

Meanwhile two US senators and two members of Congress urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to encourage Turkey to end its drilling plans, on the grounds that they risk an escalation that would jeopardize American strategic interests and create challenges to regional cooperation and US-Turkey ties.


Foreign forces ignore UN’s Libya exit deadline under fragile truce

Foreign forces ignore UN’s Libya exit deadline under fragile truce
In this file photo taken on November 19, 2020, a Libyan stands in front of a school, which was damaged during fighting between rival factions, in the capital Tripoli's suburb of Ain Zara. (AFP)
Updated 24 January 2021

Foreign forces ignore UN’s Libya exit deadline under fragile truce

Foreign forces ignore UN’s Libya exit deadline under fragile truce
  • Ankara and Moscow appear intent on defending their interests under any final settlement

TRIPOLI: Foreign forces ignored a deadline to pull out of Libya as scheduled on Saturday under a UN-backed cease-fire deal, highlighting the fragility of peace efforts after a decade of conflict.

Satellite images broadcast by CNN show a trench running tens of kilometers dug by “Russian mercenaries” near the frontline coastal city of Sirte, as main foreign protagonists Ankara and Moscow appear intent on defending their interests under any final settlement.
An unidentified US intelligence official, quoted by the American news network, said there was “no intent or movement by either Turkish or Russian forces to abide by the UN-brokered agreement.”
“This has the potential to derail an already fragile peace process and cease-fire. It will be a really difficult year ahead,” he said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday urged all “regional and international actors to respect the provisions” of the Oct. 23 cease-fire accord that set out a withdrawal within three months of all foreign troops and mercenaries.
That deadline passed on Saturday, with no movement announced or observed on the ground.
The UN estimates there are still some 20,000 foreign troops and mercenaries in Libya helping the warring factions, the UN-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli and military strongman Khalifa Haftar in the east. The GNA has received military support from Turkey. Haftar has the backing of Russia.
Guterres called on all parties to implement the terms of the cease-fire “without delay,” something he noted “includes ensuring the departure of all foreign fighters and mercenaries from Libya, and the full and unconditional respect of the Security Council arms embargo,” which has been in place since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that ousted and killed longtime ruler Muammar Qaddafi.


The UN estimates there are still some 20,000 foreign troops and mercenaries in Libya helping the warring factions.

Any withdrawal or end to foreign interference “does not depend on the Libyans but on the outside powers,” said Khaled Al-Montasser, professor of international relations at Tripoli University.
Turkey on Friday welcomed a deal reached at UN-backed talks for Libya’s warring factions to set up an interim executive to rule the North African country until polls in December.
Turkey has backed the GNA with military advisers, materiel and mercenaries, repelling an advance on Tripoli by Haftar’s forces, and it also has a military base in Al-Watiya on the border with Tunisia under a 2019 military accord.
Last December, parliament in Ankara extended by 18 months its authorization for Turkey’s troop deployment in Libya, in apparent disregard of the cease-fire deal.
“The mercenaries are unlikely to leave Libya so long as the countries which have engaged them have not guaranteed their interests in the new transitional phase,” said Montasser, referring to the multiple tracks of UN-sponsored talks currently underway.
“Their presence keeps alive the threat of military confrontation at any moment, while the current calm staying in place seems uncertain,” he said.
Most of the foreign forces are concentrated around Sirte, at Al-Jufra airbase held by Haftar’s forces 500 km south of Tripoli and further west in Al-Watiya.