Turkey’s belligerence roils gas-rich eastern Mediterranean

Turkey’s belligerence roils gas-rich eastern Mediterranean
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 September 2020

Turkey’s belligerence roils gas-rich eastern Mediterranean

Turkey’s belligerence roils gas-rich eastern Mediterranean
  • US Secretary of State Pompeo heads to Cyprus in attempt to dial down tension between Ankara and a host of countries
  • The US has angered Turkey by partially lifting a decades-old arms embargo on Cyprus that many saw as counterproductive

DUBAI: Time was when Turkey pursued a foreign policy devised by an academic turned foreign minister that came to be known as “zero problems” with neighbors.

Even though 10 years is a very short time by the standards of the rise and fall of nations, Turkey’s current diplomatic doctrine does not bear even a smidgen of similarity to what Ahmet Davutoglu had formulated in 2010.

If anything, his former boss, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is pursuing a policy that has been described variously as “zero friends,” “nothing but problems” and “zero neighbors without problems.”

It is a policy that has now brought US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus in an attempt to solve — you guessed it — Turkey’s proliferating problems with its neighbors.

“We hope there will be real conversations and we hope the military assets that are there will be withdrawn so that these conversations can take place,” Pompeo told reporters on the flight to Qatar.

The military assets he referred to belong mainly to Ankara and Athens, but in fact a number of countries are ranged against Turkey over what they view as unmitigated energy piracy aided by gunboat diplomacy.

Turkey has occupied and controls one-third of Cyprus since 1974, when it invaded the north in response to a coup engineered by military leaders in Athens. Now it is embroiled in simultaneous disputes with Cyprus and Greece – a fellow NATO member – over maritime borders and gas-drilling rights.

Fueling Turkey’s great-power ambitions are investments in a domestic arms industry geared to the production needs of everything from warships to submarines, frigates to attack helicopters, and armed drones to light aircraft carriers.

For months now, Turkey has been prospecting for gas and oil reserves in eastern Mediterranean waters claimed by Greece. When it deployed a research ship accompanied by military frigates in August, Greece fired a warning shot by staging naval exercises.

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The same month, a minor collision between a Turkish military ship and a Greek navy vessel ratcheted up tensions to a level not seen since a war almost broke out over two Aegean Sea islands in 1996.

As both countries use naval drills in the Mediterranean to reinforce their sovereign claims, the EU has asked Ankara to de-escalate or face sanctions.

US President Donald Trump’s administration has upped the ante by temporarily lifting a decades-old arms embargo on Cyprus. The US embargo had been imposed in 1987 with the aim of facilitating the reunification of Cyprus, but its strategic impact was viewed by many as counterproductive. From Oct. 1, the US will remove blocks for one year on the sale or transfer of “non-lethal defense articles and defense services” to Cyprus.

Karol Wasilewski, an analyst with the Polish Institute of International Affairs, says the US decision has hurt its standing as an honest broker from the Turkish perspective.

“As for Greece, the US cannot provide the carrots that might coax it to start negotiations with Turkey without preconditions,” he told Arab News. “Obviously, it is a good thing that Pompeo has supported peaceful resolution and praised Germany for its de-escalation efforts. But the problem is, the US does not have much leverage.”

That said, Turkish-affairs analysts say the mounting geopolitical tensions give Erdogan yet another tool with which to counter eroding support for his government among rightwing nationalist voters, particularly young conservatives.

More specifically, they say, the authoritarian leader is insisting on an iron-fist approach to Turkey’s disputes with Cyprus and Greece in order to divert attention away from flagging economic growth, high unemployment, a volatile currency, and the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Regardless of the rationale, Erdogan’s pan-Islamist zeal and neo-Ottoman world view have put Turkey on a collision course with Sunni Arab powers too.




Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during an introductory ceremony for Turkey Insurance at Bestepe People's Convention and Culture Center in Ankara on September 7, 2020. (AFP)

Addressing a recent Arab League ministerial committee meeting, Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s foreign minister, described Turkey’s military involvement in Libya, Syria, and Iraq as a threat to regional security and stability and appealed for a unified stance.

Reports indicate that in July, Turkey deployed in Libya 25,000 mercenaries, who included 17,000 Syrian militants besides 2,500 fighters of Tunisian, Sudanese, and other nationalities.

More broadly, Turkey’s actions have drawn international attention to the hunt for natural gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. Along with Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, and Israel have staked their claims to the deposits in the seabed.

Recent discoveries off the coasts of Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt have underscored the potential of the area, especially since the announcement of a massive gas field off Egypt’s coast in 2015 boosted these countries’ hopes of becoming energy exporters to Europe.

The newly discovered energy reserves have spawned regional alliances shaped by Turkey’s increasingly antagonistic relations with the EU, Egypt, Israel, and the UAE, not to mention Greece and Cyprus.

An initial agreement involving Greece, Cyprus, Italy, and Israel on the East-Med Pipeline Project morphed into the East-Med Gas Forum with the entry of Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine. Together with Lebanon and Syria, Turkey, a nation of 83 million people, found itself isolated.

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READ MORE: 

Pompeo to visit Cyprus, calls on Turkey to withdraw forces from Mediterranean

EU must consider ‘severe’ sanctions on Turkey, Greece says

NATO sets up talks in search for solution to Turkey-Greece conflict

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In an apparent bid to reassert its authority, Turkey signed in late July a “delimitation of maritime jurisdiction” agreement with the Government of National Accord (GNA), the Libyan faction in control of Tripoli, and claimed the right to conduct research activities in the disputed waters between Cyprus and Crete.

However, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, together with France and the UAE, have voiced their objections, saying the Turkey-Libya maritime deal “cannot produce any legal consequences for third states.”

Athens insists that islands must be taken into account in measuring a country’s continental shelf, in line with the UN Law of the Sea, to which Turkey is not a signatory. Ankara believes that a country’s continental shelf should be measured from its mainland, rejecting the argument that offshore islands should supersede mainland claims to as many as 150,000 square kilometers of continental shelf.

For its part, the Cyprus government says its policy of “actively promoting close cooperation” between the region’s countries and “creating synergies for the benefit of all” has resulted in “establishing an attractive environment based on the rule of law.” As evidence, Nicosia has cited the presence of oil majors such as Eni, Total, and Exxon in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone.

“Turkey on the other hand is the instigator of the current crisis and instability in the eastern Mediterranean,” according to an informal diplomatic note. “Not only does it refuse to engage in negotiations with Cyprus in order to reach an agreement on their respective maritime boundaries, but it persistently violates the sovereignty and sovereign rights of Cyprus, using the protection of the rights of the Turkish Cypriot community ... as a pretext.”

What Greece and Cyprus might lack in military heft, they make up for with diplomatic backing. In the run-up to a special summit of EU leaders on Sept. 24 to 25 to discuss the Cyprus-Turkey crisis, Athens has called for “severe” economic sanctions to be slapped on Ankara for a limited time if it does not remove its military vessels and gas-drilling ships from waters off Cyprus.

And in an unambiguous statement on Sept. 10, the heads of state and government of the southern countries of the EU (Med7), said: “We reiterate our full support and solidarity with Cyprus and Greece in the face of the repeated infringements on their sovereignty and sovereign rights, as well as confrontational actions by Turkey.”

So, what might Davutoglu, the architect of the “zero problems” doctrine, make of Turkey’s “confrontational actions?”

Having broken away last year from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party to set up his own party and position himself as a potential political challenger, he recently warned that Turkey risks military confrontation in the eastern Mediterranean because it prizes power over diplomacy. “Unfortunately, our government is not doing a proper diplomatic performance,” Davutoglu told Reuters.

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Twitter: @arnabnsg

 


Israel’s coalition government inches toward collapse

Updated 34 min 9 sec ago

Israel’s coalition government inches toward collapse

  • Lawmakers expected to approve a preliminary measure to dissolve parliament
  • Benny Gantz: ‘(Benjamin) Netanyahu did not lie to me, he lied to all of you’

JERUSALEM: Israel’s precarious coalition government was set to move closer toward collapse on Wednesday with lawmakers expected to approve a preliminary measure to dissolve parliament, raising prospects of elections next year.
In a primetime televised address on Tuesday, Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, the key coalition partner of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said his centrist Blue and White party would back a bill to dissolve the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
But Wednesday’s parliamentary vote on an opposition proposal marks only a first step.
A bill to dissolve the Knesset will require three additional successful readings before new elections must be called.
But Gantz’s decision to side with the opposition, at least for now, highlights the widening cracks in Israel’s center-right coalition, imperiled from the start by mistrust, infighting and public recriminations.
“I had no illusions about Netanyahu,” Gantz said in his Tuesday speech.
He reminded Israelis that he battled the prime minister in three consecutive inconclusive elections that did not allow either leader to form a majority government.
Gantz said he decided to agree a unity government with Netanyahu, who he knew to be a “serial promise-breaker,” because he wanted to spare Israelis “an ugly and costly” fourth election, especially as the coronavirus pandemic was accelerating.
“Netanyahu didn’t lie to me,” Gantz said. “He lied to all of you.”
The Netanyahu-Gantz coalition, agreed in April, included strict power-sharing arrangements.
Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud party, was to serve as prime minister for the first half of the three-year arrangement.
Gantz had been due to take over as premier in November 2021 but Netanyahu’s critics have always insisted he would find a way to sink the coalition before vacating the prime minister’s office for Gantz.
The unity deal included multiple triggers that would automatically force new elections, including a failure to pass a budget.
Gantz accused Netanyahu of consistently misleading the public over the budget issue to serve his own political ends.
“Netanyahu committed to pass a budget in August, and naturally did not stand by his word. He promised that it would happen in December and is not following through. Does anyone believe him anymore?” Gantz said.
Gantz directly called on Netanyahu to “put a state budget forward,” making clear that if he did so, new elections could be avoided.
Netanyahu released a video shortly before Gantz spoke on Tuesday, urging him to keep the coalition together.
“Now is not the time for elections,” Netanyahu said. “Now is the time for unity.”
Gantz also courts huge political risks by taking Israel back to the polls.
His Blue and White coalition fractured when he decided to strike a deal with Netanyahu and Gantz’s personal popularity has fallen according to a series of recent polls.
His former ally turned critic, Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, is now the Knesset opposition leader and would be seen by many voters as a more effective anti-Netanyahu force than Gantz in a new election.
In a commentary on Israel’s N12 website, political columnist Amit Segal argued that Gantz’s political fortunes were plummeting.
Blue and White was “never going to revert to being a governmental alternative,” Segal said.
“The party can only expect a nightmarishly difficult election campaign.”