Turkish President Erdogan blinks first in eastern Mediterranean standoff

Turkey's research vessel, Oruc Reis has left a disputed area of the eastern Mediterranean that has been at the heart of a summer stand-off between Greece and Turkey over energy rights. (AP/File)
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Updated 14 September 2020

Turkish President Erdogan blinks first in eastern Mediterranean standoff

  • Pulls provocative oil survey vessel out of Greek waters, opening door to talks
  • Marketing of natural gas has changed geopolitical dynamics of eastern Mediterranean maritime boundary disputes, says analyst

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan backed down on Sunday from looming conflict in the eastern Mediterranean by ordering a research ship operating in Greek territorial waters to return to the Turkish coast.

Tension in the region had soared since the Oruc Reis seismic survey vessel and an escort flotilla of Turkish navy frigates was deployed last month near the Greek island of Kastellorizo, despite repeated protests from Athens and the EU, particularly French President Emmanuel Macron.

The Turkish exploration for oil and gas was accompanied by increasingly bellicose rhetoric and insults from Erdogan, aimed at Greece, Cyprus and France. As recently as Saturday, the Turkish president told Macron: “Don’t mess with the Turkish people. Don’t mess with Turkey,” while the latter said earlier in the week that Ankara was “no longer a partner” in the Mediterranean region.

On Sunday, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar admitted that the vessel had returned to the Turkish coast, and satellite trackers showed it near the port of Antalya.

“This is a positive first step,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said. “I hope there will be more of them.”

Pro-Erdogan media in Turkey said the withdrawal of the Oruc Reis was “a step toward giving diplomacy a chance,” and linked it to attempts to initiate talks between Greece and Turkey.

But efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the standoff have so far proved fruitless.

Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou visited Kastellorizo on Sunday and accused Turkey of “mounting pressure” on Athens.

“We are going through a difficult and dangerous period,” she said.

“The Turkish leadership ... is undermining the peaceful coex-stence that was built over many decades by Greeks and Turks, who saw the sea between them not as an impenetrable frontier but as a passage of communication.”

Now the question is whether this step will pave way for diplomacy in the controversial waters, through NATO and a German mediation offer, for Turkish-Greek talks.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Turkey’s military high command arrived in Antalya on Sunday, just across from the Greek island of Kastellorizo, where Greece’s president was expected to visit the same day.

“We keep telling (Greece) often that we are patient and strong,” Akar told pro-government TV station A Haber.

Turkey and Greece are NATO members, alongside France, with Paris particularly vociferous against Turkish actions. But to what extent Paris and Ankara are ready to talk, after so many verbal attacks between the countries’ leaders is a source of concern.

Macron also hosted an emergency EuroMed 7 summit, dubbed as “Club Med,” on Sept. 10 with the leaders of Italy, Malta, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Cyprus.

The EU remains divided in coping with tensions in the region, and needs to act in unison in order to offer a sustainable solution through diplomacy.

Against the “bad cop” policy of France through shows of military strength, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been mediating between Turkey and Greece to minimize the confrontation risks in the area, and to protect EU interests.

Prof. Michael Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES), said the marketing of natural gas had changed the geopolitical dynamics of the eastern Mediterranean maritime boundary disputes.

“For Turkey, the conflict is fundamentally about what Ankara sees as Greece’s unjust maritime sovereignty claims. But now Turkey has to contend with an alignment of European and Middle Eastern actors in supporting Greece,” he told Arab News.

“Turkey views its future political and economic influence across the entire Mediterranean region and in Africa (as being) at stake.”

EU leaders will hold a summit on Sept. 24-25  to push for diplomacy and use a “stick” strategy, through potential sanctions against Turkish naval exercises and maritime claims in the eastern Mediterranean, at the expense of France, Cyprus and Greece.

According to Tanchum, the European Council meeting and its decision on a course of action vis-à-vis Turkey is the next inflection point.

“The most critical country for determining the direction of the outcome is Italy. Turkey’s growing economic competition with Italy in Libya may tip that balance,” he said.

Experts all agree that negotiation is the key for bringing peace and stability to the region’s waters, as no country can shoulder the risks of a possible conflict.

The solution to these maritime disputes is through dialogue, not through aggressive actions, according to Charles Ellinas, CEO of the Cyprus Natural Hydrocarbons Company and energy expert at the Atlantic Council research center.

“And if dialogue does not work, to refer the case to international courts — both Greece and Turkey expressed readiness to do that,” he told Arab News.

But, Ellinas added, in order to allow dialogue to commence there is a need to refrain from actions that stop it.

“Within this context the withdrawal of Oruc Reis is a positive step. Hopefully this first step will be followed by a period of calm to allow the mediators to bring the two sides together,” he said, adding that eventual agreement between Greece and Turkey could be a big contribution to resolving other disputes in the eastern Mediterranean.

However, the chances of hydrocarbons being present in the area of dispute between Greece and Turkey remains very low.

“Gas is not the reason for the dispute but the pretext. War on this basis is futile. That’s why dialogue is key,” Ellinas said.

Meanwhile, Egypt and Cyprus have begun negotiations for the launch of an offshore gas pipeline, starting from the Aphrodite gas field in Cyprus and stretching to Cairo, in a bid to gain a foothold in the European market.

Indian court accused of ‘betrayal’ over mosque verdict

Updated 01 October 2020

Indian court accused of ‘betrayal’ over mosque verdict

  • Senior BJP officials acquitted of conspiracy to destroy historic Muslim place of worship

NEW DELHI: A special court in the northern Indian city of Lucknow on Wednesday acquitted all 32 politicians and senior leaders from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of conspiring to demolish the 16th-century Babri Mosque in 1992, ruling that the move was not “preplanned.”

Muslims described the judgment as “yet another betrayal by the judiciary.”

The BJP under the leadership of then-party president Lal Krishna Advani led a political campaign in the late 1980s and early 1990s to build a temple on the site of the disputed 16th-century mosque in the eastern city of Ayodhya, claiming that it was built by the first Mughal ruler Babar. 

On Dec. 6, 1992, in response to a call by BJP leaders, hundreds of Hindu extremists gathered at the disputed site and demolished the mosque, resulting in religious riots across the country that claimed more than 2,000 lives.

Most of the BJP leaders and its affiliates were blamed for razing the Babri Mosque.

However, on Wednesday, Surendra Kumar Yadav, the judge at the special court, said that the demolition of the 500-year-old mosque was not pre-planned.

“They have been acquitted for lack of evidence,” defense lawyer K.K. Mishra said after the verdict.

Muslims reacted to the verdict with disappointment.

“The judgment pronounced by the special CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) court is wrong. We will appeal in the high court,” Zafaryab Jilani, general secretary of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, said.

The BJP was elated with the court’s decision.

“It is a moment of happiness for all of us; we chanted ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (Hail Ram) after the court’s verdict. The judgment vindicates my personal and BJP’s belief and commitment toward the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement. Along with millions of my countrymen, I now look forward to the completion of the beautiful Shri Ram Mandir (temple) at Ayodhya,” 92-year-old Advani, one of the accused in the case, said.

Another BJP leader and former party president, Murli Manohar Joshi, who was also among the accused, called the judgment “historic.”

“This proves that no conspiracy was hatched for the incident in Ayodhya. Our program and rallies were not part of any conspiracy,” Joshi, 86, said.

The verdict comes 10 months after the Supreme Court’s controversial judgment giving the disputed land to a Hindu trust and awarding five acres of land to Muslim petitioners to build a structure of their choice at another location in the city.

“It’s a betrayal by the court,” Ayodhya-based Hajji Mahboob, one of the original Muslim petitioners, told Arab News.

“So many BJP leaders have claimed openly that they were involved in demolishing the Babri Mosque. If the court gives this kind of one-sided verdict, I can only say that it is compromised,” he said.

“We know that there cannot be any justice for Muslims in this country because all the decisions given by the courts are wrong,” he added.

Reacting to the verdict, the main opposition Congress party said it was “counter to the Supreme Court judgment.” 

The apex court held that the demolition of the Babri mosque was clearly illegal and an “egregious violation of the rule of law.” 

“But the Special Court exonerated all the accused. It is clear that the decision of the Special Court runs counter to the decision of the Supreme Court,” Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said.

The demolition of the mosque was “a deep-rooted political conspiracy to destroy the country’s communal amity and brotherhood, and to usurp power at any cost,” he added.

According to Hilal Ahamd, of New Delhi-based think tank Center for the Study of Developing Societies, there is a growing belief among Muslims that India is a Hindu country and “they have to adjust themselves accordingly.”

Meanwhile, former chairman of the minority commission Zafar ul Islam Khan said the verdict will encourage the BJP to take the law into its own hands in the belief that the police and judiciary will protect them.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a New Delhi political analyst who has written several books on the Hindu right-wing politics, said: “The demolition of the mosque was a criminal offense and the failure to establish guilt after 28 years is unfortunate.”

He described the verdict as “a betrayal for Muslims and risky for the security of the country if its largest minority keeps getting marginalized like this.”