Turkey-Greece crisis talks: An exercise in minimal expectations

This handout picture taken and released on January 25, 2021, by the Turkish Foreign Ministry press office shows Greek diplomat Pavlos Apostolidis (2L), Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal (2R), Turkish President's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin (3R) and their delegation meeting at Dolmabahce palace in Istanbul as talks resumed over Eastern Mediterranean dispute. (AFP/Turkish Foreign Ministry)
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This handout picture taken and released on January 25, 2021, by the Turkish Foreign Ministry press office shows Greek diplomat Pavlos Apostolidis (2L), Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal (2R), Turkish President's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin (3R) and their delegation meeting at Dolmabahce palace in Istanbul as talks resumed over Eastern Mediterranean dispute. (AFP/Turkish Foreign Ministry)
This handout photograph released by the Turkish Defence Ministry on August 12, 2020, shows Turkish seismic research vessel 'Oruc Reis' heading in the west of Antalya on the Mediterranean Sea. - Greek Prime Minister on August 12, 2020 urged Turkey to show
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This handout photograph released by the Turkish Defence Ministry on August 12, 2020, shows Turkish seismic research vessel 'Oruc Reis' heading in the west of Antalya on the Mediterranean Sea. - Greek Prime Minister on August 12, 2020 urged Turkey to show "logic" in a naval showdown in the Eastern Mediterranean over energy exploration which he warned could lead to a military accident. (AFP/Turkish Ministry of Defense/File Photo)
a Turkish Navy warship patroling next to Turkey's drilling ship
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a Turkish Navy warship patroling next to Turkey's drilling ship "Fatih" dispatched towards the eastern Mediterranean near Cyprus. (AFP/Turkish Ministry of Defense/File Photo)
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Updated 03 February 2021

Turkey-Greece crisis talks: An exercise in minimal expectations

This handout picture taken and released on January 25, 2021, by the Turkish Foreign Ministry press office shows Greek diplomat Pavlos Apostolidis (2L), Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal (2R), Turkish President's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin (3R) and their delegation meeting at Dolmabahce palace in Istanbul as talks resumed over Eastern Mediterranean dispute. (AFP/Turkish Foreign Ministry)
  • Following a five-year pause, Greece and Turkey held a meeting in January to address their many disputes
  • In order to give diplomacy a chance, the US and the EU are unlikely to slap further sanctions on Turkey

WASHINGTON D.C.: After a tumultuous four years of Donald Trump’s rule, Joe Biden has entered the White House with a packed domestic agenda, not least the ongoing pandemic and its economic repercussions but also the gnawing issue of race relations. As such, one might expect Biden to place America’s foreign relations on the backburner, at least for the time being.

However, Biden has a strong track record on high-level diplomacy, chalking up several years of engagement with America’s friends and foes, projecting US national interests abroad. Now that he has assumed the highest office in the land, he has pledged to restore America’s image on the world stage.

Coincidentally, Biden’s tenure began just days before long-awaited talks between Greece and Turkey took place in Istanbul — the latest in the protracted territorial dispute which has long threatened the peace of the Mediterranean Sea.




A handout photo released by the Greek National Defence Ministry on August 26, 2020 shows ships of the Hellenic Navy taking part in a military exercise in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, on August 25, 2020. (AFP/Greek Defense Ministry/File Photo)

Delayed by several months, and following a relative easing of tensions, talks between Greece and Turkey are, on the surface at least, an exercise in minimal expectations. Exploratory talks resumed after a pause of five years, picking up where they left off in 2016.

Little progress toward normalizing relations was made between 2002 to 2016, during which time some 60 rounds of talks took place. There is little sign things will be any different this time around.

However, Biden is not Trump. He will need very little time getting up to speed on the dispute in the eastern Mediterranean and his active involvement in the State Department’s handling of the issue is beyond doubt.

Furthermore, Biden will end the Trump-era practice of direct diplomacy between the White House and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, preferring instead to act through the standard institutional channels.

Greece has reason to feel optimistic about the US stance. Biden has on numerous occasions endorsed the Greek position on de-escalation, solving outstanding issues through dialogue and recourse to international law. He is also a supporter of the religious rights of the Greek minority in Turkey, and especially of the role of the patriarchate in Istanbul.

By any measure, Greek-US relations are at their peak, having been strengthened during the Trump years and made stronger through multiple agreements on trade and mutual defense.

FASTFACT

Greece-Turkey

* 11 Turkey’s rank in Global Firepower military strength.

* 29 Greece’s rank in Global Firepower military strength.

* $18.2b Turkey’s annual military budget.

* $7b Greece’s annual military budget.

Biden has also surrounded himself with seasoned diplomats and advisers who worked with him during his eight-year tenure as Barack Obama’s vice president, and whose concern for peace and stability in the region is echoed in Greek rhetoric and policy initiatives.

By contrast, a big question mark hangs over Washington’s Turkey file. Ankara’s flourishing relationship with Moscow and its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system has led to US sanctions that Biden will be in no hurry to lift.

Turkey’s position in NATO has been weakened, leaving member states including France questioning its reliability. Indeed, Washington considers the presence of S-400s on Turkish soil as a threat to its F-35 fighter jets and to NATO defense systems in general.

This is not the only issue blighting the bilateral relationship. Ankara continues to complain about the perceived US role in the 2016 coup attempt and rejects US charges levelled against its state-owned Halkbank concerning its alleged role in helping Iran evade US sanctions.




Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (R) shake hands in front of the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (C) during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit at the Grove hotel in Watford, northeast of London. (AFP/Murat Cetinmuhurda/Turkish Presidential Press Service/File Photo)

More telling still is the view which emerged from talks between Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, and Bjoern Seibert, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s cabinet chief, who “agreed to work together on issues of mutual concern, including China and Turkey,” according to a White House statement.

Linking Turkey with China, the main US geopolitical adversary, is a blow to Erdogan’s hopes of a close relationship with the new Biden administration.

If the US chooses to get involved in the Greece-Turkey dispute, Athens rightly expects to reap the rewards. Yet it would be premature to assume the Biden administration will automatically apply pressure on Turkey.

Firstly, the exploratory talks are informal and require no mediation. Talking directly to one another, even if disagreements are substantial, is preferable to having external sponsors.

Secondly, Turkey is currently trying to recalibrate its relations with the West as well as countries closer to home, including the Gulf states and Israel. The US is likely to give Turkey the benefit of the doubt, at least in the initial stages of the new administration, and give it time to prove its willingness for constructive cooperation.

Thirdly, for all of Turkey’s recent acts of bravado, the country remains a potentially critical ally for the US in an intensely volatile region. Not only does Turkey possess NATO’s second largest army, it also has the strategic positioning to act as a brake on Russia’s ambitions in the Middle East, particularly in Syria.

By the time talks concluded on Jan 25, a few facts stood out.




Turkish President and leader of the Justice and Development (AK) Party Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a parliamentary group meeting on January 27, 2021 at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (GNAT) in Ankara. (AFP/File Photo)

Although the talks were intended to take place at a merely technical level, the Turkish delegation included Erdogan’s trusted advisor Ibrahim Kalin. The move was likely designed to underscore Turkey’s sincerity in bringing the talks to a successful conclusion, a message that its foreign minister communicated to EU officials the previous day.

Another interesting fact is that both sides followed standard practice by not revealing the content of their talks. This is largely a positive sign, since press leaks are usually aimed at shifting the blame onto the opposite side and undermining prospects for a positive result.

More encouraging still, Greece and Turkey have agreed to proceed with the next round of talks in March, this time in Athens.

Washington, just like Brussels, welcomed the talks and highlighted the importance of dialogue between the two sides. Confirming its attempt to adopt an equidistant approach, the US will continue to encourage both Athens and Ankara to resolve at least some of their disputes.

For Greece, these are limited and specific: the determination of the continental shelf in the Aegean Sea and the delimitation of the two countries’ respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).

For Turkey, on the other hand, the list includes issues such as minority rights, the demilitarization of the Greek Dodecanese islands and the alignment of Greece’s sea borders on the Aegean (6 miles) with its airspace in the same region (10 miles).




Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has reason to be optimistic about the US stance during the Biden administration. (AFP/File Photo)

What is certain, save for any big surprises, is the US (and the EU) will refrain from further sanctions on Turkey.

Pre-existing problems pertaining to the Aegean dispute and the Cyprus issue, the primary bone of contention for many decades, have recently been compounded by zero-sum games on hydrocarbon exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as the migrant and refugee crisis, fueled further by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The fact that other states with interests in the region, such as Cyprus, Israel, France, Italy, Libya and Egypt, are now part of the larger Eastern Mediterranean dispute raises the stakes and pushes Greece and Turkey to adopt maximalist positions.

For all of Washington’s desire to see normalization, it is highly unlikely that concrete progress will be made in the coming months.

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Twitter: @dimitsar


Israel to buy millions of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses

Israel to buy millions of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses
Updated 14 min 7 sec ago

Israel to buy millions of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses

Israel to buy millions of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses
  • New vaccinations will be suitable to protect people against different coronavirus variants, said Netanyahu
  • Israeli PM hopes to sign a similar deal to purchase vaccines from Moderna

JERUSALEM: Israel signed a deal to buy millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccinations from Pfizer through 2022, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday.
The new vaccinations will be suitable to protect people against different variants of the coronavirus, Netanyahu said in a statement.
He said he hopes to sign a similar deal to purchase vaccines from Moderna.
“This means that very soon we will have more than enough vaccines, both for adults and children,” he said.
With about 81% of citizens or residents over 16 — the age group eligible for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in Israel — having received both doses, infections and hospitalizations are down sharply.


Syrian opposition’s Michel Kilo dies in exile

Syrian opposition’s Michel Kilo dies in exile
Updated 19 April 2021

Syrian opposition’s Michel Kilo dies in exile

Syrian opposition’s Michel Kilo dies in exile
  • Michel Kilo, who turned 80 last year, was a key player in efforts to form a credible non-violent alternative to President Bashar Assad’s regime
  • Kilo often spoke out against the internal rifts weakening Syria’s opposition and in 2015 he said the conflict’s foreign brokers have made matters worse

BEIRUT: Prominent exiled opposition figure Michel Kilo died of Covid-19 on Monday in Paris after a lifetime of peaceful struggle against Baath party rule in Syria, colleagues said.
Kilo, who turned 80 last year, was a key player in efforts to form a credible non-violent alternative to President Bashar Assad’s regime during the early stages of the conflict that erupted a decade ago.
“A great loss. Michel Kilo departed today after he was infected with Covid-19,” senior opposition figure Nasr Hariri wrote in a statement.
“Michel was an intellectual and patriotic powerhouse and his dream was to see a free and democratic Syria. God willing, the Syrian people will carry on this dream and see it through,” he said.
Kilo, who was also a writer, was born in 1940 to a Christian family in Syria’s Mediterranean town of Latakia, a bastion of the Assad family’s Alawite minority.
He had opposed the ruling Baath party since it came to power in 1963.
He was jailed in Syria from 1980 to 1983 under Hafez Assad, and then again from 2006 to 2009 under Bashar.
In September 2000, he was one of around 100 intellectuals who called for reforms including public freedoms, political pluralism, and the lifting of the state of emergency in what became known as the Damascus Spring.
He also belonged to a group of prominent Syrian opposition figures who in 2005 signed the “Damascus Declaration” calling for democratic reform in the autocratic Arab nation.
When mass anti-regime demonstrations swept Syria in 2011, he advocated peaceful protest but warned that armed resistance would lead to civil war.
“From the very beginning, the regime has followed a plan — push the protesters to extreme options, to take up arms. A peaceful civil movement is not what it wants at all,” Kilo told AFP in Damascus before the onset of a conflict that has since killed more than 388,000 people and displaced millions.
In 2013, he joined the opposition alliance, known as the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) before quitting over internal divisions.
In a tribute on Monday, the SNC said Kilo had “dedicated his life to Syria and fought against tyranny for more than fifty years.”
Kilo often spoke out against the internal rifts weakening Syria’s opposition and in 2015 he said the conflict’s foreign brokers have made matters worse.
“We are hostages to meticulous political and diplomatic games” by states that each hold a “Syria card” they want to play, he said.
Fellow exiled opposition figure Alia Mansour mourned Kilo on Twitter.
“Michel Kilo spent his life opposing the Assad regime, fighting for freedom and democracy for Syria and its people,” she said.
“How misfortunate that you left before witnessing the downfall of the tyrant.”


Egypt: 3 militants involved in Christian's slaying killed

Egypt: 3 militants involved in Christian's slaying killed
Updated 19 April 2021

Egypt: 3 militants involved in Christian's slaying killed

Egypt: 3 militants involved in Christian's slaying killed
  • Militants were involved in killing of Nabil Habashi, a 62-year-old Coptic Christian kidnapped five months ago
  • Security forces exchanged fire with Daesh militants while chasing them in the Abtal area of North Sinai

CAIRO: Egypt police killed three suspected militants allegedly involved in the slaying of a Coptic Christian man kidnapped more than five months ago in a restive part of Sinai Peninsula, the Interior Ministry said Monday.
Security forces exchanged fire with Daesh militants while chasing them in the Abtal area of North Sinai province, the ministry said in a statement. Three of the militants were killed and police were chasing three others. The statement did not say when they fighting took place.
The ministry, which oversees the police, said an explosives belt detonated during the shootout. It was unclear whether the bomber was one of the three militants the ministry said were killed. No casualties were reported among the security forces.
The details provided by the ministry could not be independently verified and media access to northern Sinai is heavily restricted.
The ministry said the dead militants were involved in the killing of Nabil Habashi, a 62-year-old Coptic Christian from the town of Bir al-Abd. Nabashi had built the sole church in the area.
Militants kidnapped Habashi, a jewelry dealer, in November from Bir Al-Abd, and demanded a ransom of 2 million Egyptian pounds ($127,550 million), said a church official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media.
The local Daesh affiliate in Sinai Peninsula released a 13-minute video showing Habashi kneeling, with three men dressed in black standing behind him. One of the men appears to shoot Habashi in the back of his head. It was not clear when Habashi was killed.
Egypt is battling an Daesh-led insurgency in Sinai Peninsula that intensified after the military overthrew an elected Islamist president in 2013. The military had intervened after mass protests against the president's divisive, one-year rule. The insurgents have carried out scores of attacks, mainly targeting the security forces and minority Christians.


J Street conference energizes push for two-state solution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict

J Street conference energizes push for two-state solution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Updated 19 April 2021

J Street conference energizes push for two-state solution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict

J Street conference energizes push for two-state solution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  • Palestinian president tells delegates he would return to peace table if talks were based on 1967 borders, shared East Jerusalem
  • Former Israeli PM says deal could ‘still be done’ with the right attitude from both sides

CHICAGO: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has told the annual conference of the progressive American Jewish lobby, J Street, that he would return to the peace table to negotiate over a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During his presentation on Sunday, Abbas accused the current Israeli government of being an obstacle to peace by refusing to talk and he joined a succession of other speakers in reinforcing support for the two-state solution.

In 2008, Abbas met 35 times with then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Madrid and came close to reaching an agreement, but the discussions were aborted when Olmert was ousted from office and Benjamin Netanyahu was elected premier.

“We believe in the two-state solution based on the 1967 borders … and a sharing of East Jerusalem. We are ready to resume negotiations,” Abbas told conference delegates.

The virtual J Street meeting was held in response to the continuing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and attracted nearly 5,000 registered attendees online.

In his address, Olmert said he believed that peace based on the two-state solution was not only possible but viable if Israel had the right government leadership to engage in direct negotiations with the Palestinians and if the Palestinians were to embrace the concept openly.

“There is no other way to resolve the historic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians … on the basis of the 1967 borders – there will be some changes in the border, but the total size will be as it was in 1967.

“If we sit together with the Palestinians on that basis, I am sure it can be resolved,” he added.

The former PM detailed the discussions he had with Abbas and said that the Palestinian state would be based on the 1967 borders with land adjustments. He pointed out that settlements would be consolidated into three zones in the West Bank and that land swaps would be made to compensate the Palestinians for the settlement lands that remained.

Olmert noted that East Jerusalem would serve as the capital for both Israel and Palestine, and that it would include the support of nations including the US, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.

He told the J Street conference that it would require “a change in the attitude in the government of Israel. But the present government of Israel is unwilling to do it. But I think the Palestinians have to adopt themselves to this framework, also. It still can be done.”

Both Olmert and Abbas said that the goal of establishing peace between Palestinians and Israelis had been “omitted from the Israeli discourse in politics” since Netanyahu was first elected in 2009 but agreed it could be revived “with some effort.”

J Street president and founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said that the two-state solution was “the only solution,” and that the priorities must be to stop the “creeping annexation” of the West Bank and expansion of the settlements.

He added that he did not believe that negotiations could start under the current political climate in Israel.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the Arab Hadash party and member of the Joint List in the Knesset, told conference attendees that “laws can be undone,” and that a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders “can be done.”

But similar to Olmert and Abbas, Odeh said he did not expect much progress while Netanyahu continued to offer limited equality to Palestinian Arab citizens.

Odeh urged Israeli society to “topple Netanyahu’s corrupt reign and build democracy that works for all of us.”

He added: “We are the hope … the wrench that will stop the machinery of division and fear. We are the Arabs and the Jews who refuse to be enemies.”

The Israeli administration remains in turmoil having held four elections since April 2019, all of which have resulted in weak and indecisive governments led by Netanyahu.

Speakers at the J Street conference said that if Netanyahu failed to form a ruling coalition to run the country, the person most likely to take his place was Naftali Bennett, who embraces many of Netanyahu’s extremist anti-peace platforms but was more willing to form coalitions with centrist political organizations.


Russia says Iran nuclear talks enter ‘drafting stage’

Russia says Iran nuclear talks enter ‘drafting stage’
Updated 19 April 2021

Russia says Iran nuclear talks enter ‘drafting stage’

Russia says Iran nuclear talks enter ‘drafting stage’
  • The 2015 agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief has been left hanging by a thread since the US withdrew from the pact in 2018
  • Diplomats from the parties to the deal — Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany and China — have been meeting in Vienna since early this month

VIENNA: A Russian diplomat taking part in talks to save the landmark Iran nuclear deal said Monday that the negotiations had entered “the drafting stage” though solutions to some of the issues were “still far away.”
The 2015 agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief has been left hanging by a thread since the US withdrew from the pact in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions, prompting Tehran to in turn step up its nuclear activities.
Diplomats from the parties to the deal — Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany and China — have been meeting in Vienna since early this month to find a way to get the pact back on track with US participation under the new Joe Biden administration.
“Summing up the results of two weeks of deliberations on JCPOA restoration we can note with satisfaction that the negotiations entered the drafting stage,” Russian ambassador to Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov wrote on Twitter, referring to the acronym of the deal’s formal name.
“Practical solutions are still far away, but we have moved from general words to agreeing on specific steps toward the goal,” he added.
The EU, Russia and Iran all hailed progress at the talks Saturday following an attack on the Natanz nuclear facility, which Iran blamed on arch-foe Israel.
On Friday, Tehran also announced that it was producing uranium enriched to 60 percent purity, taking the country closer to the 90-percent level required for use in a nuclear weapon and far above the threshold allowed by the deal.
Iran has said it will reverse steps taken so far if the US lifts sanctions imposed under the administration of former president Donald Trump.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told Fox News on Sunday that the US wanted to be sure of Iran’s compliance.
“The United States is not going to lift sanctions, unless we have clarity and confidence that Iran will fully return to compliance with its obligations under the deal that it will put a lid on its nuclear program,” he said.
Iran delegation head Abbas Araghchi said Saturday that “a new agreement is taking shape” but warned that it won’t be easy.
“We think that negotiations have reached a stage that the parties can start working on a joint text. The writing of the text can start, at least in the fields with a consensus,” he said.
“There are still serious disagreements that must be reduced during future negotiationSwitch to plain text editors,” he added.