Eastern Mediterranean tensions most dangerous since the 1990s

Tensions between Turkey and several eastern Mediterranean states could soon escalate into the most dangerous crisis the region has faced since the late 1990s.

Then Turkey threatened to attack the Greek Cypriot-run internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus if it deployed Russian long-range S-300 air defence missiles. A year earlier Turkey and Greece almost came to blows over control of an uninhabited rocky outcrop in the Aegean.

Today, an unfolding crisis between Turkey and several regional countries over control of the eastern Mediterranean and its potentially huge gas reserves might just be as dangerous, if not more so.

“I’d say that Turkey’s regional and global ambitions are now seeking to insert Ankara into a variety of conflicts and that it has gambled on a move across the Mediterranean that puts it at odds with Cyprus, Greece, Egypt and potentially other countries such as Israel, Russia and the UAE,” said Seth Frantzman a reporter and Middle East affairs analyst for The Jerusalem Post.

Turkey and Libya’s U.N.-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) signed a maritime agreement last month that says the two countries are maritime neighbours. It does so by denying several Greek islands, including Crete and Rhodes, have a continental shelf and therefore do not have the right to an exclusive economic zone extending from their shores.

The deal enraged Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, as well as Egypt and Israel, which are working together to exploit eastern Mediterranean gas reserves and transport the fuel to markets in Europe. The much-larger Turkish territorial waters envisaged in its deal with the GNA would block the route of a gas pipeline Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel want to build to Europe.

Cyprus, already alarmed by Turkish drilling for gas in its exclusive economic zone, is rallying regional states to challenge the deal diplomatically.

Turkish media have reported that Turkey is mulling establishing a naval base in the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and developing an airbase there for Turkish F-16s. That would undoubtedly raise tensions further.

The U.S. Congress voted this month to end Washington’s arms embargo on Cyprus, which it imposed in 1987 to prevent an arms race on the divided island. Turkey warned the move would hamper efforts towards a settlement on the island and constitute a dangerous escalation.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan again upped the ante by once again bringing into question the sovereignty of disputed islands in the Aegean.

Egypt, for its part, carried out naval exercises in the Mediterranean this month and repeated its opposition to the Turkey-GNA deal.

Tensions in Libya have also increased as the GNA’s adversary, General Khalifa Haftar, continues to besiege against Tripoli. Turkey is to send naval and ground forces to bolster the GNA’s defence of the Libyan capital. Egypt is one of Haftar’s main backers.

“The current situation is no different from the 1990s … There is a major risk of escalation, and it is not hard to see how a miscalculated provocation may trigger a military engagement,” said Mustafa Gurbuz, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington.

“Turkey already feels being isolated and cornered in the eastern Mediterranean and a potential U.S. arms sale to Cyprus may be a breaking point for already troubled Turkey-NATO relations,” he said.

The U.S. decision to lift its arms embargo on Cyprus is a significant development. By doing so “the U.S. is responding to quiet pressure from Israel and Greece to rebuild America’s ties to Cyprus,” said Nicholas Heras, the Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

This does not mean the United States will offer to sell Cyprus military hardware anytime soon since it is for now maintaining a careful approach to military relations with Nicosia.

“Israel and Greece, who are close allies of the United States, have been steadily incorporating the U.S. into Greek and Israeli efforts to build a quadrilateral partnership to support offshore natural gas exploitation in the eastern Mediterranean,” Heras said.

This Greek-Israeli project “is aimed at limiting Ankara’s efforts to give Turkey the ultimate influence over the important natural resources of the Mediterranean.”

While Heras anticipates that Russia would want to prevent any deepening U.S.-Cypriot relationship, he also pointed out that “both the U.S. and Russia have an interest in constraining Turkey's expansionist policy in the Mediterranean, while competing with each other to be the most important external benefactor to the building of a trilateral alliance between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus.”

Micha’el Tanchum, a senior fellow for the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy and a regular contributor to The Turkey Analyst, said there were significant differences between today’s tensions and the Cyprus missile crisis of the late 1990s.

“The situation is qualitatively different from the late 1990s, first and foremost due to the overall weakening of the transatlantic alliance in the intervening years,” Tanchum said.

“Although Turkey has had longstanding grievances about its place in NATO, we are in an unprecedented situation where, as I have written, Turkey believes its NATO allies are containing its legitimate ambitions,” he said.

The Turkish government is contesting deep financial and strategic interests that the United States, France and Italy have in eastern Mediterranean natural gas resources under current arrangements that exclude Turkey from the marketing of that gas.

These arrangements, Tanchum said, “rest in great part on the maritime zones defined by Greece’s bilateral agreements with Egypt and Cyprus.” By signing its agreement with the GNA, Turkey is seeking to directly challenge these maritime boundaries.

But while Turkey may have some legitimate grievances, he said, “the Ankara-Tripoli agreement draws egregious boundaries by ignoring the presence of the Greek island of Crete in clear violation of Article 121 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”.

The increasingly tense standoff in the eastern Mediterranean has now been coupled to an escalation in the Libyan civil war.

“Should there be military spillover effects in the eastern Mediterranean or Aegean from an escalation spiral in Libya, the consequences would be disastrous,” Tanchum said.


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The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval