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May 11 2019

Test for Turkey as gas alliance undermines its regional ambitions

Turkey is faced with a stern political test as the formation of an alliance for the exploration of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean now threatens its bid for regional hegemony, said Endy Zemenides, executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council, in Greek newspaper Kathimerini.

As Turkey asserted itself in the region over the past decade, counter-alliances began to form, resulting in the formation this year of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum in Cairo. Cyprus, Italy, Jordan, Egypt, Greece, Israel and the Palestinians are part of the bloc, which has sounded a “death knell” for Turkey’s aspirations, Zemenides said.

Turkey, which is initially excluded due to its aggressive campaign of gas drilling in the economic zone of Cyprus, needs to desist and play a role in the new group akin to Germany of the 1950’s, Zemenides said.

Rather than getting immersed in bilateral tensions with Turkey, Greece and Cyprus have taken a wider view of their role in the region and, as a result, have won much favour with the United States which, along with the European Union, has called on Ankara to stand down in the political impasse over gas rights, Zemenides said.

Such an approach will give Athens and Nicosia greater sway over U.S. policymakers, said Steven Cook, a fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, according to Zemenides. There is special significance in the role of Egypt, Cook said, which is improving its reputation as a force for regional stability and will not accept Turkey setting the regional rules.

“Greece, Cyprus, the U.S., the EU, Egypt and Israel have all made it clear that there is room for Turkey at the table,” Zemenides wrote. “But Turkey has to play by the rules rather than write the rules itself.

“If this current crisis is overcome via diplomacy and partnerships, a new day may in fact dawn in the eastern Mediterranean – a day that may one day even change Turkish policies.”

Meanwhile, Turkey further increased tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean on Saturday by stating its plans to start drilling off Cyprus are within its sovereign rights, Kathimerini reported.

The statements by Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Dönmez that “all sides to respect the research and drilling exercises within our continental shelf,” arrive a day after European officials expressed support for Nicosia over Turkey’s plans to drill in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

“Those who are trying to test Turkey, backed by certain countries or companies, should know they are on the wrong road,” the Turkish minister said, adding, “Those who believe that the great and sacred people will be scared or buckle in the face of one or two threats should look at history.”