Turkey using pandemic to increase EastMed activities - analysts

Turkey has taken advantage of the global coronavirus pandemic to expand its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, Eric Edelman and Charles Wald of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America wrote in Newsweek on Wednesday.

Turkey has played an increasingly active role in the region through involvement in various conflicts with a number of countries in the Eastern Mediterranean, including a territorial row over offshore energy resources mainly with neighbours Greece and Cyprus, sovereignty disputes with Greece in the Aegean Sea and involvement in Libya’s civil war.

Ankara may view the pandemic situation in Europe and the United States as an “indication that they will be preoccupied internally and may not have the wherewithal to counter Turkish moves in the Eastern Mediterranean”, said Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, and Wald, the former Deputy Commander of U.S. European Command.

Turkey gives military support to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), whose allied forces have in recent weeks reversed the gains made in a 14-month offensive by General Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army, which is backed by France, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

The United States has distanced itself from the conflict over the years, leaving the European Union and the United Nations to lead initiatives to stem the violence.

Ankara and the GNA signed a maritime border agreement in November intended to legitimise Turkey’s claims to abundant offshore gas and oil reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean, much to the ire of Greece, Cyprus and other nations collaborating on a pipeline project of their own off the Cypriot coast.

Turkey is also pursuing what it calls its “Blue Homeland” naval expansion doctrine – which lays claim to wide-ranging territorial waters in the Aegean, Mediterranean and Black Sea – resulting in a series of territorial violations with Greece.

“To date, certainly, Turkey's actions have not encountered significant pushback from Europe or the United States, other than minimal E.U. sanctions,” Edelman and Wald said.

The pair predicted the pandemic will “likely will lead to heightened instability and tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, driven primarily by further provocations from Turkey”.

The pandemic has caused delays in offshore energy exploration efforts by the United States and other Western companies, as well as the U.S.-backed pipeline project to send gas from Cyprus and Israel to Europe.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “may conclude that postponed exploration by Western energy companies will continue diminishing America's interest in regional events”, Edelman and Wald wrote.

“This could provide Turkey a unique window to move unilaterally and create a fait accompli that companies, or even countries, might be unwilling or unable to contest. Should the Turkish economy deteriorate further, escalation with Greece, Cyprus, France or others might well become increasingly attractive to distract the public from problems at home,’’ they said.

Edelman and Wald recommended Washington appoint a special envoy for the region and initiate energy cooperation among its Eastern Mediterranean partners and to create “a clear counterweight to Turkey’s efforts to disrupt peaceful energy development”.

“For the first time since the Cold War, American policymakers must make abundantly clear to friends and foes alike that the Eastern Mediterranean is a critical focus for U.S. national security strategy,” they wrote.