For several months now, information on the events taking place in the Eastern Mediterranean continues to persistently occupy a prominent position in the newscasts. Despite the measures taken by the international community, tension among Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and NATO continues to revolve around this region. Different media outlets occasionally portray the situation as virtually foreshadowing a direct military confrontation between various participants in the regional standoff.
The fact that significant oil and natural gas reserves were discovered off the coasts of Egypt, Gaza, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Cyprus has added a new dimension to long-standing, unresolved conflicts in the region. In particular, this means the unrelenting dispute between Greece and Turkey over who controls the Aegean Sea, the split of Cyprus, and the issue of where maritime boundaries run between Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Libya, and Egypt, as well as between Lebanon and Israel. Countries that have access to the Mediterranean Sea in its eastern portion have all become increasingly adamant in laying claim to disputed, and overlapping, exclusive economic zones, vying to secure their rights to develop any oilfields located within 200 nautical miles from their shores. This is exacerbating political and legal controversy, and causing the discussions to take on harsh tones that often spill over into direct threats of armed standoffs, with the parties at dispute concentrating greater quantities of military equipment in this part of the Mediterranean Sea.
“During the past weeks, we have witnessed an alarming military build-up in the Eastern Mediterranean. All of us are extremely concerned by the very real risk of a direct military confrontation,” said David McAllister, the Chair of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs, during a European Parliament plenary session. Speaking out in support of EU members, meaning Greece, Cyprus and France above all others, while at the same time ramping up the criticism he leveled at Turkey, David McAllister urged the parties to immediately deescalate the situation. “[W]e fully support the Council’s clear position of solidarity with our Member States, Greece and Cyprus … we condemn the Turkish drilling activities in the exclusive economic zones of Greece and Cyprus, and we consider them illegal,” underscored the chair of the parliamentary committee. During a special EU summit, he spoke about the need to raise the issue of imposing sanctions on Turkey.
On September 10, Corsica hosted the summit for countries in Southern Europe (Med7) where France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Cyprus, Malta, and Portugal all participated, following which French President Emmanuel Macron, on behalf of the meeting’s participants, announced their support of Greece and Cyprus in light of the most recent “illegal activities” taken by Turkey in the Mediterranean. The Cypriot newspaper Politis reports that Macron is obviously pushing for the EU to develop an overarching strategy vis-a-vis the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, since not having one poses a threat to EU members’ sovereignty. These actions taken by the French President are already starting to pay off, since EU officials are making more frequent announcements that they are ready to protect Greece’s and Cyprus’ sovereignty, and are delivering official warnings to Turkey about harsh penalties.
The increase in anti-Turkish sentiment among EU leadership is also evidenced by the announcement made on September 15th by Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who stated that relations between the EU and Turkey are at their “turning point”. However, the head of European diplomacy did urge Ankara not to engage in a confrontation with Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, and to think about how to improve human rights in its own country, patently indicating the future areas of focus where Europe will escalate the criticism it directs toward Ankara.
NATO leadership is also not showing any apparent desire to give support to Turkey. According to a report from Reuters, on September 17, NATO disclosed an investigation of the maritime incident that occurred between Turkey and France, which almost caused a direct clash between military personnel in these two member countries – despite earlier statements from official spokespersons in Ankara that the North Atlantic Alliance did not find any evidence that a Turkish ship “pursued” a French vessel, as Paris alleged.
Against this backdrop, France is trying to reach an agreement with Greece about bolstering bilateral military cooperation, and elaborating a joint strategy to oppose Turkey. Previously, Athens had announced its plans to strengthen its Navy and Air Force by purchasing warships and fourth-generation Rafale multirole fighter jets from France. Along with that, the Greek Ministry of National Defense is negotiating with the Israeli organization Elbit Maarahot Systems on doing retrofitting and upgrading work on its Air Force Apache helicopters, and installing Spike NLOS missiles on them (Spike is a family that includes one of the best Israeli anti-tank guided missiles). The anticipated price of the deal is several tens of millions of Euro. In addition, Cyprus, Greece, and Israel signed a program for their military cooperation up to 2021, which will facilitate these countries’ subsequent ability to jointly increase their defense capabilities.
Regarding Israel’s recent actions, what has drawn attention is its recent desire (especially after signing the Abraham Accords on normalizing relations with the United Arab Emirates and Jordan under the auspices of the White House) to play a more active role in this region, to Ankara’s obvious detriment at that. As a result, the conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece has taken on the added dimension of the conflicts that exist between Turkey and the Persian Gulf monarchies. Above all else, this is due to Israel’s ambitions to become the region’s energy transport hub and create (and not without Washington’s overt support) an anti-Turkish coalition comprised of France, Greece, Italy, Jordan, Cyprus, Egypt, and the UAE, that will define the area’s political life over the coming decades. At present, this coalition wants to resume work on the oil pipeline project by the Europe Asia Pipeline Co. Ltd. (EAPC), which will facilitate energy security for European consumers, Israeli strategic interests, and using it to deliver oil to Europe from the Persian Gulf will put a damper on Turkey’s aspirations to become an energy transport hub.
In addition, in recent days some events have started to occur in Libya that are clearly not helping deescalate the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean where, due to the upcoming resignation of Fayez al-Sarraj, the leader of the Government of National Accord (GNA), Turkey’s position could seriously suffer. To a certain extent, this could explain the attack committed on September 18, the day negotiations were taking place on resuming Libyan oil exports, on Ahmed Maiteeq, Deputy Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord, by militants from the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist organization banned in Russia that is supported by Turkey. The militants tried to use force to get the GNA to reject talks and terminate the agreement.
In response to how anti-Turkish sentiment in the region is apparently mushrooming, Ankara continues to demonstrate that it is determined to regain its former position of leadership among Sunni Muslims, which it possessed for several centuries during the era of the Ottoman Empire, and which Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt perceive as a threat to their existence. Also, while Turkey has already been striving to join the European Union for a few decades, recently it would appear that Ankara has gotten rid of the idea. Despite the fact that Turkey was a secular country for a long time, the strong reservations held by Germany and France about letting it into a united Europe remain an insurmountable obstacle, and there is no doubt that the conflicts between Turkey and the EU will continue to intensify.
In these conditions, a situation in the Eastern Mediterranean that is quite complex will persist, and the possibility that it will become further aggravated cannot be ruled out.
Vladimir Odintsov, a political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.