17.03.2021 Author: Vladimir Platov

The Struggle for Influence in the Eastern Mediterranean Intensifies


From its very first steps, the new Washington administration is demonstrating to many players in the Middle East that the White House is shifting its earlier focus on the regional balance of power.

Instead of Donald Trump’s blunt support for the whims of Saudi Arabia, Joseph Biden became outspoken in his dissatisfaction with the policies of the kingdom, especially the actions of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Clearly less love has been shown by the new master of the Oval Office toward Israel. And this, in particular, is confirmed by the recent publication of the American newspaper, The Wall Street Journal with actual accusations of the Jewish state of sabotage at sea on Iranian tankers and transport ships. The WSJ article points out in particular that to carry out these types of attacks and sabotage, Israel used a variety of options, among which was the laying of underwater mines.

Paris has begun to look for a more significant role in regional politics; under its aegis an alliance of countries with historically complex relations with Turkey in the Greater Middle East has been emerging. In addition to the largest country in Western Europe, this tacit coalition includes Greece, Cyprus, Armenia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. On certain issues, in particular in the field of production and transportation of energy resources on the Eastern Mediterranean shelf, this alliance has also attracted Israel.

Sensing the “change in the winds,” other influential players have already begun to take preventive measures, including actors in the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus, on February 11, in Athens there was a “Friendship Forum” (“Philia Forum”), which was attended by the foreign ministers of Greece, Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Speaking at this forum, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said that his country “strives to become a bridge between the Eastern Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, the Balkans and Europe, to contribute to strengthening ties, in particular in the fields of energy and security.” All Forum participants are united by their strained relations with Turkey, which was rather evident in their speeches. The head of the Greek Foreign Ministry, N. Dendias, said: “Our goal is to create a bulwark against threats of violence and invasion, extremism, intolerance and distortion of religion,” and he additionally called for “solidarity in condemning illegal actions that could undermine peace and security.”

Ankara officials were highly critical of the “Forum,” calling the event an “anti-Turkish alliance.” Such a reaction from Ankara was further enhanced by the fact that new countries were invited to participate in this “alliance,” including France, Syria, and even India, whose choice was clearly not accidental: Erdoğan has repeatedly asserted the right of the inhabitants of Kashmir, a territory in northern India populated predominantly by Muslims, to self-determination. And in recent weeks a number of media outlets have reported on the possible sending of Syrian fighters there, following the example of Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

In an effort to explore the Middle East, Greek diplomacy signed a defense agreement with Israel that included Athens’ purchase of military aircraft and the creation of a flight school for Greek pilots. In mid-February, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis held talks with Iraqi Foreign Minister Fouad Hussein, which was an unpleasant jab for Ankara, especially in light of the Turkish military operation Eagle’s Claw 2.

Under these conditions, and against the background of the growing confrontation between Ankara and Washington, the Turkish leader began to make urgent adjustments to his policy, especially in relations with Egypt, which has recently become more and more influential in the region. Seeking to overcome Ankara’s growing isolation in the Middle East region after Joe Biden entered the White House, President Recep Erdoğan, after years of animosity, has reset his relations with Egypt in an attempt to reverse the traditional Turkish policy of supporting the Islamist organization Muslim Brotherhood (banned in Russia). Recall that bilateral relations were severed in the summer of 2013 after former Egyptian leader Mohamed Morsi, who was supported by Ankara, had been overthrown in a military coup and the Muslim Brotherhood had been declared a terrorist organization in Egypt. For all these years, the Turkish media have pejoratively called the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a “regime,” and his accession to power in 2013 illegitimate. For its part, Egypt has also constantly shown its dissatisfaction with Ankara’s behavior near its borders, considering the deployment of the Turkish military in Tripoli a violation of Libya’s sovereignty. At the beginning of 2020, the Egyptian parliament even threatened to send troops into Libya to drive the Turks out.

And on March 3, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced efforts to normalize relations with Egypt and begin a dialogue on delimiting the maritime zone in the Mediterranean. Earlier, Cairo sent a request to Ankara for a permit for economic activities in the Mediterranean Sea area under Turkish jurisdiction and even received the right to develop resources on the Turkish continental shelf from February 18 to August 1, 2021.

It is noteworthy that on the same day that Cairo and Ankara agreed on the offshore fields, Erdoğan held talks with French President Emmanuel Macron for the first time in a long time. Notably, the Turkish president told the French leader that his country could work with France to ensure security and peace in Europe, Africa, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. This suggests that the recent warming of relations between Turkey and Egypt may have been inspired by France, which, through its leverage, is trying to influence the Turkish leader in favor of Paris and to elevate its role as a “mediator” in the region.

However, despite the demonstrated warming between the two shores of the Mediterranean, one can hardly hope for the complete elimination of contradictions between Egypt and Turkey, since Ankara will not accept the dismissal of Morsi, as well as the withdrawal of support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Therefore, mediation by Paris is likely to be able only temporarily to put these problems aside.

The reality of continued confrontation in the Eastern Mediterranean is also indicated by Athens’ very critical perception of the Turkey-Egypt agreement on the continental shelf. In addition to past tensions in relations with Turkey, this reaction of Athens is undoubtedly due to the fact that Egypt, having concluded an agreement on the continental shelf with Turkey, has declared the maritime zone of Greece its own territory temporarily. This situation caused tensions between Cairo and Athens.

Vladimir Platov, an expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.

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