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Turkey flexes its muscles in Eastern Mediterranean

Dec 18,2019 - Last updated at Dec 18,2019

At sea and on land Turkey is emerging as the bully-power of the Eastern Mediterranean. For several years Ankara has been violating Cyprus’ internationally recognised offshore economic zone to explore and drill for oil and gas, accompanying vessels involved in this illegal activity with warships. 

This week, Ankara dispatched unarmed and armed drones to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus to help in the search and, presumably, mount strikes on anyone who tries to challenge Turkish vessels engaged in exploration and drilling.  The European Union (EU) has condemned Turkey’s activities and committed to impose sanctions against those involved, but the measures have not yet gone into effect.  Impunity has prompted Turkey to raise the stakes. 

After forging a deal with the UN-backed Libyan government in Tripoli to send troops to protect it from attacks by Egyptian and UAE-supported rebels, Ankara and Tripoli signed a memorandum of understanding that maps out vast offshore areas and spheres of influence in the Eastern Mediterranean where they claim exclusive oil and gas exploitation rights. This has infuriated the EU and members Cyprus and Greece as well as other countries in the region. The Turkish and Libyan maritime zones meet mid-Mediterranean, effectively bisecting its eastern end. To export oil through undersea pipelines to Italy and Greece, Cyprus and Israel would have to obtain permission from Turkey.

Cyprus has, so far, been the primary victim of Turkish expansionism. Turkey is now claiming its offshore resources and threatening to prevent their development until Ankara and Turkish-Cypriots have what Turkey deems fair shares.  

The deal between Ankara and Tripoli on the delineation of continental shelves, dubbed “Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs)”, has encroached on the EEZs of Cyprus and Greece. This pact ignores Cyprus’ existence and the economic rights of both Cyprus and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, and assigns these rights to Turkey. 

Athens, which has expelled the Turkish ambassador, complains that the Turks and Libyans have ignored the EEZ around the Greek island of Crete, which is located mid-sea between these two countries.  Greece argues Turkey’s agreement with Libya is not legal as that country does not have a functioning government. To complicate Turkey’s situation, the rebel Libyan parliament based in Tobruk has declared the pact with Turkey invalid.  

Since the EEZs around Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Lebanon and Israel conform with established practice and have been recognised by the international community, Turkey’s actions constitute violations of the Law of the Sea and international law.  Defiant Ankara claims that the deal between Turkey and Libya has led to the collapse of existing arrangements among these countries but the EU has rejected the maritime border agreement between Turkey and Libya. The EU contends it infringes the rights of other Eastern Mediterranean countries. Turkey has responded by saying it would use military force to halt any exploratory gas drilling off Cyprus in locations Ankara has included in its EEZ.  

Determined to flex its muscles, two weeks ago Turkish naval vessels ordered an Israeli research ship to leave the Cypriot EEZ and escorted the ship out of the zone. The Israelis were acting in cooperation with the Cyprus government and, reportedly, taking soundings for the laying of a gas pipeline on the seabed to export gas to Italy. 

If Ankara succeeds in preventing Cyprus and Greece from developing their offshore natural resources and in bullying Israel, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is certain to commit further aggression against regional neighbours. On land, he has already occupied Syria’s northeastern Afrin district, established a dozen military bases (not posts as claimed) in neighbouring Al Qaeda-controlled Idlib province and seized tracts of Syrian territory west and east of the Euphrates River.  His ambition in Syria remains what it was when Turkey intervened in that country’s domestic uprising in 2011: To topple President Bashar Al Assad, who with Russian and Iranian help, has recaptured most Syrian territory seized by rebels and takfiris between 2012 and 2018. 

He has chosen his moment well. This region is shaken by uprisings and mired in multiple conflicts. An admirer of strongmen, the inhabitant of the White House, Donald Trump, has empowered Erdogan by green-lighting his invasion of northeastern Syria. The EU cannot exert pressure on Erdogan because he threatens to flood Europe’s shores with tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. And, Russia has adopted a paradoxical policy. President Vladimir Putin seeks to maintain good relations with Turkey while fighting to defend the Syrian government from Turkish surrogates who seek its downfall.

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