The Confrontation in the Eastern Mediterranean is Not Subsiding
The standoff taking place in the Eastern Mediterranean, despite attempts on the part of the international community to reduce its intensity, is unfortunately not calming down.
In the beginning, in September, the first preconditions arose for Ankara to tone down its demonstration of intransigence in its efforts to gain access to potential gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean, specifically due to the curtailment of geological surveying work there. For example, in mid-September, the Turkish survey vessel Oruc Reis, which had conducted seismic studies in an area that Greece considers to be its exclusive economic zone, was transferred by Ankara to the Port of Antalya “for maintenance work”. In early October, another Turkish drilling vessel, the Yavuz, which had been located southwest off the coast of Cyprus, also left its maritime Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone.
However, many regional experts even then suggested that these “geological concessions” on the part of Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean were most likely geared toward helping Ankara “untie its hands in the Caucasus”, where it is providing support to Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia. Turkey is accused of using its aircraft and drones to participate in armed hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh on Baku’s side; Turkey is also facing accusations that 150 of its officers are effectively leading combat operations for the Azerbaijani army.
Nonetheless, after Ankara did withdraw its warships and Turkish research vessels from the Eastern Mediterranean, some hope seemed to arise that the conflict there would subside. On September 22, the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs even announced that it had agreed to resume seismic sounding surveying contacts with Turkey, which were disrupted in 2016, and in the near future to hold the 61st round of surveying contacts.
However, on October 10, against the backdrop of the flagging conflict in Karabakh, in which Ankara very actively participated – and by no means with the intention of peacekeeping – Turkey issued another Navtex international notification about extending the terms for exploration work on hydrocarbon deposits southwest of Cyprus, now with a date of November 9. The Turkish exploration vessel Barbaros Hayreddin Pasa, accompanied by two other ships, is exploring for hydrocarbons in this area now, which has brought the crisis back up to the alarming state it was in before.
In these conditions, the EU, meeting the demands put forth by Greece and Cyprus halfway, began to lay out new sanctions against Turkey because of the activities it is performing in the Eastern Mediterranean exploring for energy resources, just in case the conflict cannot be resolved through diplomacy. During an informal recent meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers in Berlin, EU countries agreed to extend some of the existing sanctions against Turkey as a retaliatory measure – thereby making it clear that this kind of behavior will entail consequences.
During an interview with Le Figaro newspaper, the President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades reiterated that the claims laid by Ankara in the Mediterranean are unlawful, and he called upon the EU to take more coherent, decisive action to protect European principles and international law, and to impose EU sanctions on Turkey, whose vessels illegally enter Cypriot territorial waters. Along with that, the President of Cyprus stressed that his country had lent its support to the intentions of UN Secretary-General António Guterres to hold a new conference on Cyprus, but that unfortunately Turkey rejected this proposal.
Along with resuming geological surveying work in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Ersin Tatar, the prime minister of Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, announced that the coastal region of Varosha will be reopened; this is a neighborhood in the southern resort town of Famagusta that was abandoned by the Greeks, and then cordoned off, after the Turkish army invaded northern Cyprus following the coup d’état that took place in 1974. Along with that, Turkey promised that Varosha would allegedly become a flourishing resort, and that the Port of Famagusta would open for international trade. However, Niyazi Kızılyürek, a Turkish Cypriot member of the European Parliament, affirms that by doing this Erdogan is trying – in violation of the UN resolution on Varosha – to influence the local elections on October 11 and 18 and block efforts to reunite the island.
As a result, the European Commission responded by threatening new sanctions, saying that the actions taken by Ankara could complicate efforts to resume the negotiations on a settlement for Cyprus that were announced by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. A 1984 UN resolution calls for transferring Varosha to UN control, and prohibits any attempts to resettle anyone there other than its rightful inhabitants. The government of the Republic of Cyprus also complained to the UN Security Council about the actions taken by Turkey, which further aggravate the conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean.
On top of that, on October 10, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi ratified an agreement with Greece concerning the demarcation of their maritime borders and establishing an exclusive economic zone, something which caused another wave of discontent in Turkey. That ratification process took place two months after foreign ministers from both countries had signed the corresponding agreement in Cairo, which entailed a “partial demarcation of maritime borders.” Defining the borders to a complete extent will be accomplished through further negotiations. In the opinion held by political observers, the agreement is focused primarily on curbing Turkey’s ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean, while Ankara believes that via this deal Greece and Egypt have violated the rights that Turkey and Libya have to access the continental shelf.
Along with these actions, which do nothing to mitigate the tension in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while opening the Reyhanli Dam in Hatay Province in early October, said that the Turkish army might launch another military operation across the northern regions of the Syrian Arab Republic. Commenting on this proclamation made by the Turkish President, experts note that Erdogan “clearly decided to try on the battle helmet of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent”, effectively announcing his willingness to wage war on four fronts at once: in Syria, Libya, the Caucasus, and in the Eastern Mediterranean “for offshore gas fields”. At the same time, Western experts note that this could end badly for Erdogan himself, since this kind of policy that emphasizes militarism ultimately may not only increase outside resentment toward Turkey on the part of an increasing number of countries, but could also erode support from the Turkish public.