Turkey and Greece- the two NATO countries- are locked in a battle over the distribution of energy resources off the coast of Cyprus.
By Amb Anil Trigunayat and Dr. Yatharth Kachiar
There are many claimants to the Islamic leadership and it is a crowded arena with contestants trying to shape the world. The result is a conflictual context. Mosques and religious symbols provide the legitimacy to the leaders in that contest. Saudi King is the custodian of two Holy mosques; Iranian spiritual leader has his well ensconced Shiite arc of influence, and Jordanian King Abdullah II derives his lineage from Prophet Mohammed and is the custodian of Al Aqsa the third holiest mosque and Churches in Jerusalem. Erdogan has recently converted an old church Hagia Sophia and some others into Mosques creating new symbols apart from being a custodian and supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. UAE being divested of these symbols has taken a higher moral ground with custodianship of Tolerance- religious and otherwise in the region. All these countries would not hesitate to protect and expand their areas of influence even if it requires military brinkmanship. It is quite natural that these streams will not merge into confluence and will continue to create conflicts especially in the region where leadership has often been challenged. Turkey, under President Erdogan, has been sharp in flexing muscles especially military intervention in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Political Islam has become an anathema of sorts for the monarchies. Turkey may have its own grievances but being a NATO country it has brought about critical scrutiny of its role and manner of intervention by other European and western powers even if it has tried to navigate through their internal differences. Geoeconomics and quest for religious supremacy are a heady concoction.
Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean are intensifying at an alarming rate. Turkey and Greece- the two NATO countries- are locked in a battle over the distribution of energy resources off the coast of Cyprus. The unresolved maritime dispute between Athens and Ankara and the exclusion of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, an entity recognized only by Turkey, from the energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean has complicated the issue. At the core of conflict lies the geo-economic interest of many countries- including Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, Italy, Jordan, and Palestinians-who are scrambling over the vast energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.
What makes the crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean potentially volatile is: first, the interventionist policies and neo-Ottomanist ambition of Turkish President that threatens most of the countries in Turkey’s vicinity; second, the historical antagonism between Greece and Turkey which is being regenerated through nationalist ideologies propagated by a populist leader like President Erdogan; third, the merger of various other conflicts like Libyan civil war with the crisis in Eastern Mediterranean; fourth, the involvement of a large number of actors and the formation of a new anti-Turkey front led by EU-member states- Greece, Cyprus, France, and supported by other countries- UAE, and Israel- have carved new geopolitical faultlines in the region. Collectively, these factors are fuelling the tensions in the eastern Mediterranean and obstruct any possibility of conflict resolution through diplomatic dialogue and negotiation.
The precarious nature of the conflict was evident when France, which is at odds with Turkey in the Libyan conflict, dispatched its fighter jets and warships as a warning to the Turkish drilling ships and frigates navigating in the disputed gas fields off the coast of Cyprus. It is crucial to mention that despite repeated objections from Greece and Cyprus, Turkey has been sending drilling vessels, along with warships to explore for gas in the contested region. At present, France is conducting military exercises with Greece, Cyprus and Italy in the eastern Mediterranean to dissuade Turkey from undertaking any further exploration activities in the contested region.
Division within the EU members on how to approach the issue has made the attempts of resolving the dispute futile. Recently, Greece foundered the mediation attempt by Germany- the current Chair of the European Council- to bring Ankara and Athens at the negotiating table. By signing two separate maritime agreements with Cairo and Rome, Athens has negated a similar agreement signed by Turkey and Libya in December 2019.After being rebuffed by the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) -a US-backed consortium including Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and Palestinian Authority to export the Eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe- Turkey had signed a maritime agreement with Libya to thwart the project. Turkey’s drive for regional supremacy, its patronage to the members of Muslim Brotherhood, and its interventionist policies in Syria and Libya has brought the country in confrontation with Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt. The recently signed UAE-Israel peace deal will further isolate Ankara in the region even if Turkey along with Iran have emerged as new champions of the Palestinian cause. By interlinking conflicts in West Asia and North Africa with Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey and Greece are climbing the escalation ladder.
In response to the maritime agreements signed by Greece, Turkey has initiated a five days military drill in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. On September 5, a day before commencing the military exercise, Turkish President said: “the problem is our counterparts disregard our rights and try to position themselves above us… We, as Turkey and the Turkish nation, are prepared for any possibility and any outcome.” Previously, in his message on the Turkish Victory Day on August 30, President Erdogan stated: “Turkey’s struggle for independence and future continues today as well. It is absolutely not a coincidence that those who seek to exclude us from the Eastern Mediterranean are the same invaders as the ones who attempted to invade our homeland a century ago.”
By invoking the memories of the 1920 Sevres treaty and the western collaboration with the Greeks to invade and carve up the Anatolian lands after the First World War, President Erdogan drew a parallel to the recent spurning of Ankara by the countries who formed Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. These attempts by President Erdogan to stoke the nationalist sentiments might win him a few accolades at home and in his party. However, such a dangerous positioning will turn the conflict in the region into a zero-sum game. In such situations, heightened pitch on the part of contending leadership leads to uncertainty and chances of deepening conflict that will have troubling ramifications. Despite threats of war, some technical talks are said to have begun as claimed by NATO Secretary-General to develop an “enhanced mechanism for deconfliction” of this most combustible naval standoff in two decades. While Turkey may be trying to regain its past glory it is also important that the contested “ Maximal” maritime and “Grey “ zones be demarcated to the satisfaction of all stakeholders especially those directly affected by it.
(Ambassador Anil Trigunayat is former Ambassador of India to Jordan, Libya & Malta & Distinguished Fellow Vivekananda International Foundation. Dr Yatharth Kachiar, Research Associate, Vivekananda International Foundation. Views expressed are personal.)