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The escalating stand-off in the Mediterranean which is causing waves beyond the region

Oruc Reis seismic research vessel, one of the 5-6 research ships in the fully equipped and multi-purpose in the world, is seen as it is ready for a new seismic research activity in the Eastern Mediterranean in Antalya, Turkey. Photo: Orhan Cicek/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images - Credit: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Tensions in the eastern Mediterranean are causing waves beyond the region. PAUL KNOTT reports on ways to calm the waters.

The simmering conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean is being overshadowed by the other serious crises afflicting the world. But the dangerous situation there could easily escalate out of control.

Turkey and Greece have mobilised their navies and air forces. Two of their vessels recently collided, allegedly after a deliberate ‘ramming’ by the Turks.

Meanwhile, a French frigate was forced to retreat by a Turkish flotilla suspected of carrying an illegal arms shipment to Libya. This prompted an incensed president Emmanuel Macron to send reinforcements to the area to support Greece. Several Middle Eastern countries are being drawn in too.

The ostensible source of the tension is Turkey’s claim that its ‘longest coastline in Europe’ is not matched by the territorial waters it is allocated under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The calculation is affected by the multitude of Greek islands located close to its shoreline. Turkey refuses to sign up to the Convention as a result.

Ankara’s grievance has grown since the discovery of gas deposits under the sea in the area between the north African coast and the divided island of Cyprus. Turkey believes it is entitled to a hefty share of the resources that are rapidly being identified in the eastern Mediterranean. The international rules and the other states involved beg to differ.

The dispute is intensified by Greece and Turkey’s long history of enmity, for which Cyprus is a focal point. The island was partitioned in 1974 when a Greek coup intended to unite Cyprus with Greece was followed five days later by a Turkish invasion to stop it.

Since then, the independent, ethnic-Greek dominated Republic of Cyprus has become a prosperous EU member state. The Turkish statelet established in the occupied north of the island remains largely unrecognised internationally and thus has no rights to the offshore gas fields.

Turkey recently attempted to circumvent this exclusion by concluding a territorial waters agreement with its north African ally, the weak and barely functioning government of Libya. This overlaps with the claims of an alliance including Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel.

The Venn diagram of volatility is added to by Turkey’s involvement in the civil war in Libya. This is part of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s apparent fixation on recreating a sphere of influence akin to the old Ottoman Empire, of which present day Libya was a part.

Turkey’s intervention brings it into conflict with Middle Eastern nations such as Egypt and the UAE, who back the opposing side in the war led by a former Libyan army general, Khalifa Haftar.

These states already had scratchy relations with Erdogan’s AK party government due to its support for its ideological kinfolk, the Muslim Brotherhood, throughout the Arab world.

Libya is also where France enters the complicated picture. Paris supports Haftar too, to the consternation of some other EU member states as well as the Turks. It sees the warlord as the best bet to reimpose order in Libya. This, it hopes, would reduce Libya’s role as a jumping off point for migrants to Europe and restrict the flow of jihadis and weapons to the Sahel region, where France is engaged in a difficult anti-terrorist struggle in support of its west African allies.

These concerns explain why a French frigate participating in NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian enforcement of an arms embargo on Libya sought to inspect a cargo ship escorted by Turkish warships on route to Libya in June. Turkey claimed it was carrying medical supplies but the French suspected it was a weapons shipment.

The Turks refusal of the inspection request and threat to fire on the ship of a fellow NATO member, forcing it to withdraw, suggest that these suspicions may have been justified.

Turkey’s conduct has prompted a furious Macron to side with fellow EU member states, Greece and Cyprus, in the eastern Mediterranean.

He has despatched warships to the region to ‘temporarily reinforce’ France’s military presence there and ‘better monitor’ the area to ensure ‘international law is respected’.

At present, this monitoring alongside Greek vessels appears to be focused on a Turkish seismic research ship, the Oruc Reis, which Turkey deployed off the Greek island of Kastellorizo in mid-August. Erdogan accompanied this with a warning to Greece – and by implication, its allies – that it would ‘pay a heavy price’ if it attempted to challenge the ship’s activities.

Many observers see Turkey’s assertiveness as a reflection of Erdogan’s growing self-aggrandisement after many years in power. He may also be seeking to stir up nationalism to boost his declining popularity caused by a weakening economy and his undermining of Turkey’s democracy.

This, and other actions such as undermining NATO from within by acquiring a Russian missile defence system, has led to his government becoming increasingly isolated internationally.

Erdogan’s largely self-inflicted isolation is, in turn, further stoking his paranoia. This does not mean people are not out to get him though.

Greece rarely resists an opportunity to get one over on its ancestral Turkish rival. And, even when it was a more appealing prospect in the pre-Erdogan era, France has long been unenthusiastic about closer EU relations with Turkey and its membership application.

But no amount of frustration and scepticism negates the need for the EU to have a functioning relationship with Turkey. The country is too big, too close and too central to many of Europe’s fundamental interests for it to be otherwise.

These include migration, trade and terrorism. Not to mention Turkey’s geopolitical location as the buffer between Europe and the turbulent Middle East, and the centuries of 
shared history and intertwined communities.

The greatest urgency is to ease the current tensions, which could all too easily escalate into a disastrous conflict. Even if they do not, the divisions are only serving the interests of Europe’s enemies such as Russia and impairing essential cooperation against extremist organisations like ISIS that threaten all parties.

Once the immediate stand-off has been eased, then some longer-term accommodations need to be reached. Hard though it may be for the Greeks, Cypriots and others to swallow, this may have to include offering Turkey a modest stake in the eastern Mediterranean’s offshore gas resources.

The crisis should also be a final prompt for the EU to sort out a coherent, collective policy on Libya. France’s lingering association with the warlord Haftar is out of step with Europe’s needs and values and increasingly untenable. The recent setbacks his forces have suffered on the ground provide a ladder to climb down that must be taken.

This should be matched by a greater EU programme of support to strengthen Libya’s Government of National Accord, however far from ideal it may be.

Backing it as the least bad option to stabilise Libya is in Europe’s own interests and would have the helpful side-effect of eliminating another source of tension with the Turks.

Erdogan is volatile, infuriating and occasionally reckless but he is not a fool. He knows that Turkey needs Europe too, not least for trade and the other financial support it currently provides to the struggling Turkish economy.

The incentive of participation in exploiting the gas resources and recognition that his EU member adversaries can call on greater power to isolate Turkey further, if necessary, should be enough to persuade him to tone down his belligerence in the eastern Mediterranean.

Pride dictates that reconciliation will be difficult for the main protagonists to achieve directly between themselves. But one of the EU’s assets is that it contains other influential countries, notably Germany, who have better relations with Ankara and are well-placed to broker a reduction in tensions.

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