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Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Turkish threats in the Eastern Mediterranean

In the face of Turkish hegemonic ambitions, Greece and Egypt are natural allies and should deepen and solidify their cooperative and strategic relations

Ioannis Kotoulas , Tuesday 17 Dec 2019
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The signing 26 November of two Memoranda of Understanding between Turkey and the Prime Minister of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez Al-Sarraj, has highlighted the problems caused by Turkish revisionism and meddling in other countries. The first MoU concerns the delimitation of their respective national Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the Eastern Mediterranean, while the second deals with future security cooperation and monitoring the coasts of Libya in the south of the Mediterranean.

The agreement has led to multiple reactions from various sides. Egypt rightly denounced the agreement between Turkey and the GNA calling it “illegal and not binding or affecting the interests and the rights of any third parties”. Greece and Cyprus rejected the agreement as a blatant violation of international law. Greece and Egypt agreed jointly to accelerate the process of the delimitation of their adjoining EEZs. The parliament of Tobruk, in turn, expressed its strong reaction against the proposed memorandum. The European Union condemned the signing of the memoranda, while the US and Russia regard it as counter-productive for the stability of the region.

The worries of Egypt, Greece and Cyprus on the matter of EEZs in the Eastern Mediterranean are not ungrounded. As the recent editorial of Al-Ahram rightly pointed out, “Article 8 of the Skhirat Agreement signed by Libyan parties in 2015 defines the powers of the Libyan prime minister in Tripoli and gives the power to sign international agreements to the Presidential Council, not its chairman alone.” The prime minister residing in Tripoli does not have the authority to sign such an agreement; his restricted jurisdiction, emanating from the UN deal that established his government, is limited to supervision and steering of the council’s affairs. In that sense, any attempt to conclude a legally binding agreement with another state is a clear violation of the Skhirat Agreement of December 2015. Moreover, as it includes provisions for security and military cooperation, the deal signed between Turkey and the crumbling Tripoli government also violates an embargo that the UN Security Council has imposed on the supply of arms to war-torn Libya.

The memorandum seems to disregard the physical realities of geography itself. A Turkish diplomat, head of the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s department for air force and navy issues, posted a map that shows Turkish claims concerning the delineation of the continental shelf in the Eastern Mediterranean following the agreement with the GNA. The map clearly omits the very existence of the strategically located Greek island of Kastellorizo. The Greek island of Kastellorizo — the easternmost part of Greece — lies just two miles from the coasts of Turkey and is right at the top of this proposed corridor of the Turkish maritime zone. Crete, one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean, lies right between Turkey and Libya in the middle of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey does not recognise the legal validity of the Cyprus Republic itself, barring its ships and planes. Furthermore, the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), an entity recognised internationally only by Turkey and created after the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, also claims portions of the Cypriot EEZ. Delimitation of Turkish claims in the Eastern Mediterranean rests on former agreements between Turkey and the TRNC in 2010-2011; ie, with a non-recognised entity. To make matters worse, Turkey has not signed the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As of June 2019, 167 countries and the European Union have joined in the provisions of the convention, but not Turkey. Both Egypt and Greece were among the initial states that signed the convention in 1982.

Neither Turkey nor Greece have yet officially declared their national EEZs. According to the provisions of international law, when the Greek EEZ is declared, it will be adjacent to that of Egypt and that of the Cyprus Republic. According to international law, it is undisputed that islands have a continental shelf; therefore, the Greek EEZ formed in its south-eastern part by the islands of Crete, Karpathos, Rhodes and Kastellorizo extends to meet the EEZ of Egypt and the EEZ of the Cyprus Republic.

Turkey has attempted over the last decade to establish a sort of regional hegemonic presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East at the expense of other states and often international law itself. The signing of the two memoranda with the collapsing Tripoli authorities is but another clear manifestation of this pattern. With the forces of the Libyan National Army closing in on Tripoli and obtaining control of the whole territory of Libya, the agreement proves to be a hasty move made by a desperate political leadership.

In Libya, Turkey aims to create a foothold that can be used on a strategic level against the territorial sovereignty and influence of both Egypt and Greece. Sharing borders with Libya and being a hegemonic state actor in the Arab world, Egypt is naturally interested in regional stability and the effective pacification of Libya. Libya forms the strategic depth of Egypt, while Greece and Cyprus offer a maritime strategic depth in the whole extended area of the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey views Egypt as a rival and attempts to obtain a strategic beachhead in North Africa that can be used to project power against Egypt, but also against Greece. After all, Crete, a strategically located Greek island, lies just north of Libya.

Greece and Cyprus, two traditional allies bound by ethnic and historical ties, have formed along with Egypt a dynamic diplomatic network. Egypt and Greece share amicable political, military, economic and cultural relationships that are manifested in joint military exercises. The two countries should proceed with the proper delimitation of their respective EEZs in the immediate future. Such a move shall advance both Egyptian and Greek strategic interests and regional stability in the greater Eastern Mediterranean.

What is foremost needed is a considerable upgrading of Greco-Egyptian diplomatic and military ties. Greece can use its EU membership to enhance economic development in the greater region of the Eastern Mediterranean, promote foreign investment in Egypt. The most crucial dimension, though, is the strengthening of Greco-Egyptian military ties with additional joint drills and military exercises, bilateral agreements for enhanced cooperation and training of staff in each country. Both Egypt and Greece have considerably strong air and sea forces. Let the Mediterranean Sea become a field of genuine rapprochement between the two countries.

*The writer is lecturer in geopolitics at the University of Athens.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly. 

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