A tactical climbdown

Hussein Haridy
Wednesday 23 Sep 2020

After a summer of rising tensions, it appears that Turkish provocations in the Eastern Mediterranean may be coming to an end

After a summer of political bravado and military showmanship in the Middle East, the East Mediterranean and North Africa (Libya), Turkey has shown, lately, that it is ready to climb down the escalation ladder.

Turkish provocations, particularly, in the Eastern Mediterranean have strained the relations of Ankara with some leading European powers, France especially, to the extent that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, contrary to all established diplomatic protocol, hurled nasty personal remarks against French President Emmanuel Macron. No need to quote him in this regard. International news agencies carried his words prominently.

This all comes against the backdrop of a severe economic crisis in Turkey where the Turkish lira lost 28 per cent of its value in the last eight months, with no prospects in sight — at least for now — that it would regain its former value against the US dollar. In addition, the current account is running a serious deficit.

The verbal bravado of the Turkish president coupled with the hawkish and war-like remarks of his top officials, namely his foreign and defence ministers, raised tension with European powers and with Greece and Cyprus in whose exclusive economic zones Turkey started exploration for oil and gas on the pretext that the two have violated the Turkish continental shelf and that Greek Cypriots violate the rights of Turkish Cypriots in Northern Cyprus regarding oil and gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.

But both the Turkish president and his foreign minister said last week that Turkey has no objections to starting a “dialogue” with Egypt in order to reach an agreement on the delineation of their respective maritime boundaries. On Wednesday, 16 September, the Turkish foreign minister, talking to a local Turkish TV station, said that in order to do so both Turkey and Egypt have to work on improving their “political relations, relatively”.

He added that such an agreement would be modelled along the lines of a similar agreement signed between Turkey and Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) on 27 November 2019. He thanked Egypt, indirectly, for not violating the Turkish continental shelf in delineating its maritime boundaries with both Greece and Cyprus.

The Turkish president expressed his sadness Friday, 18 September, that Egypt had signed an agreement with Greece (on 6 August) on the delineation of their respective Exclusive Economic Zones in the Mediterranean. The Turkish president told the Turkish news media that there are talks taking place between the intelligence services of Egypt and Turkey centred on the prospects of reaching an agreement to delineate their respective maritime boundaries. These announcements came a few days after the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri held talks with Greek officials in Athens. 

Meanwhile, Turkey made it clear that it is ready to dialogue with Greece, while asking the European Union to be neutral when it comes to differences between Ankara and Athens related to their maritime differences. However, the Europeans have shown solidarity with both Greece and Cyprus, while calling for de-escalation and negotiations to reach a diplomatic solution to these serious differences.

In fact, the Europeans warned Turkey that it would be subject to sanctions in case it persists in military muscle-flexing and keeps violating the maritime sovereignty of Greece and Cyprus. The European Summit on 24-25 September is scheduled to take up this question of sanctions. Whether it would do so or not has been subject to speculation. What is certain is that the Europeans are working on a scenario to encourage Turkey to resort to diplomatic avenues to reach agreements with both Greece and Cyprus on the maritime boundaries among the three countries. 

Of course, France is the leading European power in adopting a very firm stand against Turkish policies in the Eastern Mediterranean and in North Africa, while Germany is at the opposite end. France hosted a Med-7 Summit early September in Ajaccio, Corsica, a summit meeting that threated Turkey with sanctions in case it persists in violating the sovereignty and rights of Greece and Cyprus. The two attended this summit along with Italy, Spain, Portugal, Malta plus the host country France.

Meanwhile, in her first State of the Union address before the European Parliament on Wednesday, 16 September, the President of the European Commission Ursula Von Der Leyen, gave a hint as to how the European Union would handle one of its most delicate balancing acts in the Mediterranean at the present moment.

I quote: “Our Member States Cyprus and Greece can always count on Europe’s full solidarity on protecting their legitimate sovereign rights. De-escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean is in our mutual interest. The return of exploratory vessels to Turkish ports in the past few days is a positive step in this direction. This is necessary to create the much-needed space for dialogue. Refraining from unilateral actions and resuming talks in genuine good faith is the only path forward. The only path to stability and lasting solutions.”

The above is the most accurate description of where most member states within the European Union stand on the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. No serious showdown with Turkey if it de-escalates. That is what Turkey is doing now. Whether this would remain the policy of Turkey after the European Summit this month remains to be seen. The odds are guardedly positive. After all, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid an official visit to Cyprus early September in a show of solidarity with the Cypriot government. This message was not lost on Ankara.

*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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