Will Turkey's belligerent posture in the east Mediterranean pay off?

By ARTHUR KLEINMAN


Given the array of provocations that have been exchanged over the East Mediterranean in recent months, one could be forgiven for believing that the region is on the brink of war. Greece and Turkey – the protagonists of sorts in this proto-conflict – have both engaged in a series of aggressive military exercises, with France, Italy and Cyprus participating alongside Greece’s. The tense mood was captured by the German Foreign Secretary Heiko Maas: “The current situation in the eastern Mediterranean is equivalent to playing with fire; every little spark can lead to catastrophe”.


What induced this upswing in tensions? For Turkey in particular, there are three principal grievances informing belligerent conduct toward its regional counterparts, none of which are without some kernel of legitimacy.


Firstly, since the discovery of the abundant Zohr natural gas field in Egypt’s Mediterranean territory, a number of agreements have been signed between Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Israel demarcating maritime jurisdictions and pipeline routes, among which is a plan to pool Cypriot, Egyptian and Israeli gas such that the three nations can sell their stocks to Europe more profitably. Turkey has been unceremoniously left out of these arrangements, despite its own claims to Mediterranean gas.


Secondly, Turkey views Cyprus's claims to its gas reserves – and by extension the agreements it has made with Egypt, Israel and Greece to exploit them – as illegitimate, insofar as they neglect the interests of Turkish Cypriots in the island's north, which has been a de facto state since the 1970s.


The third factor pertains to the proximity of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea to Turkey's western coast. Under UN convention, Greece is entitled to exert sovereignty over 12 nautical miles around each island - a prospect which deeply perturbs Ankara, insofar as it would subsequently be denied reams of adjacent maritime territory despite having one of the Mediterranean's longest coastlines.


Turkey’s leaders are correct in their judgement that, as one of the strongest military powers in the region, taking a belligerent stand is likely to force their geopolitical interlocutors to the table and induce them to yield key concessions in these three areas. Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusolgu has publicly indicated as much, stating that his country was "open to talks without preconditions" to resolve the crisis. Note the "without preconditions"; Athens was keen to restrict negotiations to energy rights, but Ankara hoped that it's display of military muscle would force the former to discuss other issues, such as the aforementioned Aegean islands.


Nevertheless, even if Ankara's efforts achieve initial successes, its bellicose approach may prove to be deeply counterproductive in the long run. As mentioned above, one of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s principal grievances was the side-lining and subsequent isolation of his country vis-à-vis Mediterranean geo-economic affairs. However, attempts to strong-arm the perpetrators of said isolation have done little to instil enthusiasm about the prospect of future negotiations with their erstwhile rival. Rather, such conduct concretely illustrates to Greek, Cypriot, Israeli and Egyptian policymakers the cruciality of adopting a united front against Turkish aggression, and by extension encourages the adoption of further measures to protect their geo-economic interests in the years ahead. In turn, Ankara's isolation will continue, and Turkish leaders will once again be inclined toward hostilities.


A number of recent political developments in the region are relevant in this regard. On August 13, the announcement of a normalisation agreement between Israel and the UAE figured most prominently among international observers; less attention was paid to a meeting between the Israeli and Greek Foreign Ministers earlier that day, prior to which Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited the "shared geopolitical interests" of the two states, asserting that he took "any aggressive actions in the eastern Mediterranean seriously from any actors, including Turkey". While the Jerusalem-Ankara relationship has been less than jovial in recent years, Netanyahu's overt criticism of Turkey vis-à-vis the Mediterranean was nevertheless significant, as the former had hitherto exhibited some reluctance to embed itself in this specific standoff. Another notable but low-key event was the Emirati decision to send four F-16 fighter jets to join Greek military exercises on Crete, despite Abu Dhabi lacking immediate geo-economic interests in the dispute at hand.


Taken together, these events indicate the emergence and potential ossification of an anti-Turkey axis in the East Mediterranean, predominantly constituted by Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, France and the UAE. That said, Erdoğan’s position isn’t a particularly vulnerable one; not only does his country possess a powerful military, but it also wields considerable leverage over the EU in its harbouring of Syrian refugees who might otherwise attempt to enter the bloc. Nevertheless, Ankara's aggressive, quasi-hegemonic posture is undoubtedly alienating its prospective interlocutors, who are subsequently recognising the importance of engendering solidarity amongst their ranks. As such, the diplomatic isolation which birthed Turkey's current quandary only looks set to deepen in the coming years.


IMAGE - Flickr (OCHA / Berk Özkan)