The Mediterranean Is a Sea of Political Troubles Again

(Bloomberg) -- After Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, it found itself short of military hardware. In stepped Muammar Qaddafi, and four Turkish DC-9 commercial aircraft with the seats stripped out were loaded with rockets from Libyan stockpiles of U.S.-made weaponry. He refused all payment.

I can never forget the friendship shown by Qaddafi at a very difficult time,” retired Turkish diplomat Taner Baytok recalled in an interview with Hurriyet newspaper. “I describe it as a debt of gratitude.”

Baytok was reminiscing in 2011, the year the Libyan leader was overthrown and the country entered a new era of chaos. Now Turkey is in the ascendancy and Libya a divided, war-ravaged shell. Yet those ties are being rekindled, inflaming a region that’s still nursing the wound from the defining events of almost a half century ago.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pledge to send in troops to bolster the United Nations-backed government in Libya is upsetting the delicate balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean, as countries jostle over lucrative hydrocarbon resources in the waters around the divided island of Cyprus.

A maritime agreement signed in November with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s beleaguered administration prompted Turkey to claim rights to parts of the seabed that Athens says is Greek under international law.

Erdogan’s assertion last week that he will start issuing exploration licences in contested waters on the basis of the new maritime boundary took tensions to new levels—risking a spiral of escalation in an already turbulent region with a history of U.S., Russian and, more recently, Chinese involvement.

The Mediterranean Is a Sea of Political Troubles Again

Erdogan says that Turkey strives to become a global energy hub and “has never sought regional tension.” But regional tempers are boiling over regardless. 

Egypt, which holds the eastern Mediterranean’s largest discovered gas reserves, warned of “repercussions” for any measures that violate Cyprus’s sovereign rights over its resources and “threaten the security and stability” of the region.

Cyprus, split in 1974 and its northern part only recognized as a separate state by Turkey, went further still: “Turkey is turning into a pirate state in the eastern Mediterranean,” the Foreign Ministry said on Sunday.

Cyprus has the backing of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France in its standoff with Turkey, according to a senior Cypriot government official who asked not to be named discussing relations with Ankara due to their acute political sensitivity.

France, which flexed its naval muscle in the eastern Mediterranean by sending a frigate in the fall, is due to dispatch its aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, to the region in a show of force, said the official. The Saudis are also sympathetic since they too feel threatened by Turkey’s expansive ambitions, the person said.

In Greece, people are discussing the activities of their eastern neighbor, an historical antagonist, on the street, at bus stops and over coffee, broadly viewing Erdogan’s latest moves as just another episode in a long line of Turkish saber-rattling.

While not fearing an outright war, they do see an incident involving naval ships as conceivable, with the risk of military engagement posing a threat to the economy just as the country is finally exiting a decade-long crisis. The two countries, both NATO members, came close to conflict in 1996 over a pair of uninhabited islets in the Aegean.

Erdogan’s recent comment that Turkey and Libya must be consulted on “any exploration activity or construction of a pipeline” in areas between the two countries—effectively carving off the entire eastern Mediterranean—also has ramifications for energy giants including Italy’s Eni SpA. The company declined to comment. 

The tussle for influence is the result of a power vacuum caused by U.S. disengagement from the Middle East and Africa, according to the Cypriot official, who said that all the regional players are trying to fill the space vacated.

Ankara’s actions in a region that lies at the nexus of Europe, Africa and the Middle East come at a time of shifting global power as the U.S. curtails its overseas engagement and Russia steps in. That dynamic provides Erdogan with an opening to resurrect Turkey’s former influence in the eastern Mediterranean with a powerful new ally—Vladimir Putin.

Erdogan hosted the Russian president in Istanbul on Jan. 8 to inaugurate the TurkStream pipeline, which will take natural gas from Russia to Europe via Turkey. 

The Mediterranean Is a Sea of Political Troubles Again

Erdogan and Putin back opposing sides in the Libya conflict, though are now trying to broker a cease-fire and then reap the rewards. After failing to bring Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar to heel in Moscow and then Berlin, talks are due to move to Geneva.

“Erdogan wants Russian support for Turkey’s maritime deal, that’s why he wants Putin to help him save Tripoli’s government from defeat,” said Grigoriy Lukyanov, a Libya expert at the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Council. “Russia loses nothing if Turkey advances its interests,” while any sanctions on Turkey would simply drive it closer to Moscow, he said. “It’s a win-win for Russia.”

Turkey’s alliance with Moscow is already in evidence through Erdogan’s purchase of a Russian S-400 missile system in the face of U.S. and NATO protests. Yet it’s now adding a new dimension to historic regional rivalries, with the EastMed pipeline project to take Israeli offshore gas to Europe—bypassing Turkey—acting as the lightning rod.

Greece signed an agreement this month with Israel and Cyprus on the pipeline’s construction. Turkey’s Energy Strategy and Policy Research Center has dismissed the project as “incoherent” and the signing ceremony in Athens as an ineffective attempt to respond to Turkey’s deal with Libya.

Israel, which publicly opposed Turkey’s maritime deal with Libya, is watching developments with some concern, but is not yet overly worried by Turkey’s moves, according to a person familiar with the government’s thinking. Turkey wants to be the corridor to carry eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe, and although Israel has been pushing for the EastMed pipeline, it’s not yet proven to be economically viable, said the person, adding that Israel could always sell gas to Europe via Egyptian LNG plants.

Low-level talks have been held between Israel and Turkey on restarting gas discussions, said the person, who noted that Erdogan has meanwhile said that no such deal is in the offing. Israel remains vigilant as regards Turkey all the same, said the person, asking not to be named discussing confidential contacts.

In December, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to bolster its security and energy cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean, including support for EastMed. The legislation instructs the State Department to report on Russia’s security, political and energy goals in the region, and authorizes the U.S. to give security assistance to Cyprus and Greece.

 Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, has previously accused the U.S. and NATO of building up their military presence in the region “in an openly anti-Russia manner.” The state-run Cyprus New Agency on Wednesday cited a State Department official as saying that the U.S. is “deeply concerned” by reports of Turkey’s drilling operations in the waters off Cyprus.

Assistant Secretary of State for energy Francis Fannon plans to visit the region as the U.S. seeks to use the new discoveries to “catalyze regional cooperation,” he said in emailed comments. That includes stepping up work with Cyprus, Greece and Israel “to promote stability and prosperity in the region” as well as cooperation with Egypt. He also plans to visit Turkey for the first time.

“Turkey is a valued U.S. ally and we look forward to enhancing our energy cooperation,” Fannon said.

Those competing interests place Cyprus at the epicenter of geopolitical tensions again.

The island has sought good relations with both east and west. A former British colony, it has a Royal Air Force base also used by American units. Its banks have long been a haven for Russian money, with Putin providing aid to the island during the financial crisis. Lavrov is due to visit in March, while his counterpart, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, is due some point this spring.

The Mediterranean Is a Sea of Political Troubles Again

Talks to reunify the internationally recognized Greek-speaking south and Turkish north broke down in 2017, and the island remains divided by a UN-patrolled sliver of no-man’s land known as the “Green Line.” The discovery of hydrocarbons in Cypriot waters had been seen as the key to unlock reunification efforts.

But after the latest talks collapsed, Turkey dispatched two drilling ships to Cypriot waters, the Fatih and Yavuz—both named after Ottoman sultans—and blocked access to what it regards as its own exclusive economic zone. 

U.S. support is welcome but isn’t assuaging regional concerns, in part because of President Donald Trump’s perceived soft-pedaling on Putin and Erdogan. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis raised Turkey’s “unacceptable” provocations in a meeting with Trump at the White House this month. 

History too offers an uncomfortable precedent. Back in 1974, the U.S. failed to intervene when Turkey invaded the north of Cyprus. Despite securing Cypriot neutrality in the Cold War, the Soviet Union welcomed the invasion as a destabilizing factor for NATO.

Now, Russians could have similar justification to welcome any Turkish move against Cyprus. There are other parallels. As Cypriots point out, the reason for the U.S. distraction then under Richard Nixon was eerily similar to today: a president caught up in an impeachment process.

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