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Turkey Inflames Mediterranean Geopolitics

The Greek daily morning newspaper Kathimerini is reporting that a Cypriot source told the Cyprus News Agency that the “deportation” of an Israeli research ship in the island nation’s territorial waters by the Turkish Navy occurred on November 18, and that Nicosia had no role in the incident. The article comes in response to a Jerusalem Post report that the Energy and Water Ministry confirmed on 14 December that an Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research vessel called the Bat Galim had been diverted. Ben-Gurion University in the Negev scientists and a Cypriot geologist were aboard at the time, engaged in research that had been approved by the Government of Cyprus in its own territorial waters. According to Israel’s Channel 13, the Turks demanded the Israeli ship move further south.

According to Channel 13, the Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned Israel’s top diplomat in Ankara earlier this week to inform him that Israel’s plan to lay down a natural gas pipeline to Europe in the same area of the Mediterranean Sea, in cooperation with Greece and Cyprus, would require Turkey’s approval. A high-ranking Turkish energy official reportedly conveyed his country’s readiness to negotiate a role for itself as a middleman along the transportation route, but has been awaiting the formation of a stable government in Jerusalem and subsequent appointment of a new energy minister to discuss the matter.

Turkey inflamed Mediterranean geopolitics on 28 November, when it signed a major agreement with Libya’s Government of National Accord to divide maritime zones in parts of the Sea between their two countries – in violation of internationally-recognized sovereign and economic rights of Greece and Cyprus.  The Turkish claim that its redefined, self-proclaimed jurisdiction of territorial waters now extend from its own southwestern coast all the way to Libya’s Derna-Tobruk shoreline has been rejected by Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias as “verging on the ridiculous,” as it “ignores something that is blatantly obvious” – namely the island of Crete. Egypt also condemned the pact as “illegal.”

There have also been long-simmering tensions with Turkey over the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) collaboration inked between Israel and Cyprus in 2010, regarding the joint natural gas extraction plan of the vast offshore fields called Tamar (discovered in 2009), Leviathan (2010) and Aphrodite (2011). A so-called “Energy Triangle” was created with Greece, beginning with the signing of a Tripartite Memorandum in 2013.

In 2014, the Greek, Israeli, Cypriot, Bulgarian, and Italian governments announced their support for the “East Med Pipeline,” which would be an undersea link from Israel to Cyprus and Cyprus to Greece and Italy.

This past August, the Energy Ministers from Israel, Greece and Cyprus, together with U.S. Assistant Secretary for Energy Resources  Francis Fannon announced a multilateral agreement to enhance cooperation between the four countries, in order to promote stability in the Eastern Mediterranean region.

While economic and diplomatic relations between Israel and her neighbors were enriching Turkey’s were deteriorating – and it has carried out many incursions into the Cypriot EEZ and situated a ship just outside Italy’s EEZ.

Ankara has maintained a de facto partition of Cyprus, where it occupies the northern third since its invasion of the island nation in 1974; that pitted Turkey against fellow- NATO member Greece.

Once-robust ties with Israel were irreparably damaged after the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident when 10 activists aboard the Turkish-flagged vessel were killed after they attacked IDF commandos trying to prevent an attempted breach of the naval blockade on Gaza. Turkey has been extremely supportive of Hamas, which came to power in 2006.  Ankara broke off diplomatic ties with Jerusalem over the Marmara incident and only normalized relations again in 2016, largely in the interest of investigating the construction of a prospective pipeline to export Israeli gas across Turkey into Europe. Nevertheless, Turkish intelligence agents maintain close contact with Hamas agents in Istanbul, where the terror group has been offered free license to operate. This past weekend Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed “We will keep on supporting our brothers in Palestine” while hosting visiting-Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.

The Telegraph reported yesterday (December 17) that transcripts of Israeli police interrogations reveal senior Hamas terrorists use Istanbul as a base to direct terror attacks in the Jewish State, including plots to murder Prime Minister Benjamin PM Netanyahu and former Jerusalem Mayor and current Knesset Member Nir Barkat that were thwarted earlier this year.

Ankara is also currently at odds with the West at large over a rising tolerance of Islamic fundamentalism; and the United States specifically, over its increasing acquisition of advanced weapons systems from the Russian Federation.

As noted by Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Seth Crospey in his paper, U.S. Policy and the Strategic Relationship of Greece, Cyprus, and Israel: Power Shifts in the Eastern Mediterranean, “Turkey has disavowed secularism and embraced Islamism under the rule of President Erdoğan and Prime Minister [Ahmet] Davutoğlu. This shattered Ankara’s previous foreign policy doctrine of “no problems with neighbors. Turkey continues its retreat from the West and its former position as a secular, dependable NATO ally. Today Turkey has deteriorating relations with all its neighbors, while U.S.-Turkish relations are now characterized more by mutual suspicion and acrimony than the common values or shared vision that are the glue of an effective alliance. Turkey’s embrace of Islamism and support of terrorist organizations threatens the security of NATO’s southeastern flank, its most vulnerable region. This profound shift in Turkish foreign policy has emerged as the Eastern Mediterranean undergoes simultaneous political, security, and energy changes.”

“Had Turkey not embraced Islamism it would have been an ideal transport and energy hub for the Eastern Mediterranean’s unfolding energy discoveries—for both the Turkish and European markets,” Crospey wrote, stressing “For the foreseeable future, however, this is not possible; Turkish-Israeli relations are at a nadir.” Crospey continued, “The Turkish prime minister and president continue to support the forcible division of Cyprus in the form of a two state solution; and the Turkish navy’s armed incursions within the Cypriot exclusive economic zone (EEZ) underscore Turkish leaders’ preference for force as a means to settle Cyprus’s division as well as their view of energy reserves in zero-sum terms. Turkey’s toleration, if not support, of Islamic terror groups raises questions regarding its credibility as a trustworthy ally.”

Crospey hailed the strategic relationship between “American allies and friends, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel” as “a model for the new regional balance of power,” saying “The triangle provides the U.S. a democratic foundation for both the region and as NATO’s southeastern anchor,” that “will allow the U.S. to better address today’s global challenges including the fight against terrorism, energy security, and the stability of the global commons that is increasingly at risk as security in the Eastern Mediterranean becomes more problematic.”

— By Erin Viner