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Our View: Turkey’s pact with Libya ups the ante in the region

Lira drops to new low as government faces possible US sanctions.

THE pretence that the gas finds off Cyprus could be a catalyst for a solution is well and truly dead, and we are it seems, looking at the real possibility of a wider conflict in the region following Ankara’s maritime delimitation deal with Tripoli and its pledge this week to send troops to Libya.

Not only does this drag in Russia and Egypt – both of whom support the rival faction in Libya – but the US legislation passed recently that gives Washington greater sway over energy developments in the region with the military funding for Greece and Cyprus will literally add fuel to the fire.

The influential Foreign Policy magazine said at the start of the week: “Looking ahead, there is a real risk that the battle to extract natural gas from the seabed could end up igniting actual conflict among the eastern Mediterranean neighbours rather than fueling rapprochement.”

Turkey it said, was meshing together two Mediterranean crises in a desperate bid to reshape the region in its own favour, with potentially nasty implications both for the ongoing civil war in Libya and future energy development in the eastern Mediterranean. The surprise visit by Erdogan to Tunisia on Christmas Day seeking to secure a navy base that would support it in Libya, was another attempt to carve out a dominant position in the region.

Ankara has been experiencing increased isolation since its incursion into Syria and is still at odds with the US, not to mention Saudi Arabia over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. On top of that, it sees Cyprus’ neighbours – Greece, Israel and Egypt as ganging up against it on gas exploration and cutting it out of the picture. The signing of the EastMed pipeline deal between Greece, Cyprus and Israel in Athens on January 2 is also likely a contributing factor in Erdogan’s rush flex Turkey’s muscles in the wider region.

First Ankara’s main beef was with Cyprus and it sent drillships into the island’s EEZ, and signed a pipeline pact with the Turkish Cypriot ‘government’ which is gladly playing along to stick it to the Greek Cypriots. Then, none of the international players, including the toothless EU and UN, paid much attention other than urging a Cyprus solution and offering supportive platitudes but minimal sanctions against Turkish provocations which have become more belligerent over time, the latest being the deployment of drones at an airport in the north to aid the search for hydrocarbons.

With the Libya factor however, it seems the whole EEZ show is entering the big league which adds a new unpredictable dimension. Even though the Turkey-Libya maritime delimitation agreement is unlikely to be recognised internationally and came across as nothing but a gesture of defiance, adding troops into the mix is another ball game entirely.

Washington, in the past, might have stepped in to defuse tensions among Nato allies Greece and Turkey but it’s not just about them now. Also, the current US Middle East policies are at the very least erratic. There are also big American energy interests operating off Cyprus, and the new East Med pact involving Nicosia and Athens is mainly designed to curb Russia’s influence in the region, all of which means it’s unlikely the Yanks will be viewed as a credible and impartial intermediary.

Whether or not the situation escalates now depends on a diplomatic solution in Libya. If the situation in Libya does not progress to Turkey’s advantage and the side it supports loses, then the maritime accord will be moot as the other side does not support it so there is a lot at stake for Erdogan in what is being seen as a proxy war with Russia, Egypt and the UAE. Russia and Syria have also announced plans for hydrocarbons exploration in the East Med. All these latest developments have accomplished is to isolate Erdogan even further from his neighbours and a cornered wolf is something unpredictable and dangerous.

So where does this leave Cyprus? With the talks effectively shelved until after the elections in the north next April, everything will hinge on Libya. Even if a Cyprus solution was by some miracle pushed through somehow that would bring Turkish Cypriots on board with joint gas exploitation, would it ever be enough to appease Turkey, and ease growing tensions in the region?

It would be well to remember that if a point of no return is reached in terms of solving the wider regional issue through diplomacy, and a worst-case scenario develops, Turkey has already threatened the use of force against Cyprus, which would be the closest and easiest target for Ankara. According to one expert who spoke to Foreign Policy, he did not think either side would escalate intentionally “but if there is a dogfight where Cyprus or Turkey loses a ship or a plane, that could result in escalation that cannot be prevented.”

Let’s hope it does not come to that.

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