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Our View: Being right won’t help in case of incident in the East Med

The Turkish drillship Yavuz which has violated the island's EEZ on several occasions

Things appear to be veering out of control in the Mediterranean with Turkey constantly upping the ante with its actions and Greece being obliged to take a stand. Greek Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos on Thursday night said that “we will do whatever it takes to defend our sovereign rights to an absolute degree.” The options Greece was looking at included military engagement, said the minister, something nobody likes to hear.

Greece cannot, however, stay quiet with Turkey on a mission to escalate tension by its actions in the sea, completely ignoring international law and imposing its own agenda. Apart from its repeated violations of the Cypriot EEZ, the Turkish government has published a map outlining parts of Greece’s continental shelf for which its state petroleum company, TPAO, applied for exploration permits. On Thursday, after meeting the leader of the Libyan government in Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan again spoke about hydrocarbon surveys in the area south and east of Crete, claiming the region was covered by the Libya-Turkey maritime border memorandum, the legality of which is, to say the least, questionable.

As with most international disputes, there is a wider context that takes in the rivalry of Muslim states over hydrocarbons in the east Mediterranean, Erdogan’s ambition to make Turkey the key energy player in the region and Ankara’s peculiar relations with Moscow. Even Cyprus has played a part with its energy programme and trilateral alliances, which are viewed by Ankara as an attempt to exclude Turkey from the hydrocarbons exploitation in the east Mediterranean. Greece’s participation in these alliances, especially the trilateral with Israel, which has the blessing of the US and is considering the costly plan of the East Med pipeline to carry natural gas from the region to Greece, has probably fed Erdogan’s paranoia and aggressive behaviour.

Matters are further complicated by the war going on in Libya, with Turkey backing the Government of National Accord (GNA), which has just inflicted a decisive defeat on Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s forces with Turkish military assistance. Haftar’s forces that have now been driven out of Western Libya are backed by Turkey’s Muslim foes, the United Arab Emirates, France and Russia. It is the military backing of the GNA by Turkey that led to the memorandum of understanding relating to maritime zones which the US State Department described as “provocative and unhelpful” last week. US Assistant Secretary of State Francis Fannon was very clear on Tuesday when he said “International Law and the Convention of the Law of the Sea, generally recognises the islands generally have an EEZ and they have a continental shelf, just as any other land territory”, something Turkey has been vehemently disputing.

Meanwhile, a few weeks ago Cyprus participated in a five-party teleconference organised by France in which the other participants were Egypt, Greece and the UAE, to condemn Turkey’s provocative behaviour through a joint declaration. This was a spillover from the dispute in Libya, with France and the UAE, which is not even a Mediterranean country, using the violations of the Cypriot EEZ to apply some pressure on Turkey; Egypt is also at odds with Ankara. A furious Ankara dismissed the alliance as an “axis of evil” which aimed at excluding Turkey from the eastern Mediterranean, a development guaranteed to fuel Erdogan’s aggression. This may have something to do with TPAO applying for exploration permits in Greece’s continental shelf and Erdogan talking on Thursday about surveys east and south of Crete.

Erdogan has been escalating tension, provoking and pushing things towards a crisis. Greece’s government, although reluctant to follow suit, is obliged to take a firm stand and raise the military option given Turkey’s disregard for international law and continuing provocations. Only small countries like Cyprus are restricted to verbal condemnations when their sovereignty is being threatened or violated. And the reality is that international law is no protection when one country is prepared to violate it as Turkey has been doing, disregarding condemnatory announcements by international organisations or countries. The reality is that regardless of who is in the wrong everyone stands to lose if the escalation of tension sparks an incident, something that cannot be ruled out in current conditions.

There must be a concerted effort to de-escalate tension, but who would undertake this, given the tangled web of interests, rivalries and changing alliances? We can only hope the fiery rhetoric is soon replaced by rational dialogue because nobody wants an out of control situation from which everyone will lose, including those that are in the right.

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