Spotlight: Turkish interests at risk amid containment in Eastern Mediterranean: analysts

Source: Xinhua| 2019-04-28 19:33:24|Editor: Xiaoxia
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ISTANBUL, April 28 (Xinhua) -- As Turkey finds itself isolated in the Eastern Mediterranean amid the U.S.-backed cooperation among some countries for gas drilling off Cyprus, analysts cautioned that Ankara's interests would be dealt a heavy blow unless it acts against efforts to contain it.

"Turkey's ability to project power in the region risks being crippled by the alliances Greece and Greek Cypriots have formed with some regional powers as well as the U.S.," Cahit Armagan Dilek, director of the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute, told Xinhua.

Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus, which represents the Greek Cypriots on the divided island, are at loggerheads over the Greek Cypriots' gas exploration off southern Cyprus.

Ankara says some of the gas fields claimed by the Greek side overlap with the exclusive economic zone of Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots who live in the northern part of the island.

Greece, Israel and the Republic of Cyprus are cooperating to construct an undersea pipeline, EastMed pipeline project, that will carry Cypriot and Israeli natural gas to Europe.

As a sign of support to the project, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joined the leaders of the three countries for a summit in Israel on March 20, and a joint statement issued after the meeting pledged to "defend against external malign influences" in the Eastern Mediterranean and the broader Middle East.

The "malign influences" are widely seen as a thinly veiled reference to the Turkish navy's maneuvers in the past to block Greek Cypriot efforts to drill for gas.

"The partnership that began as energy cooperation got focused on the sharing of the resources and has now turned into a military alliance," said Dilek, a former captain in the Turkish Navy.

Both Greece and the Republic of Cyprus, which is not recognized by Ankara, have held several joint military drills with Israel since the end of last year when gas exploration activities by Greek Cypriots off southern Cyprus refueled tension with Ankara.

Ankara argues that the Turkish Cypriots should also have a share of the revenues of the gas to be drilled, while Nicosia says the Turkish side would get its share after the eventual reunification of the island.

Egypt is also in close cooperation with Greece and Greek Cypriots regarding territorial and gas exploration rights in the Mediterranean and regional security.

Most recently, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus held joint air and naval exercises last November and in mid-April.

"The U.S. and Western support to the unilateral and unlawful claims by the Greek Cypriots over natural gas reserves potentially sets the stage for protracted tension and conflict in the eastern Mediterranean," Faruk Logoglu, a former senior Turkish diplomat, told Xinhua.

"No activity can be carried out in the Mediterranean without Turkey, and we would never allow that," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said back in February.

The Republic of Cyprus concluded long ago bilateral maritime border demarcation agreements with Israel, Egypt and Lebanon, while Turkey is yet to declare its own exclusive economic zone in the Mediterranean.

Ankara's isolation in the region was further underlined by the establishment in January of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum.

Other than Egypt where the forum headquarters is based, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority are the founding members of the forum.

Noting the U.S. is in search of obtaining military bases in the Greek-held southern Cyprus as well as in Greece, Dilek said, "The siege around Turkey aims to force it to give up its rights in the Aegean and the Mediterranean and to pull its troops from the northern part of Cyprus."

The U.S. search for new military bases and its increasing support for the Greek side came at a time when the ties between Ankara and Washington, two NATO allies, have been highly strained over an array of disputes including U.S. support to the Kurdish militia in Syria and Ankara's attempt to get Russia-made S-400 air defense system.

It is widely argued that losing Cyprus would hugely cut off Turkey's supply lines considering that the Aegean Sea is dotted with hundreds of Greek islands.

"Cyprus is like a natural aircraft carrier that could serve as a forward operating base for the Middle East and North Africa," stated Dilek.

Cyprus was split along ethnic lines in 1974, when Turkey intervened militarily following a military coup by Athens-backed Greek Cypriots. Numerous reunification talks between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots have failed.

The self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is only recognized by Turkey.

Earlier this month, two U.S. senators submitted a bill aiming to facilitate energy cooperation between the U.S., Israel, Greece and the Republic of Cyprus as well as boosting security ties with Washington's partners in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The bill also proposes to lift the prohibition on arms sales to Greek Cypriots whose participation in NATO's partnership for peace program is, it says, in Washington's interest.

"It is true that Turkey has lagged behind in taking appropriate steps to protect its interests," said Logoglu, who feels Ankara must now conduct a two-pronged policy.

One is to assert its rights by continuing seismic research in waters that properly belong to Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots, while the other is to start a diplomatic offensive to explain its case to all the relevant parties and develop agreements with the littoral states, including Palestine, for the mutual exploration of natural gas, Logoglu explained.

"Turkey must declare its exclusive economic zone in cooperation with the littoral states as well as establish military bases in the Turkish-held part of the island," remarked Dilek.