Turkey plays balancing act in projecting power in east Med

At a time when Israel is looking to exploit offshore gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to send Turkish frigates and assault boats to the area.

At a time when Israel is looking to exploit offshore gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to send Turkish frigates and assault boats to the area.At a time when Israel is looking to exploit offshore gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to send Turkish frigates and assault boats to the area

While Turkey is actively pursuing a carrot-and-stick approach in a balancing act to protect its own interests in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkish analysts are warning that Ankara should proceed diligently and cautiously in dealing with a simmering conflict in the region over drilling rights for potentially rich hydrocarbon resources in order to avoid perception problems ranging from bullying power to strong-arming its neighbors.
For some time Turkey has been at odds with the Greek Cypriots over natural gas exploration plans and threatened to respond if the Greek Cypriot administration goes ahead with drilling as announced. Israel, which signed an agreement last November demarcating its maritime borders with the Greek Cypriots, infuriated Ankara, which called the deal “null and void.” The deal invited the wrath of the Turkish government, whose outspoken prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during a visit to Tunisia on Thursday vowed to send Turkish frigates and assault boats to the eastern Mediterranean.Experts argue that Turkey should take other steps before escalating the crisis into an armed confrontation and instead should further focus on solidifying an international coalition against a unilateral declaration of drilling rights in the region. One such example could be Turkey’s partnering with regional heavyweight Egypt on joint energy projects. Although the Greek Cypriot administration signed an agreement with Egypt in 2003 to delineate sea boundaries in order to pave the way for oil and gas exploration, the deal remained only on paper. During Erdoğan’s visit to Egypt this week the tables were turned when both governments signed an accord establishing a High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council.Among the agreements signed were two energy-related memorandums of understanding with Egypt. Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yildiz said Turkey may carry out gas exploration in the Mediterranean with Egypt. “Turkey and Egypt may work together in oil and gas,” he said, adding that the issue had been discussed with Egyptian counterparts.Professor Mehmet Seyfettin Erol of the Ankara-based Gazi University says Turkey should concentrate its policy on convincing international partners to be on its side in this issue. “The circumstances are right for Turkey as both the US and the EU do not want to add new woes to a region still experiencing revolts and uprisings during the so-called Arab Spring. There may be different arguments from the perspective of international law, but in the end it all boils down to who has more leverage and power. Turkey should seek more partners against the Israel-Greek Cypriot coalition on this issue,” he told Sunday’s Zaman.On Thursday, Turkey announced a tit-for-tat policy to prevent drilling in the region without first settling the account with the Turkish Cypriots, whose rights and jurisdiction have been overlooked on the divided island. Turkey said it will sign an agreement on the delineation of the continental shelf with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) if Greek Cyprus moves ahead with its plans to drill for natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean, a development set to escalate tensions in the region.

The decision emerged after talks between Turkish and Turkish Cypriot officials in Turkey, according to a statement by the Turkish Foreign Ministry, released on Thursday. A Turkish Cypriot delegation visited Turkey at the invitation of the Turkish government, according to the statement.

A Turkish delegation headed by the deputy undersecretary of the Energy and Natural Resources Ministry visited the KKTC on Friday at the invitation of KKTC authorities. The delegation included officials from the General Directorate of Petroleum Affairs, the Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) and the Foreign Ministry. Sources said the KKTC government might identify some areas claimed by Greek Cyprus as part of its continental shelf in the eastern Mediterranean.

Birol Ertan, a political scientist who specializes in Cyprus, said the red lines for Turkey are very clear when it comes to protecting rights in both the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. “By signing exclusive economic zone agreements with Israel, the Greek Cypriots want to render Turkish policies in the region ineffective,” he said, stressing that the real aim of the Jewish state is to corner Turkey because of tension created by the flotilla incident last year during which Israeli commandos killed one Turkish-American and eight Turkish civilians on an aid ship bound for Gaza. “Israel is pursuing a policy of ‘an enemy of my enemy is my friend’ by signing secret deals with the Greek Cypriots,” Ertan told Sunday’s Zaman.

Turkey objects to any Greek Cypriot search for oil and gas inside the island’s 51,000-square-kilometer (17,000 square mile) exclusive economic zone off its southern coast, saying it is in violation of the rights of the Turkish Cypriots who run their own state in the north of the island. Meanwhile, Turkey is considering its own plans to start oil and gas exploration off the coast of Turkish Cyprus. Greek Cyprus launched an initial licensing round in 2007 and is set to offer a second round of licensing for offshore oil and gas exploration later this year. In response, the Turkish government in July 2008 issued a decree authorizing the state-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) to explore for oil beyond Turkish territorial waters in the Mediterranean.

Cyprus was split into a Greek Cypriot south and a Turkish Cypriot north in 1974, when Turkey intervened in response to a coup by supporters of a union with Greece. Greek Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, but only the internationally recognized south enjoys membership benefits. Only Turkey recognizes Turkish Cyprus, where it maintains a military presence of 35,000 troops.

Erol argues that Israel is pursuing a containment policy against Turkey by bolstering its ties with Turkey’s neighbors and is getting involved in disputes that Turkey has been party to. “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visits to Greece, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria and Greek Cyprus might be regarded within that context,” he stated. Erol cautioned that the Jewish state would very much like to portray Turkey as a bullying power in the eastern Mediterranean. “This would scare many Arabs and other Mediterranean countries and help eliminate the goodwill Turkey has earned in recent years on Arab streets and capitals,” he noted.

Israel, which has been at odds with Turkey since the Gaza onslaught in December 2008/January 2009 during which more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed, mostly civilians, was looking to get back at Turkey, experts here in Ankara believe. The relationship between old allies deteriorated rapidly when Israel refused to offer an apology for the killing of nine Turks in the flotilla, prompting Ankara to expel senior Israeli diplomats including the ambassador. Defense contracts were frozen and military ties were suspended.

Rıdvan Karluk, dean at the faculty of economics and international relations at Anadolu University, believes Turkey should be concerned about possible provocations from the Israeli government in the hot waters of the Mediterranean Sea. “The Egyptian deal signed this week was important, and Turkey should expand this coalition further. It must act very carefully and with common sense, mindful of the fact that a civilian Turkish aid ship was violently raided by Israeli commandos last year,” he told Sunday’s Zaman.

Karluk pointed out that the Mediterranean Sea belongs to many nations and that any issues should be dealt with under a multilateral approach. “This would strengthen Turkey’s hand in the region. Being right on the point of international law is not enough, as we saw in the UN’s Palmer report sanctioning the illegal Gaza blockade by Israel. You have to have allies in the UN to make your case,” he added.

Turkey is also lobbying Brussels to put a stop to exploration attempts by its member Greek Cyprus. The EU, which implicitly sided with the Greek Cypriots on the issue within the context of the EU’s integrated maritime policy, was warned by Turkey that it also has a stake in what seems to be high-roller poker game. Turkey’s permanent representative to the European Union has suggested that member states should urge Greek Cyprus to “see reason” in order to stop the dispute over gas exploration from getting worse. “We are not the ones who started exploration in disputed waters … the EU can tell the Greek Cypriots they have to be reasonable,” Ambassador Selim Kuneralp said in an interview with online news portal EUobserver.com.

While making its case heard on international platforms, Turkey knows that whoever controls the conditions on the ground may have a better position at the table. That is why Erdoğan announced that Turkish frigates and assault boats might be sent to the eastern Mediterranean at any time to ensure freedom of navigation. “Israel will not be able to move in the eastern Mediterranean as it wishes. It will see our determination in this regard,” he said at a joint press conference with Tunisian interim Prime Minister Beji Caid el Sebsi on Thursday. Turkey will ensure freedom of navigation for all ships, not just those headed to Gaza, Erdoğan added.

Erdoğan’s statement reflects a looming danger in the region as the date was set for initial exploration by US energy company Noble Energy early next month, raising the stakes further. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu warned the Greek Cypriot government last week against drilling for hydrocarbons in the Mediterranean, saying that Ankara will show the “appropriate reaction” if Greek Cyprus moves forward with exploration plans. “We will show the appropriate reaction if any further step is taken,” Davutoğlu told reporters, stressing that the Greek Cypriot administration does not have the right to embark on oil and gas exploration in the Mediterranean unless the Cyprus issue is resolved and a government representing the entire island is formed.

Israel rejected statements issued by Turkey, saying it can defend the gas fields in the region. Israeli Energy Minister Uzi Landau has said, “Israel can support and secure the rigs that we are going to have in the Mediterranean,” following the Turkish announcement to boost naval patrols in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey may partner with Lebanon on the gas exploration controversy since Lebanon has accused Israel of breaking international law by exploring for gas without an agreement on the maritime border between the two countries, which are formally at war.

It was the worst timing for Turkey to have soured ties with Syria, another Mediterranean country in the eastern rim and a former ally. When Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad defied Turkish demands to end a bloody crackdown on protesters, Ankara crossed him out, labeling him as an unreliable partner.

In a speech in Cairo this week setting out Turkey’s vision for the Middle East Erdoğan said neither he nor the Syrian people believe al-Assad anymore because he has failed to carry out reforms. “As civilian deaths increase in Syria we are seeing that reforms are not materializing and that they do not speak honestly. It is not possible to believe this,” the Turkish prime minister said. Nevertheless it is not expected that Syria will forge an alliance with the Greek Cypriots out of fear that it may be seen as partnering with Israel amid uprisings against the regime. It appears the waters in the eastern Mediterranean will get hotter in coming days and that attempts to project power either by military assets or political clout by countries in the region are already under way.

 

18 September 2011, Sunday / ABDULLAH BOZKURT, ANKARA