Heat In, and Over, the Eastern Med

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeking the major role in both the Arab Spring and the wintry chill between Israel and the Palestinians, may be headed for a major confrontation on more than one front and involving several parties, including Turkey itself, Israel, Cyprus, the European Union and the United States of America.

Last December, Israel and Cyprus signed an agreement concerning exploration for hydrocarbon resources beneath the seabed between the two countries, setting the median line as the mutual boundary in the absence of a full economic zone on either side (just 230 nautical miles separate the two shores) and pledging unspecified cooperation with respect to future exploration.  Since Israel (for unrelated reasons) has not signed the UN Law of the Sea Treaty, the parties cited other unremarkable legal justifications for the agreement.  Turkey, itself not a signatory to UNCLOS, objected at once on the wholly unsustainable grounds that the interests of Turkish-Cypriots had been ignored, i.e., that the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” itself has a legitimate interest in the seabed area at stake.  That so-called “state”, proclaimed unilaterally in 1983, has since been recognized by neither the UN nor any state on earth other than Turkey and has no standing whatsoever in international law.

The Cypriot daily “Phileleftheros” reported on September 14th that Turkish fighter and reconnaissance aircraft had flown through Cypriot airspace – by no means for the first time – and are patrolling the area off of the eastern coast of the island opposite Israel, while Israeli aircraft are monitoring the median line.  On September 8, an article in “The Cyprus Mail” reported that exploration on the Cypriot side will be undertaken by an American firm, Houston-based “Noble Energy”, which has announced that it will proceed with drilling later this month despite the Turkish threats in coordination with the U.S. State Department and the American Embassy in Nicosia.

Every bit as important, the same article of September 8 reports as follows:  QUOTE  The European Commission yesterday issued its strongest rebuke yet to Turkey over its threatening behaviour towards Cyprus’ efforts to drill for hydrocarbon reserves within its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).  Unfazed, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continued to raise the stakes in his row with Israel and Cyprus over hydrocarbon explorations in the eastern Mediterranean, vowing yesterday to stop them from exploiting natural resources in the area while also pledging to send warships to escort aid to Gaza. The EU, through Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, yesterday “urged Turkey to refrain from any kind of threat, sources of friction or action which could negatively affect good neighborly relations and the peaceful settlement of border disputes.”  In a released statement, Fule said, “The Commission regrets any statements that are not conducive to this objective,” noting that it “regularly reiterates these issues in its discussions with Turkey and will continue to monitor Turkey’s commitments to good neighborly relations in the light of the principle of peaceful settlement of disputes.”  The Commission further highlighted the importance of progress in the normalization of relations between Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus. The EU also “stressed all the sovereign rights of EU member states which include entering into bilateral agreements, in accordance with the EU acquis and international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.”  The Commission underlined the “urgent need” to reach a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus issue.  END QUOTE

These reports, in combination with earlier Turkish threats relating to potential Israeli reaction to a second Gaza flotilla mission, point both to imminent danger and longer-term negative consequences for all those parties mentioned in the lead paragraph above.  An armed conflict between Turkey and Israel cannot be ruled out, given the unbending stances of the two, no matter what frantic negotiations are surely under way.  The strong EU statement and Erdogan’s apparent determination not to let the prospects for EU membership, if indeed he still judges it to be in his or Turkey’s long-term interests, get in the way of his drive for regional leadership only serve opponents of membership within the EU.  US interests in these developments are all too obvious, quite aside from the undeniably legal right of an American firm to drill on behalf of the universally recognized Republic of Cyprus.

A final note: is it not absurd for the Prime Minister of Turkey on his current tour to be lecturing Arabs on the benefits of democracy while presiding over the massive, thirty-seven-year-old military occupation of some forty percent of Cyprus, a member in good standing of both the UN and the EU?

By Alan Berlind.

2 thoughts on “Heat In, and Over, the Eastern Med

  1. Maggie Kellogg September 19, 2011 / 1:04 PM

    Likewise, the op-ed piece by Thomas Friedman published on September 17, “Israel: Adrift at Sea Alone,” may also be of interest to those following recent events unfolding in the eastern Mediterranean involving directly many of the region’s key players. Below is a brief excerpt from the piece:

    “I’ve never been more worried about Israel’s future. The crumbling of key pillars of Israel’s security — the peace with Egypt, the stability of Syria and the friendship of Turkey and Jordan — coupled with the most diplomatically inept and strategically incompetent government in Israel’s history have put Israel in a very dangerous situation.

    This has also left the U.S. government fed up with Israel’s leadership but a hostage to its ineptitude, because the powerful pro-Israel lobby in an election season can force the administration to defend Israel at the U.N., even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s.

    Israel is not responsible for the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt or for the uprising in Syria or for Turkey’s decision to seek regional leadership by cynically trashing Israel or for the fracturing of the Palestinian national movement between the West Bank and Gaza. What Israel’s prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, is responsible for is failing to put forth a strategy to respond to all of these in a way that protects Israel’s long-term interests.”

    To read the full article, please visit the New York Times website at http://www.nytimes.com.

  2. Maggie Kellogg September 19, 2011 / 12:58 PM

    The Washington Post article by Morton Abramowitz and Henri J. Barkey entitled “Obama must deal with Turkey-Israel crisis,” published on September 16, may be of interest to our readers of Mr. Berlind’s post here – as well as his earlier posts, especially that from September 8 entitled “Israel, Turkey, and U.S. National Security” – on the key issue of Israeli-Turkish relations. Below is a brief excerpt from the piece:

    “U.S. policy in the Middle East is floundering. President Obama’s two most important allies in the region are on a collision course. It will not be resolved by the State Department’s injunction to Turkey and Israel to “cool it.”

    Turkey’s importance to Washington is clear: its involvement in NATO and its forces in Afghanistan; its strong economic ties to northern Iraq; its ongoing cooperation against terrorism; and, most recently, its role in the NATO missile defense shield. The depth of the U.S.-Turkey alliance makes the crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations one that equally involves the United States.

    Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expanded his confrontation with Israel beyond the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident and into a full-scale assault on Israel’s position in the region. He recently declared that the Turkish navy will escort Turkish vessels going to Gaza to provide aid. Washington did not grasp where Erdogan’s sustained verbal attacks on Israel were heading. He now directly challenges our major alliance in the Middle East, and how far he will go is unclear. Obama himself must acknowledge that the situation is a crisis. As the political climates in Turkey and the United States harden, Erdogan and Obama will find it increasingly difficult to compromise.”

    To read the full article, please visit The Washington Post website at http://www.washingtonpost.com.

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