Turkey resumes aggressive East Med policies, ratchets up tensions

Turkey’s president called a maritime deal between Greece and Egypt “worthless” Friday and said his country would resume its aggressive oil and gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean regardless of what its neighbours think.

“We have started drilling work again,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters on Friday. “We don’t feel obliged to talk with those who do not have rights in maritime jurisdiction zones.”

Resumed exploration paves the way for drilling activities by Turkey and is bound to raise tensions in the East Med region - possibly triggering European Union sanctions against Ankara.

Egypt and Greece signed a maritime deal on Thursday that sets the sea boundary between the two countries and demarcates an exclusive economic zone for oil and gas drilling rights.

Erdoğan claimed the Egyptian Greek deal was a response to a maritime agreement Turkey made with Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, last November.

That agreement spiked tensions in the eastern Mediterranean region and was dismissed by the governments of Egypt, Cyprus and Greece as infringing on their economic rights in the oil-rich Mediterranean Sea. Erdoğan vowed to keep his pact with Libya’s Islamist dominated-government in place as it offered Turkey a favourable maritime demarcation map even if it ruffled the feathers of regional neighbours.

Ankara’s maritime border demarcation deal with the GNA was coupled with another that paved the way for Turkish military intervention in Libya in support of GNA as it was on the verge of being overrun by the Libyan National Army (LNA) last spring.

Turkey has accused Greece of trying to exclude it from the benefits of oil and gas finds in the Aegean Sea and eastern Mediterranean, arguing that sea boundaries for commercial exploration should be divided between the Greek and Turkish mainlands and not include the Greek islands on an equal basis.

The Turkish president said his country had paused exploration in the disputed waters based on a request from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and after Turkish, Greek and German representatives launched talks to try resolve differences between Greece and Turkey. Athens counters that Turkey’s position is a violation of international law.

But Erdoğan seems to have been aching all-along to end the pause as continued exploration and drilling in the eastern Mediterranean were part of his regional strategy of expanding de facto control by Turkey of the region’s maritime resources. He quickly used the announcement of the deal between Greece and Egypt to expedite the drilling activities.

He said on Friday the Turkish research vessel Barbaros Hayreddin, which is sailing off the western coast of Cyprus, would be working in the area.

“We have immediately resumed exploration activities,” Erdoğan said after Friday prayers in the recently reconverted Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul.

In a brief statement late Thursday, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry dismissed earlier comments from the Turkish Foreign Ministry as “bizarre,” saying Turkey did not review the deal and its details. The Turkish ministry had declared the deal “null and void” and said it attempted to usurp Libya’s rights.

Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Greece and Cyprus last month jointly sent a letter to the secretary-general of the United Nations asking that the U.N. not register the Turkey-Libya maritime border deal in its list of international treaties.

Experts have raised doubts about the legal competence of Sarraj to enter into such a deal having only a temporary if not an expired mandate to head Libya’s presidential council. Media reports said Sarraj himself shared in some of those reservations before signing the deal under “Turkish pressure”.

The five countries said last year’s deal gravely jeopardises regional stability and security. They contend the agreement disregards the rights of other eastern Mediterranean states and contravenes international law by not recognising island rights in maritime zones.

This article was republished with permission from the Arab Weekly.