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Eastern Med's waters heating up

HDN | 9/22/2011 12:00:00 AM | Semih İdiz - s i d i z @ m i l l i y e t . c o m . t r

Turkey is facing a difficult time in the eastern Mediterranean. It is almost as if we are heading for a hot confrontation in the region.

Turkey is facing a difficult time in the eastern Mediterranean. It is almost as if we are heading for a hot confrontation in the region. It is not clear, however, how much international support Ankara has against Greek Cyprus and Israel. What is certain is that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s popularity on the Arab street will not be of much use here.

The irony is that any confrontation between Turkey and Greek Cyprus over offshore drilling rights, or between Turkey and Israel due to Ankara’s pledge to maintain safe passage in the eastern Mediterranean, will serve the interests of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at this present juncture.

It is clear, especially since Prime Minister Erdoğan is not mincing his words about the regime in Damascus anymore, that Syria and Turkey are adversaries at this stage. That is why any development that draws Turkey’s attention away from Syria at the present time will be much appreciated by Assad who is fighting for his political survival.

Such and outcome will also be to Iran’s liking. Tehran is angry today at Ankara for its stance on Syria, and because it has decided to host key elements of the U.S.-led missile defense shield project which is clearly aimed at Iran.

It appears that the Greek Cypriot administration is aware of this backdrop, and is trying to force Ankara’s hand by initiating offshore drilling without consideration of the rights of Turkish Cypriots. It is also disregarding the fact that the U.N. Secretary General has initiated a new round of Cyprus talks which stands to be harmed by such activity.

Meanwhile, speculative reports suggesting that Greece and Israel are establishing strategic ties against Turkey also appear to be pleasing to Greek Cypriots, who are also relying strongly on Russia’s help in this new dispute with the Turkish side.

Moscow’s support is of course not surprising and has been there for Greek Cypriots for some time. Any show of force by Turkey against Greek Cyprus in the coming days could therefore leave Ankara and Moscow at odds.

The Greek Cypriot administration is also relying on the fact that the offshore drilling will be done by the American Noble Energy company. The hope is that Washington will come out in defense of an American company, even if this creates difficulties with its critical ally, Turkey.

It is noticeable, however, that the Barack Obama administration has not leaned toward one side or the other in this dispute yet, preferring mostly to remain in the middle. From there, it is cautioning Turkey and the Greek Cypriots to avoid any regrettable confrontation.

The situation for Washington in terms of the Turkish-Israeli standoff is trickier, though. That two key allies in the region should be fighting in this way is a source of deep concern for the Obama administration. It is not clear what kind of a policy Washington will follow if Turkey and Israel move toward a hot confrontation. What is clear is that this is a very messy diplomatic problem for President Obama.

The EU’s relatively muted response to Turkey in its standoff with Greek Cyprus, on the other hand, is clearly displeasing to Greek Cypriots. Media reports suggest that both the EU Commission and the Polish-term presidency have advised Greek Cyprus not to start drilling activities at this sensitive moment.

It is very unlikely, however, that this advice will be taken, especially when there are member states which oppose Turkish membership, and will be more than ready to use any confrontation between Greek Cyprus and Turkey to hit at Ankara. It would be naïve to assume that the Greek Cypriot administration is not relying on these members if and when things start heating up in earnest.

To sum up, it is clear that the waters of the eastern Mediterranean are heating up and that Turkey is facing a multi-problem environment in this region. This is quite a change from the days when Ankara was aiming for “zero problems” in its regional ties.

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