The eastern Mediterranean: back to power politics
In the 1990s the eastern Mediterranean region was characterized by balance-of-power politics. The end of bipolar competition had induced competition among regional powers. Turkey, for instance, developed its strategic thinking on the region then. At that time, the protracted Cyprus conflict was beginning to be viewed in a larger geo-strategic context. Control of sea access, oil transport and influence in the Middle East all became part of the larger strategic constellation. Turkish-Syrian relations deteriorated in the 1990s until the signing of the Adana Agreement in 1998 – something that was also part of Turkey’s new strategy. One response from Ankara to the perceived threats was the development of strategic ties with Israel. The two countries had engaged in naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean; Jordan also participated as an observer. In response, Greece’s relations with Syria also developed. Clearly, balance-of-power politics reigned.
After the signing of the Adana agreement in 1998, Turkish-Syrian relations were transformed. The improvement of relations between the two states introduced a new element in the eastern Mediterranean. The policies of the first Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government signaled a change of perspective on the eastern Mediterranean. In addition to the transformation of Turkish-Syrian relations, there was a general improvement in Turkey’s relations with the Arab world in general. A new perspective was introduced on the Cyprus issue as well with the support given to the Annan Plan. Turkish-Greek rapprochement that was started by the previous government continued. In fact, Turkey was talking about “peaceful diplomacy and economic interdependence” in the eastern Mediterranean.
Yet two issues began to challenge this policy. First, the Cyprus issue remained unresolved. Second, Turkey’s relations with Israel began to deteriorate. As a result, we have been witnessing another change in the political geography of the eastern Mediterranean. One result has been the forging of closer ties between Israel and Greece in recent years. The two countries conducted a joint military exercise in 2008 and Israeli pilots were allowed to practice in Greek airspace. All this culminated in the signing of a security cooperation agreement between the two countries recently.
Another issue that is heating up for some time is related to energy policies. Oil exploration rights around Cyprus have become the subject of a rift between Greek Cyprus and Turkey. The issue has a regional dimension as Greek Cypriots have been signing exclusive economic zone agreements with some eastern Mediterranean countries. The Cyprus energy issue has the potential to escalate.
On the other hand, Turkey has been increasing its military presence in the region. In 2010 a Navy Task Force for the Mediterranean was created. Turkey’s response to the U.N. Palmer Report on last year’s Gaza flotilla attack also made clear the securitization of politics in the eastern Mediterranean. It seems that we have returned to balance-of-power politics in the region after a very short interval.