Observations on the tense period in the east Med

Observations on the tense period in the east Med

In the future, when one will want to remember the summer of 2020, the first images that will probably come to mind will be the maps of the eastern Mediterranean divided by various colored-lines, covering the background of television programs, successive naval advisory (Navtex) announcements, Turkey’s seismic survey vessel Oruç Reis, the Meis Island, the mutual challenges between Turkish and Greek warships and the dogfights between warplanes in the airspace.

Indeed, it was a period in which tension increased significantly, and as the military option was constantly on the agenda, the period had the potential to turn crisis into hot conflict in the slightest misunderstanding or misinterpreting the intentions.

In sum, we left behind a tense summer. It seems that the warm activity that was experienced gave its place to a partial calm. And — if nothing goes wrong at the 11th hour — we should see it as a positive outcome where things have started to evolve in the way of dialogue and start of negotiations. As the European Union summit, to be held on Sept. 24 and Sept. 25, approaches, all expectations — with a certain cautiousness — focus on the possibility of negotiations between Turkey and Greece.

Oruç Reis at Antalya port

Without doubt, the role of “Oruç Reis” seismic research vessel surprisingly and suddenly returning to the port of Antalya, from the field, for “maintenance” is undeniable in the way things have transformed. With this, the balances were abruptly turned in an environment where many observers were left without hope due to the increasing tensions.

In the change of gear here, it can be said that the patterns in the first period of the developments last summer has been being repeated to some extent. Let’s remember, Turkey on July 21 issued a Navtex to put Oruç Reis in the field and in the same day, 18 warships consecutively set sail over the Aksaz naval base. When the atmosphere immediately got tense, Germany stepped in, and with Berlin as the intermediary, quiet talks between Ankara and Athens commenced. Within this period, Ankara kept Oruç Reis at the Antalya Port.

According to the agreement reached in this process, the announcement for the three-levelled meetings between Turkey and Greece — exploratory talks on bilateral issues, talks on the military and political levels — would be announced on Aug. 7. Yet, when Greece and Egypt sealed an accord defining maritime zones on Aug. 6, the whole prepared scenario was spoiled. As a reaction, Turkey on Aug. 9 sent Oruç Reis to the Navtex area in the middle of eastern Mediterranean, which it had announced earlier. Greece, claiming that the region is within its continental shelf, showed a strong reaction and attempted to instigate the EU.

After this incident, a warmer period came where tensions rose every single day, in August and at least for the first two weeks of September.

Just at this moment, on Sept. 13, Turkey retreated Oruç Reis to Antalya Port. The expectation here is not to have a crisis, like the one in the beginning of August, and that the negotiations between Turkey and Greece can start this time around without an accident.

No homogenous approach within EU

Now, we can make a series of observations about the developments of the past:

A result of the past period for Ankara is to have created an awareness about Turkey’s disagreements with Greece on the maritime jurisdiction areas in eastern Mediterranean.

We especially witnessed an exercise in which the thesis where Greece’s claims on a continental shelf that extends from the Meis Island, just two kilometers from the Turkish resort town of Kaş, to the middle of Mediterranean, by acting as it is the mainland, is not realistic and is unreasonable.

Another important result of this period is that Greece was unable to completely pull the EU, in which it is a full member, as a bloc to itself. While France was giving its full support to Greece, the fact that Germany was on a more balanced approach and that prominent EU actors such as Italy and Spain support this approach to some extent, showed that a homogeneous approach was not shaped within the EU.

We should also consider NATO’s approach as well. Because Turkey is a NATO ally, the alliance has a more balanced approach in the crisis. NATO is stepping in to start talks between Turkish and Greek military officials, in a bid to reduce the risk of clashes, and that it formed a basis for this had an effect on leveling down the tensions.

Return to traditional diplomacy

All of these results, and the fact that Turkey is able to put forth its own thesis in the field, is a derivative of Ankara using its military power in a significant manner to force the balances in the eastern Mediterranean.

However, it is inevitable that this method called “gunboat diplomacy” becoming a way of obtaining a result will create a problem for reputation. Additionally, this method always containing the risk of hot conflict is another important drawback.

The whole point here is to follow a policy which includes a reasonable balance between “gunboat diplomacy” and the language of traditional diplomacy. It is calming that the diplomacy dimension kicked in finally, even though it as late.

Opening new doors in east Med

In addition, a more fundamental point is needed to be observed. The developments we witnessed make a more general calculation obligatory on Turkey’s foreign policy and the balances of its eastern Mediterranean policy in this context. Even though Turkey gained support from some EU countries in the last crisis, it still has to deal with the fact that a very wide-range alliance against it has been formed by regional actors in the eastern Mediterranean.

Today, the Greece and Greek Cyprus duo fully pulled Egypt and Israel to themselves. By this, they obtained an important ground against Turkey in the regional power balance of the eastern Mediterranean. France and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are also a part of this alliance on the adversity against Turkey.

Such a situation should never have occurred. At least from now on, Turkey should think about the diplomacy manoeuvres with which it can open some doors for itself, within this said extensive alliance. It is not difficult to imagine the risks of being in conflict with regional actors can create for Turkey.