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Disputes over energy are not the only crisis in the eastern Mediterranean

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives before a meeting with European Commission President and EU Council President at the EU headquarters in Brussels on 9 March, 2020 [JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images]
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives before a meeting with European Commission President and EU Council President at the EU headquarters in Brussels on 9 March, 2020 [JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images]

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent remarks that, “If Greece does not know its place, Turkey knows how to answer”, drew a swift and equally menacing response from Athens. Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos declared that his country is ready for all eventualities, including military confrontation with Turkey if it continues to threaten Greece.

Such hostility by neighbouring countries prompts us to ask what the underlying reasons are for this alarming tension.

Fifteen years ago, in the summer of 2005, Greek television aired a Turkish film series called Foreign Groom. It was a love story about a young Greek man and a young Turkish woman. Aired on both sides of of the Aegean, the series played on the misconceptions and prejudices of both Turks and Greeks. Through its light comedy, it highlighted the common heritage and geography that the two nations share. Today, though, it has become apparent that the Greek media has altered its editorial policies radically to project sentiments that are obviously anti-Turkish.

This shift in media policy is linked to the flow of illegal migrants that began almost ten years ago. The rapid growth in their numbers led to an escalation of tension between Turkey and Greece. The Greek authorities have accused Turkey of channeling thousands of migrants to its border; the claims are based on satellite images showing large numbers of people on the move and heading in that direction.

READ: France and US request to join East Mediterranean Gas Forum 

Turkey, meanwhile, maintains that it has reached the end of its capacity to absorb more than the three million Syrian refugees that it currently hosts. That is why, after the killing of fifty Turkish soldiers in northern Syria in late February this year, Turkey decided to open its border with Greece at the beginning of March. In effect, it was allowing those who wished to go to Europe to leave. Inevitably, this worsened the refugee crisis and heightened tension between Turkey and Greece, as well as between Turkey and the EU.

President Erdogan has argued that the decision to open the borders was “fully” in line with international law. He insisted that Turkey was facing a major influx of people fleeing Russian and Syrian air strikes and had asked the EU for help, which was not forthcoming. Turkey’s warnings about the danger of the migrant influx were ignored. The EU did not, alleges the government in Ankara, fulfil its part of the 2016 migrant deal with Turkey.

Apart from the migrant issue, Turkish-Greek tensions were aggravated by Greece’s growing ties with Egypt and Israel in what seemed to be an emerging anti-Turkish alliance. In 2010, the three countries started joint gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean to form a self-declared “Energy Triangle”. Turkey’s concern about protecting its own energy interests in the region was heightened when the Greek-Cypriot leader, Nicos Anastasiades, hosted Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi at the Fifth Trilateral Summit in 2017 during which they pledged to boost cooperation between their countries.

READ: Turkey rescues asylum seekers jeopardised by Greece

Still on the question of energy, Turkey’s 2019 maritime borders and gas exploration agreement with Libya’s internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) was criticised by Greece. Ankara insists that the agreement created an exclusive economic zone from its southern coast to Libya’s north-east coast, and protects the rights of both countries to their resources. According to the Turkish Institute for National Security Studies, it would also have significant regional implications by weakening the evolving Greece-Cyprus-Egypt-Israel camp.

Moreover, on the cultural front, the Greek government has rejected the recently-proposed conversion of Turkey’s historic Hagia Sophia Museum into a mosque, stating that the move could provoke inter-religious tensions. During the event marking the 567th anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul) held at the Hagia Sophia – a UNESCO World Heritage Site — on 29 May, the Greek media denounced Turkey for allowing recitations of the Holy Qur’an there. “Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who set up a fiesta outside Hagia Sophia for the Fall of Constantinople, carried out his threat by reading a Qur’an prayer inside the temple,” said one outlet.

It is clear that while the eastern Mediterranean has seen a number of disputes over gas exploration and maritime boundaries, there remain a number of other, deeper problems that are rooted in the region’s history. Turkey’s longstanding dispute with Greece over Cyprus, the question of illegal migration and Greece’s growing ties with Egypt and Israel in what seems to be an anti-Turkish alliance, have all combined to foster mistrust.

READ: Russia church reject Turkey’s Hagia Sophia mosque conversion plans

While all of these problems may seem to be entirely distinct issues, the reality is that they are very much interlinked. Consequently, it is inconcevable that the issue of gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean will be resolved without the implementation of the refugee agreement between Turkey and Europe on the one hand and a counterbalance to the drilling activities by Greece and its new-found allies Israel and Egypt on the other. Until then, these tensions will continue to simmer. If not addressed, they may eventually boil over and engulf the region in a more deadly manifestation.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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