Countering Turkish swagger in the Eastern Mediterranean

Holding Turkey to account for its violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is certainly the first step that Greece and Cyprus must take in response to Turkey’s growing assertiveness in the Eastern Mediterranean over the past few weeks. After Ankara sent the Barbaros, a seismic survey vessel, inside Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and given its intention to set up a drilling platform within the island’s maritime borders, it makes sense to stress the recognition of Cyprus’s international status and national sovereignty.

That said, Greek and Cypriot diplomats have not stopped at invoking international law. Whether we like it or not, what really counts is cold calculations. The Greek military should be on the alert and Greece has naturally boosted its naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean area.

On a geostrategic level, the two allies must take action on three axes: One is trilateral cooperation between Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. The three states took some early, cautious steps last year in New York. These are being accelerated thanks to clear political will on all sides. In a joint statement issued after a meeting between the countries’ foreign ministers in Nicosia on Wednesday, the three states condemned Ankara, saying they “deplored the recent illegal actions perpetrated within Cyprus’s EEZ, as well as the unauthorized seismic operations being conducted therein.”

It is important that the statement was signed by a major Arab state. Egypt, after all, has the biggest Muslim population and a strategic geographical location.

A second axis is the strategic relations cultivated between Greece, Cyprus and Israel, as evidenced by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s upcoming visit to Nicosia next week and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following in late November.

A third axis concerns the deepening of cooperation with major powers, which involves providing support in various forms. In a letter sent to Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades on Wednesday, French President Francois Hollande stressed that “the position of France with regard to the right of Cyprus to exploit freely the natural resources within its Exclusive Economic Zone is clear and firm,” adding that “international law, and specifically the Law of the Sea, must be respected by all states including Turkey.”

Finally, there is the energy dimension. Amid Turkey’s provocations in Cyprus’s EEZ – where several Western firms, including US company Noble Energy, are currently operating – Greek Energy Minister Yiannis Maniatis is set to visit the US for talks with his American counterpart Ernest Moniz and Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Catherine Novelli. Maniatis will also meet with representatives of American energy giants and give a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a prominent American think tank based in Washington DC, as well as Columbia University in New York, regarding energy developments in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Greek minister is expected to analyze the role of Greece and Cyprus in boosting Europe’s energy security, which is also a key strategic objective for Washington.

By invoking international law, being on military alert, strengthening strategic alliances with regional players, and harmonizing with the geostrategic interests of the US and EU (as well as the economic interests of large international companies) in the region, Athens and Nicosia are taking cautious and systematic steps during a difficult period hoping to find more substantial backing among their allies and partners.

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