The governments of various countries in Europe and the Middle East were targeted in a cyber attack last week. Hackers targeted a variety of organizations and individuals, such as foreign embassies, public services, and government email services. Officials from Greece and Cyprus, as well as Iraq’s national security advisor are believed to have been targeted as well. Although the intelligence community is still investigating the attack, the hackers are believed to have been working on behalf of the Turkish government.
According to British and U.S. officials, the attacks were all targeted on countries or individuals that had a geopolitical significance to Turkey and used similar infrastructure and servers as past attacks. The government of Cyprus, when reached for comment by Reuters, declared that “relevant agencies were immediately aware of the attacks and moved to contain.” Reuters also reached out to Turkey’s Interior Ministry, which declined to comment but noted that Turkey itself was a frequent victim of cyber attacks.
Although they might deny it, Turkey is the most likely culprit behind the recent internet hijacking. This is not the first time that Turkey has used third-party hackers as proxies either. In 2018, the social media accounts of various reporters and journalists from organizations such as Bloomberg and the New York Times were targeted by a pro-government hacking group known as Ayyildiz Tim. The individuals targeted were all noted for having been outspoken critics of Turkey’s foreign policy and of its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdowan. However, the recent cyber attack has a more disturbing implication, as its timing coincides perfectly with recent tensions in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
The countries targeted by the attack were, for the most part, all those that have come to blows with Turkey over the past years. Greece, in particular, is at the forefront of this issue, and perhaps that is why so many of its sectors fell under assault. In October of 2019, Turkey began sending ships into the Aegean Sea off the coast of Cyprus with the intent to explore for untapped energy resources. However, as Greece owns most of the islands in these waters and is allowed by international law to extend its territorial waters twelve miles off any landmass, many of these resources lie within Greek waters. Turkey disputes the boundaries as it is not a party to the 1982 United Nations treaty that enshrined the 12 mile rule, and regularly sends its own vessels into these areas. These provocations serve to heighten the tensions in the region, raising the possibility of conflict between the two neighbours. This reckless sabre rattling, even if intended to do nothing more than intimidate, has the potential to ignite a conflict that neither side wants or could benefit from. To add to the severity of the situation, other countries have thrown their support behind one side or another in the dispute, inflating the issue to one that now involves the entire international community. There needs to be a de-escalation now, before either side undertakes terminal action that could have catastrophic results.
The conflict with Greece, although it might seem new-founded, has been brewing for decades now. In 1975, Turkish troops invaded the island of Cyprus as a response to a military coup that tried to unify the island with Greece. The invasion, although it did not succeed in wresting control of the island from the Hellenic residents, did succeed in partitioning it into two separate zones. In 1996, the two countries came into dispute over the ownership of the Imia/Kardak islets, which are little more than small, barren rocks in the middle of the sea. Tensions between the two countries almost erupted into conflict, and disaster was only averted by international mediation from the United States and its allies. Since then, Greece and Turkey have continued to come to blows and now it appears tensions are on the rise again.
Turkey recently signed a deal with the Libyan government, pledging its military support for the regime against anti-government rebels in exchange for the Libyan government’s explicit support for Turkish exploitation of energy resources in the Aegean Sea. At the same time, France sent its own warships into the Aegean as a show of both political and military support for Greece. The area is quickly becoming a tinder box waiting for a spark and what is needed most of all is not a war of words but for mediation before the irreversible occurs. The alternative is a conflict with a grave human cost which could destabilize the entire region.
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