This past Sunday, Turkey pushed a Greek-Cypriot research vessel away from what it claims to be its continental shelf, signaling their willingness to assert control over disputed regions of the Mediterranean. The confrontation takes place days before Greece and Turkey are set to resume diplomatic talks, undermining hopes of a peaceful resolution to East-Mediterranean tensions.
In a statement, the Turkish Foreign Ministry explained that “the vessel attempted to violate Turkey’s continental shelf despite Ankara’s warning that activities in the area need to be conducted in coordination with Turkey.” Cypriot Foreign Minister, Nikos Christodoulides condemned Turkey’s actions as “illegal and dangerous” warning that that “the soothing noises coming out of Turkey for a while aren’t being transformed, unfortunately, into action.”
Cyprus has long been a battlefield between Greece and Turkey, as the two Mediterranean foes spar over territorial claims, air space, and offshore energy production. Cyprus’s tensions are rooted in conflict between its majority Greek population, and its minority Turkish residents. In 1974, Greek-Cypriots ousted far-right authoritarian president, Makarios III, replacing him with the fanatically anti-Turkish Nikos Sampson. In response, Turkey staged a brutal invasion of Cyprus, seizing control of the northern 37% of the island. To this day, north Cyprus remains occupied by Turkish forces.
In recent years, massive oil reserves have been discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean exacerbating tensions between Greece and Turkey. Last year the two countries came to the brink of war after a Greek oil frigate narrowly avoided a head on collision with a Turkish survey vessel. In response, the two countries opened diplomatic talks, but these discussions quickly reached a stalemate.
Turkey’s move away from the EU has further increased tensions. Until 2016, Turkey actively pursued E.U. membership and was willing to give concessions to Greek and Cyprus in exchange for accelerated accession negotiations. However, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies and human rights violations have brought talks to a halt. As of now, Turkey has essentially given up on joining the E.U.
That being said, Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus have some economic incentives to work together. A pipeline connecting Cyprus and Turkey to the E.U. would reduce E.U. dependence on Russian gas and could prove beneficial for all countries involved. Diplomatic pressure centered around this economic motive may override territorial disputes. But this solution is complicated by the E.U.’s new emphasis on renewable energy sources. Even if Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey miraculously worked together, a pipeline may not be profitable due to decreased demand for oil.
The reality is that the East-Mediterranean problem is unlikely to be solved any time soon. As the three countries jostle to improve their economic output and international influence, America and the E.U. must focus on avoiding outright conflict. The October 6 negotiations are a step in the right direction. By repeatedly bringing the three countries to the negotiating table and threatening intense consequences for an attack, tensions will be kept from boiling over into war.
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