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Direct Messages: The Eighth Tripartite Summit of Mediterranean countries and Turkey’s role

The eighth Tripartite Cooperation Mechanism Summit was held on 21 October in Nicosia between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, his Cypriot counterpart Nicos Anastasiades, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The outcomes of the summit, which came in affirmation of the strong ties between the three parties, included many significant messages. 

The summit tackled the threats and challenges facing the three states and means to boost cooperation. It also included consultation and coordination over political developments in regional issues of mutual interest, especially the increasing Turkish threats and how to confront them. 

Messages from the summit

The summit carried a number of significant messages:

The first message is institutionalizing the summit. Cooperation and coordination on the summit indicate there is a shift towards the summit becoming an institutional entity. Since the first summit was held in November 2014, the leaders of the three states were keen to hold the summit periodically and in rotation. The last round was hosted by Cyprus. The eight editions targeting promoting cooperation and boosting relations. 

The second message is broadening the scope of discussions. The latest summit not only strengthened trilateral relations, but tackled regional security issues, unconventional challenges in the region, and Turkish interference in a number of arenas and conflict zones. 

The third message is the strategic partnership among the three states, be it on the military level, through the Medusa joint military exercises, or growing economic and commercial partnerships. For example, Greek investments in Egypt reached 1.2 billion euros, and Egyptian exports to Greece increased to $716.772 million in 2019, recording a rise of 53 percent from 2015 to 2019. In 2019, Egyptian imports from Greece reached $1.38 billion. 

The fourth message is affirming the constants of Egypt’s policy regarding regional issues. These constants are: maintaining the unity of lands, not interfering in other countries’ internal affairs, respecting other countries’ sovereignty, supporting political settlements and shunning military solutions, combating terrorism, and facing the countries sponsoring it.  

The fifth message is entrenching the Mediterranean dimension in the Egyptian foreign policy, where the Mediterranean axis became a main axis in Egyptian foreign policy, especially in the wake of the 30 June Revolution and the discovery of Zohr oil field in 2015. 

Contexts and shifts

The messages of the summit point to a number of dynamics and shifts in the region. The most significant of these are:  

  1. Increasing Turkish threats: There are currently a number of Turkish threats in the region due to Turkey’s interference in the East Mediterranean. In Libya, Ankara is impeding international efforts represented in the Geneva 5+5 negotiations aiming at settling the Libyan conflict and holding the ceasefire. This was evident through movements including, for example, the surprise visit of the chief of staff of the Government of National Accord to Turkey, and his meeting with the Turkish defense minister and the Turkish chief of staff on 19 October. Turkey continues to promote and enhance its military presence in Libya by sending weapons and mercenaries to western Libya. Ankara wants to maximise its gains, which is why it works on faltering negotiations that may limit its gains and aspirations concerning its future role in Libya.

In the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey continues its provocations through exploring for oil near the territorial waters of Cyprus and Greece. Ankara sent its ship again to search for oil in the region after it had pulled it back on 19 September, which means that stopping exploration was a temporary maneuver to avoid international criticism. 

In tandem, Ankara is seeking to open new arenas of conflict with Greece and the international community with the aim of holding bargaining cards. Ankara announced reopening Varosha beach for the first time in 46 years, triggering an avalanche of criticism and rejection on the regional and international fronts because the move may inflame conflicts in the Mediterranean and hamper efforts to resume talks between Northern Cyprus and Turkish Cyprus.

  1. Isolating Ankara: The summit comes on the heels of individual and collective efforts to curb Turkey’s influence in the Mediterranean region. Member countries of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum signed a charter to transform the forum into a regional organization based in Cairo. The move will contribute to the formation of a collective bloc and enhance cooperation between members of the organization to confront Turkey’s moves in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Negotiations have commenced between Lebanon and Israel to demarcate their maritime borders. Despite the fact that the negotiations are still in their early stages, positive indications show that there is a lot of understanding that can lead to settling the conflict. This might make Turkey feel isolated from all the arrangements taking place in the Mediterranean. 

In addition, Egypt and Greece signed a maritime demarcation deal and an agreement to establish an Exclusive Economic Zone. Italy and Greece had earlier signed similar deals. Greece is building a 26km wall on its border with Turkey to put an end to Turkey’s exploitation of the refugees’ issue and prevent it from opening its doors to immigrants to Greece and from there to Europe. 

  1. Shifts in the positions of major powers: A number of major powers started to adopt opposing positions to Turkey’s foreign policy, such as the US, which is currently mediating between Lebanon and Israel to settle the maritime dispute between them. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a number of visits to Greece and Cyprus in September 2020. The US Congress lifted a 32-year-long arms embargo on Cyprus. The US has also intensified plans to move military assets from İncirlik to Greece. 

France has also changed its mind after the Turkish harassment of a French frigate in June 2020. The French shift was evident in deploying military personnel, participating in training exercises and maneuvers with Mediterranean countries, promoting Greece’s military capabilities, and supporting it with military vessels. 

The future of Turkey’s presence in the region

Cooperation between Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus is one of the collective movements aiming at decreasing the Turkish influence in the Mediterranean region in light of the increasing Turkish provocations. There are three possible scenarios for Turkey’s future in the region.

First: Sanctions

It is possible to deter Turkey by imposing more sanctions, especially in light of the European efforts in this regard. The sanctions may take a number of forms, such as punitive measures against Turkish exploration companies, banning Turkish ships from accessing European ports, freezing Turkey’s membership in the Customs Union, and reducing the aid allocated for Turkey’s membership in the EU.

However, European countries are divided over the efficacy of the sanctions. A number of European countries believe sanctions will increase Turkey’s hostility. The lack of European unanimity over the matter will not yield the targeted results. Turkey may also waive the refugees card and open the door for refugees to Europe. Furthermore, the economic relations between Turkey and European Union countries will hinder the enforcement of sanctions. Turkey’s exports to the European Union currently stand at 42 percent.

Second: Containment through dialogue

It is possible to decrease tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean through mediations and diplomatic tools. Those in favour of dialogue bear a number of developments in mind, including: Turkey withdrew its drilling vessel and returned it to Antioquia port on 19 September. There are also recent calls for calm by Turkey. For example, Turkey called for rapprochement with Egypt. It agreed to resume negotiations with Greece (that started in 2002 and ended in 2016 with nearly 60 unsuccessful negotiation rounds), and participate in NATO talks.  In addition, European Council President Charles Michel sought an initiative to convene a multilateral conference on the Eastern Mediterranean aimed at discussing peaceful solutions, and addressing a range of contentious issues. 

Regional and international pressures may convince Turkey to adopt the diplomatic option. However, Ankara’s goodwill is still being tested. Calls for talks may be yet another maneuver by Recep Tayyip Erdogan to overcome the current impasse until Ankara reviews its calculations and explore for gas once more and violate international law, particularly because all of Erdogan’s moves in the Eastern Mediterranean are based on the Blue Homeland strategy that Turkey shall not give up on easily. 

Third: The military option

If European countries failed to impose sanctions on Turkey and diplomatic efforts did not reduce tension, escalation between the two parties may increase and the military solution may be an option. All parties are currently receiving reinforcements and mobilizing in the region. France increased its military presence in the region and Greece is reinforcing its military capabilities through buying 18 Raval planes and a number of naval frigates and helicopters. It will also add 15,000 professional soldiers to its armed forces over the next five years. There are also a number of security and military agreements among Mediterranean countries. 

The moves are in tandem with ongoing Turkish mobilization. Turkey has 30,000 troops stationed in Cyprus, and is still militarizing exploration in the region. In the case of a confrontation, the clash may affect investments in the energy field, destabilize the region and undermine transatlantic security. The military option, however, will bear negative repercussions for the region, impede the two sides’ ability to resolve the conflict under the NATO’s umbrella, and hamper efforts to prevent conflicts.

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